Cricketers win the war – but the fall-out will linger

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THE WEEK THAT WAS: Finally, Cricket Australia and the players have settled their long dispute but it remains to be seen how long it will take for the wounds to heal, says Chief Writer RON REED

BRINGING the great cricket pay war to a belated conclusion is not the same thing as declaring peace in our time. Picking up the pieces and counting the casualties is going to be a lengthy process, too. As Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland admitted, only time will tell whether this ugly, acrimonious battle will be worth the ill-will it engendered between the parties and, probably much worse, the disdain it provoked among the people who really own the game, the fans.

The answer will begin to become apparent when England arrives for the Ashes, and the attendances and TV ratings start to kick in. They will be more than healthy, of course – nothing can kill off something that is as much a part of the sporting DNA of both countries – but it will be no surprise if there is a certain amount of backlash. As the pay war dragged on, social media was crowded with people saying they were losing interest in the game and would tune out. Much of that might turn out to be idle chatter but it will be a nervous wait for Sutherland and his TV partners to find out for sure.

Which of the warring parties should wear most blame for that? Well, both copped plenty of flak from onlookers and both deserved to. Much of the dialogue was unedifying, confusing and disingenuous. People seemed to be split three ways – some saying the players deserved all they could get because they generated the box-office dollars, some saying the administration should be allowed to run the game and in any case the players already earned enough, if not far too much, and some who declared a plague on both their houses, threatening to vote with their feet and their TV remotes.

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Having been an observer from fairly close quarters of the previous two biggest such money-related stoushes – World Series in the late seventies and the original MOU fight 20 years ago – I fully appreciate that the players are entitled to be paid well, just as any other stars in the entertainment industry are. However, this one – fairly or not – did smack of holding the game to ransom just a tad too much. The top players are already paid in the millions and top that up from multiple sources, most of them, and given that they are, after all, just playing sport – not saving lives, running the country or splitting the atom – there is a limit to the sympathy they can expect from the bloke in the street. “Overpaid prima donnas” has been a common enough accusation and there is no doubt that they have some ground to make up in the public relations jockeying that will now ensue. As does the administration.

While Sutherland made it clear that neither side got all they wanted – it was never going to be winner take all, he said – the players have claimed victory, and are entitled to. They have retained their key plank, revenue sharing, albeit in a modified form, and the $$$ coming their way have substantially increased. More specifically, the biggest winners have been the female players who have received the largest pay rise in the history of all women’s sport in Australia – from $7.5m to $55.2m — and are now able to earn a full living from the game. This is extremely good going given there is no avoiding the reality that they are not crowd-pullers in their own right and are far from a must-see on TV. Nor are Sheffield Shield players and they don’t even appear on TV at all, although their other platform, the Big Bash, is a success story. But even it runs at a substantial loss. The other winners, it seems, are the thousands of junior, country and suburban teams who constitute grassroots cricket, a constituency that has been made big promises. But it remains to be seen just how and to what extent they will benefit. Expect plenty of scrutiny of this process and just as much angst if worthwhile improvements are not forthcoming in the relatively short term.

Overall, the war itself – and the perception that the protagonists have been found wanting in their capacity to sort it out long before it got to the stage it did – has been a bad look for the game that likes to think of itself as Australia’s favourite international sport, and not without good reason. It will be interesting to see whether there are any repercussions at CA level. Sportshounds’ Rod Nicholson, a vastly experienced observer of the cricket scene, reported a month ago that nobody had more to lose than Sutherland if a satisfactory conclusion was not reached. Sutherland has now indicated that he has no plans to vacate the job but that isn’t necessarily the end of the matter. At the very least he must surely need a holiday. He and his ACA counterpart Alistair Nicholson both looked stressed and exhausted at the peace announcement and their body language suggested that the acrimony they admitted to had by no means dissipated. In this respect, it was easy to sympathise with them – nobody would envy them what they have just been through.

How long it takes for relationships to return to normal on many different fronts is now a sub-plot that will resonate throughout the summer. Peace in our time? Not quite. Not yet. But at least it’s on with the show.

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IN THE OTHER great sporting war occupying the attention of a lot of fans – the Thursday night prime time footy slot – Channel 7’s The Front Bar kicked another goal as they waited for Channel 9’s wounded The Footy Show to reappear on the field. The light, bright TFB won its time-slot with 266,000 viewers, the most of any non-news program. That was 46,000 more than the previous week, when the opposition began its two-week hiatus to reboot itself under born-again host Eddie McGuire. That’s a significant increase, which suggests the team of Andy Maher and comedians Mick Molloy and Sam Pang have acquired serious momentum ahead of the resumption of hostilities next Thursday.  This is going to be a battle royal.

For their two weeks of “free kicks,” 7 have called in the heavy hitters for reinforcement – Jonathan Brown and Alistair Clarkson last week and Leigh Matthews and Malcolm Blight this week. All four have contributed magnificently. Blight has always been one of the most laid-back and interesting characters in the game while Matthews carries more respect, credibility and gravitas than anyone. They combined for one amusing moment when Blight recounted being driven home by Lethal Leigh and inviting him in for a drink, only for the door to be opened by his wife – wearing the new negligee he had just given her. As with Brown the previous week, part of the appeal of these two superstars is that they have no need to resort to false modesty, making the rehashes of their long-ago deeds all the more entertaining. Molloy, too, is an under-rated talent for whom this show could be the making – it is not difficult to envisage him being offered his own talk show. For anyone old enough to remember the late Graham Kennedy, Molloy’s style is reminiscent.

Not sure how 7 can improve again next time but can’t wait to find out – or to see what Eddie and his team throw up against it. Who’ll win? The only certain answer to that is: the audiences. Reckon there will be a lot of busy remotes.

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NOBODY seemed quite sure what was the worst part of the Australian swimming team’s disappointing performance at the world championships in Budapest – that we won only one gold (and with all due respect to the courageous Emily Seebohm, women’s backstroke is not exactly a headline-grabber) or that we finished six places below Great Britain on the medals table, as measured by golds. Lawrie Lawrence may have been an exception, the extroverted former coach and long-time Olympic motivator saying that if a similar result occurred at the Commonwealth Games he would hide his head in a brown paper bag. Might be a few of us doing that, Lawrie.

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Whether it comes to that in home territory remains to be seen of course and it is true that the team was minus three or four big names who regard the CommGames as bigger fish waiting to be fried, but the results were certainly a worry. At least the Americans, who won 18 gold to our one, won’t be on the Gold Coast in April. Regular watchers of the Olympic sports won’t need reminding that it wasn’t all that long ago – Athens 2004 – when Australian track cycling lorded it over the Poms in what has long been a fiercer rivalry than swimming, but by Beijing the tables had been well and truly turned and remain that way. That’s an alarm bell for Swimming Australia.

*****

SPEAKING of track cycling, that sport farewelled two of the best from the middle of last century, when it was extremely popular in Melbourne.  Reg Arnold, 92, was a trailblazer for Australian riders to tackle the six-day races that were so big in Europe in the old days. He rode in 103 of them between 1946 and 1963 for 16 victories. His nephew Marcus Arnold has, with melancholy timing, just published a book about him entitled Six Day Man. Keith Reynolds, a member of the Victorian Cycling Hall of Fame, was a champion through the 40s, 50s and 60s, the Australian all-round track champion in 1954 and partnered the legendary four-time world champion Sid Patterson in some big wins, as well as racing in Europe for three years and later becoming a successful coach. Back then, cycling was one of the few places punters could go for a legal bet other than the races and the bookies at the old North Essendon track and later Olympic Park created an amazing atmosphere. Swiss superstar Oscar Plattner was a regular visitor and he and Reynolds had some great battles, which as often as not ended up in a nearby café where they would continue to entertain fans with a comedy act. Plenty of Italian riders came out too, and the crowds of local Italians would almost match the home-grown ones, especially with the noise they made booing Reynolds and cheering on their own. It is one of sport’s lost eras, more’s the pity.

The departure of both men has passed without mention in the mainstream media, which reminds me of when Patterson left us 17 years ago. His magnificent career and highly colourful, charismatic personality – there are more outrageous stories about him than almost any other sports star of his era — fully warranted the double-page obituary that I wrote for the Herald Sun. It was made available to the sister paper, the Sydney Daily Telegraph – which didn’t run a word, even though they were gearing up for the Olympics in their backyard. The sports editor apparently had never heard of him – or maybe it was because Patto was a Melbourne identity. Either way, sacrilege!

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SOCCER commentator Les Murray was in no danger of passing on without mention. The tributes were profuse, one that I read insisting that he was the best sports broadcaster Australia has produced, ahead of Richie Benaud and Bruce McAvaney. Not sure about that, but what is for certain is that he was a lonely but loud voice when the world game was so far down the pecking order in the mainstream as to be almost invisible – except, of course, when there was trouble on the terraces. That was always good for a headline, at a time when the designated soccer writer at one daily paper had so little to do he used to spend most of his time preparing the racing form guides. It can probably be said that Murray was more influential in changing those attitudes than any administrator and perhaps even than any coach or player. I can think of no other media personality from any sport of whom that can be said. Not the least of his contributions was to insist on the correct pronunciations of the many tongue-twisting names that featured in soccer teams, or in any of the other sports, such as athletics, that he covered. It’s called professionalism, and Murray had that by the bucketful.

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AFL PLAYER OF THE WEEK

St Kilda champion NICK RIEWOLDT manages the rare feat of calling time on a long and brilliant career without a negative word to be heard from friend or foe. All class.

WINNER OF THE WEEK

Every elite female cricketer, all of whom got what Cricket Australia called the biggest pay rise in the history of women’s sport in Australia, making them fully professional – even though they struggle to pull any sort of a crowd unless they are on double-bills with the blokes.

LOSER OF THE WEEK

Geelong superstar PATRICK DANGERFIELD didn’t do much wrong with his controversial tackle on Carlton’s Matthew Kreuzer but the ramifications will be enormous if the week’s suspension costs him a second successive Brownlow.

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST

Is Collingwood president EDDIE McGUIRE fair dinkum when he suggests the AFL Commission have been out to get the Magpies? Most of the footy media ignored or didn’t notice this strange suggestion but Sportshounds editor Colin Duck called it out for what it was – fanciful.

It is nearly 30 years since Charles Brownlow’s family pleaded in writing for the VFL, as it was then, to resist changing the criteria for the iconic medal named after him, a debate that has become current again. Only Sportshounds was able to report precisely what the emotional letter said.

THEY SAID IT

“I regard myself as a players’ administrator. I wasn’t very good but I am a former player and I’d like to think I can relate to that and at the same time I’m a junior coach and I’ve got a family of people who love cricket.” Cricket Australia chief executive JAMES SUTHERLAND doesn’t over-rate his handful of games as a pace bowler for Victoria.

“You know, once it’s over what are we going to do? Do we really need the recognition? When you’re going to get coffee and people and kids come up to you, do I really crave that? We were like, no, but you also realise you enjoy those parts because other people love what you do and that’s a really nice feeling.” Recently-retired footballer NICK DAL SANTO comes to terms with being out of the limelight.

“I do know that I’ve given it everything. I’ve achieved things I didn’t think I would ever be able to achieve. To play 12 years being the slowest bloke in the AFL, I’m pretty proud of that.” West Coast champion MATT PRIDDIS wonders how he managed to keep pace well enough to win a Brownlow Medal.

“Fair dinkum, if someone ruffled my hair – I haven’t got any now – but when I had hair, if it was ruffled I’d feel like turning around and belting him one. But the kissing on the cheek is a lesser thing – I think that is something you can just laugh it off.” Footy legend LEIGH MATTHEWS draws the line at patronising gestures during a game.

“I never used to drink, even when I did two years in national service – then I got involved in motor racing.” Former driver and ageless team owner DICK JOHNSON has found more than one reason for enjoying the sport.

“Someone hit me. Is that who I think it is? F*****g sore loser.” Racing driver DANIEL RICCIARDO is in no mood for niceties after Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen nudged him off the road and out of the race at the Hungarian Grand Prix.

“I am still the fastest, without a doubt. If I show up at championships, I am confident in my abilities. I can say I am a legend, I have proven it.” The best sprinter in history, USAIN BOLT, has never worried too much about modesty – and nor does he need to.

“Growing up, I was told I couldn’t accomplish my dreams – because I was a woman and more so because of the colour of my skin. In every stage of my life, I had to learn to stand up for myself and speak out. I have been treated unfairly, I’ve been disrespected by my male colleagues and – in the most painful times – I’ve been the subject of racist remarks on and off the tennis court.” It hasn’t all been a bed of roses for tennis legend SERENA WILLIAMS.

 “The passion for (coaching) has outgrown my passion for jumping in the pool and doing my recovery … I feel like the time for me is right.” West Coast and former Hawthorn star SAM MITCHELL is more than comfortable with imminent retirement – as a player, anyway.

“The players did not choose this route and did not enjoy being on it. In fact, the players resented it deeply. This was not a fight the players started. The players defended themselves as is fair and is their right.” Players president GREG DYER remains on the front foot after cricket’s declaration of peace.

“Relationships within the game have been tested and I know that’s been a bit of a turn-off for some fans.” JAMES SUTHERLAND again, acknowledging that the game’s problems are far from over.

“My friend Nicole Kidman, she said, ‘you gotta do the fight in Sydney. She was adamant to do it there.” American boxing promoter BOB ARUM takes advice from an unlikely source as he plots a Jeff Horn-Manny Pacquiao rematch.

 

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Author: Ron Reed

RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.

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