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Anatomy of a fall: Inside the demise of Cricket Australia chief Kevin Roberts

When you’re the chief executive of a major sporting code the last thing you want to hear is the uncontrollable vibration of your phone.

On Monday afternoon, Kevin Roberts’ mobile started lighting up.

Among those messaging were friends and well-known ex-teammates of the former NSW batsman, reacting to a Herald report at 4.29pm that revealed Cricket Australia and its chief executive were to part ways, with an announcement due on Wednesday.

Roberts replied that he knew nothing about it and that as the CA board had been continuing to approve his decisions he believed they were happy with him and had been carrying on managing the game’s affairs. Business as usual.

Hours later, after a video hook-up of CA directors, he would be told that he had lost their support. Blindsided, he was, like they used to say about a player being dropped from the Australian Test team, just about the last bloke to know.

Roberts handed in his resignation the following morning, the culmination of a secret plot to remove him that had been weeks in the making.

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According to sources with knowledge of his ousting, members of the board had as long as two months ago started talking among themselves and checking the temperature of influential and powerful figures in cricket about the CEO and whether or not he needed to be moved on.

Few, if any, went into bat for him. The governing body’s impulsive response to the global pandemic was looking increasingly shambolic and many senior voices in Australian cricket believed Roberts, as the face of it, had to go.

Directors were coming to the same conclusion about the future. The decision to stand down more than 200 staff in April on 20 per cent pay while Roberts and the rest of the executive remained on 80 per cent, was pinned on the CEO, although chairman Earl Eddings this week publicly took responsibility on behalf of the board for the path taken by CA in reaction to COVID-19. There had also been unhappiness about Roberts contacting players directly in the days before the announcement about staff, warning them of a coming financial crisis that he said threatened to result in CA being out of money by August. Then, in May, when it became clear that powerbrokers at state level and Roberts’ old adversaries at the Australian Cricketers’ Association did not want to deal directly with him as they contested CA’s financial projections – meaning Eddings himself had to step in and take a greater role – the writing was on the wall.

Kevin Roberts speaks to media in Melbourne in March.

Kevin Roberts speaks to media in Melbourne in March.Credit:Getty Images

With CA engaged in sensitive talks on multiple fronts – not least an application for a $100 million loan from Commonwealth Bank – things moved along gradually as some staff inside the building were casually asked about their views of the world. But as long as a fortnight ago, according to sources, Twenty20 World Cup boss Nick Hockley was quietly identified as the man to take over as interim CA chief, and Roberts’ cards were marked.

The lid was kept on it until last Sunday, when well-connected figures in cricket revealed his job was in such doubt that he might not last the month.
Even then, though, the move on Roberts was so closely guarded that CA’s spokeswoman was left out of the loop and when approached on Sunday night maintained that he retained the full support of the nine directors.

Eddings, however, would not confirm the backing of the board when asked by this newspaper on Sunday and when the Herald and The Australian reported on Monday that Roberts’ future had become increasingly uncertain, the cat was out of the bag.

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The Melbourne-based chairman was in Sydney on Monday ahead of pre-arranged meetings unrelated to Roberts that he had set the following day. One of the sit-downs scheduled was with Cricket NSW chairman John Knox, the former Credit Suisse Australia chief executive whose state association had along with Queensland Cricket stood up to CA’s push to slash 25 per cent from distributions to states, creating a harmful stalemate for head office. The other meeting was to be with ACA president Shane Watson, chairman Greg Dyer and Neil Maxwell, a board member with both the players’ union and CNSW.

Face-to-face catch-ups with key stakeholders had become a far more difficult proposition during the COVID-19 crisis and with relationships having deteriorated amid distrust in CA’s numbers and claims of a lack of transparency from head office, there was much healing to be done.

Earl Eddings is chairman of the nine-member Cricket Australia board.

Earl Eddings is chairman of the nine-member Cricket Australia board.Credit:Eddie Jim

With speculation rampant that Roberts was a dead man walking, however, the meetings in Sydney were cancelled as Eddings flew back to Melbourne.

The chairman did not detail the reasons for Roberts’ exit in two Zoom calls with journalists on Tuesday and Wednesday beyond stressing the need for new leadership and saying CA had been guilty of poor communication. He declined an approach from the Herald for this story.

As for Roberts, there haven’t been a lot of tears shed for him this week but he does retain allies including those from his playing days and Australia coach Justin Langer expressed sympathy for him on Thursday.

Roberts’ demise has vindicated those who slammed his appointment 20 months ago and left glaring questions about the CA board.

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It is clear, though, that the 47-year-old brought very heavy baggage into the position from his central part in the bitter pay dispute in 2017 and as the fault lines of the past re-emerged dramatically in the past two months the split spread beyond the players’ association.

The mode in which CA’s own workforce was thrown to the wolves in April effectively blew up its culture, with even national coaches Langer and Matthew Mott placed on reduced hours. After he reassured staff of their futures, and then performed a 180-degree turn with a mass furlough soon after, leaks began coming from Roberts’ Wednesday Zoom conferences, one of which he fronted at Easter wearing a set of bunny ears and with a poster of Harry Styles on the wall behind him. As well intentioned as it might have been, a letter to Woolworths asking the supermarket giant if it could put on some of his staff also didn’t go down well.

Roberts, who did not return calls from the Herald this week, later apologised to employees for the suddenness of the stand-downs, but the damage was done. While being a CEO of a sport is no popularity contest, as Malcolm Speed has said, his standing nosedived from there.

The affable Hockley, raised around the corner from Edgbaston and educated at Oxford, is a much-needed fresh face for the time being. But there are lingering issues and it not as simple as just appeasing states and the ACA, which is disputing CA’s downward forecasting of revenue for 2020/21 by more than $200 million, arguing it has been told the sky is falling down but can’t see how.

The blowtorch is now right on the CA board. As Eddings has admitted, its fingers are all over the controversial cutbacks which have been slammed as premature and excessive by states and the players’ union. Eddings and fellow directors Paul Green and Michelle Tredenick have sat on CA’s crisis management team devising its plans, along with chief operating officer Scott Grant, acting chief financial officer Paul Reining and Roberts.

Those who were on the board in 2018 have also been content to leave unchallenged the assertion that Roberts was a captain’s pick of David Peever when he was promoted from COO to be James Sutherland’s successor before the release of a cultural review that cost the former chairman his position.

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There are others with intimate knowledge of how the appointment transpired who insist Peever, while ultimately supporting Roberts, did not push him on the other directors.

Amid a growing view among senior figures in cricket that CA has a lightweight board with a fading connection to the game itself there is now a drive by several of the states – who could technically throw it out with four out of six in agreement – to uproot the fully independent structure for a hybrid system where they return to some form of direct representation.

While Eddings and co must either acquiesce or somehow convince them otherwise, the search begins for Roberts’ full-time replacement.

Last time around hundreds of thousands of dollars were paid to recruitment firm Egon Zehnder only for Roberts to be plucked from the office down the hall. The final field included ex-CNSW chairman John Warn, former A-League football chief Damien de Bohun and a female executive from an international entertainment consortium whose identity has been kept under wraps.

Former Australia captain Belinda Clark has supporters to step up the ranks at CA.

Former Australia captain Belinda Clark has supporters to step up the ranks at CA.Credit:Elesa Kurtz

Warn, who himself now heads a sport division with a global recruiting company and is chairman of Destination NSW, may put himself forward again and at least two recent CEOs of football codes – David Gallop and Todd Greenberg, both of whom have cricket backgrounds – have already been mentioned as likely applicants. Former England captain Andrew Strauss was also floated this week as a left-field option.

While it’s unclear what direction the board will go in, one person very highly regarded is Andrew Twaits, a former head of legal at CA who went to co-found Betfair’s business in Australia before setting up his own corporate advisory firm. Along with former players’ chief Tim May, Twaits wrote the first memorandum of understanding between the then Australian Cricket Board and the ACA in 1997 and is now chairman of the AFL Players’ Association as well as a local councillor for Macedon Ranges shire in central Victoria.

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Another well-credentialed potential contender whose experience also includes traversing the often tricky territory of pay agreements with players is NRL chief operating officer Nick Weeks. A lawyer like Twaits, Weeks was general manager of strategy, corporate affairs and legal during seven years at the then-Australian Rugby Union and has spent the past seven at the NRL including three as second in command.

One of the legacies of Roberts’ hiring from within is that it may make it more unlikely that internal candidates such as Belinda Clark, the former Australia captain who heads CA’s community division, would be considered. Hockley’s instalment as interim CEO is another indicator the board probably won’t be looking within.

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There are experienced people in the game, however, who argue CA would be well served having Clark step up the ranks and that WACA chief Christina Matthews, a fearless and well-liked operator who also went for the top job two years ago, has only enhanced her reputation since.

With nearly 200 jobs in the sport gone and barely a match having been lost to the pandemic here, there is a lot riding on the decision because the game has much ground to claw back.

Roberts’ demise has vindicated those who slammed his appointment 20 months ago and left glaring questions about the CA board.

The pressure is on those who are on it to get their next decision right.

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