Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Cricket: The dispute that changed cricket

Dion Nash, Rob Nicol and Heath Mills.  Photo / Alan Gibson
Dion Nash, Rob Nicol and Heath Mills. Photo / Alan Gibson

November 11, 2012 - Armistice Day, appropriately enough - marked 10 years since New Zealand Cricket and the New Zealand Cricket Players Association reached a peace accord which changed the face of the sport in this country.

For six weeks, relationships between players, administrators and fans were pushed to the brink. Players sought a system of fair income, ground standards and a future voice in the running of the game.

Administrators wanted an affordable set-up which recognised player needs but which wasn't going to break the bank or have the tail wagging the dog. Fans wanted some cricket.

Players threatened to strike - not to play the game that season. Cricket administrators prepared to select sides which did not include many big names and stalwarts of the game.

Debate raged on talkback radio, in newspapers, on television, in pubs, around water coolers and in living rooms.

Did the players deserve a financial slice of the future? Who were these upstarts wreaking havoc with the status quo? Why couldn't they play for the "love of the game"?

Despite professional sport being a constant in other parts of the world like the United States and Europe, it was a relatively new concept in New Zealand, after rugby led the way in the mid-1990s.

It became known as the "players' strike", although technically the players had no contracts to "strike" over.

Daniel Vettori was 23 at the time. He describes himself as a "second tier" player with five years' international experience.

"The hardest thing was when Northern Districts started signing outside guys for upcoming matches. I sat in the changing room with a good friend who was due to be picked for the first time [as a result of the strike]. I was also with a number of young guys, trying to explain why I was doing it. It was a stressful predicament. Yet for other guys, this was the chance of a lifetime to play for ND. It was hard to blame them for wanting to go ahead."

In the end, the dispute was solved before the makeshift sides played.

"The system has been in place since and it works. Players around the world envy our situation. It's hard to explain to a younger generation what we went through. Hopefully they never have to find out and we remain at peace with NZC."

As the New Zealand captain, Stephen Fleming was on the frontline. He describes it as "an awful, horrible time" where previously sound working relationships were torn and proved difficult to heal. However, he says it was necessary.

"I was driven by the belief we had to go down that road if we were serious about getting a better deal. We weren't sure how it would play out. There was so much pressure, even on the streets; people let you know their opinions in no uncertain terms.

"I'm proud no player in the top echelon gave way. We were just trying to get a voice to be fairly represented, which has been incredibly important since. It was about more than money. The veteran player welfare schemes and ground warrant of fitness programmes are testament to that.

"It was tough being on the other side to people like [NZC chief executive] Martin Snedden and [NZC chairman] Sir John Anderson. It strained good working relationships, because we were deemed to be enemies.

"It was something a coffee or a phone call couldn't resolve. There also weren't too many cuddles when the agreement was done ... it took time.

"However, the way Martin and Heath [Players Association boss Heath Mills] operated afterwards was a credit to them after what they'd gone through."

Snedden says a looming deadline helped. India was due to tour in December and if a deal could not be brokered, both NZC and the players would miss a significant slice of income from broadcasting rights.

"They were bigger than anything we'd get in any other stage of the commercial cycle. If the tour was scuppered, the Players Association knew it would undermine their position. It was the catalyst in reaching a decision.

"In hindsight, the Players Association and the contracts system were one of the better things that happened to New Zealand cricket. They have become an essential part of the sport, despite the painful process. Players ended up being fairly rewarded. To illustrate how much ground work was done during those first negotiations, the contract renewal in 2006 only required about three two-hour meetings.

"The whole thing came down to hitting the right balance as to how much money went into the players' pool. The trouble is we started a long way apart. Player expectations were high but we couldn't afford it."

Once agreement was reached, Snedden says a couple of key events helped the healing.

"Players got greater tour security than they had in the past, and remember they had just dealt with the Karachi bombing [in May 2002]. Safety became paramount and that's why we opted not to send them to Kenya during the 2003 World Cup.

"Then the tsunami hit Sri Lanka in late 2004 and the tour here was called off. Heath did an amazing job to get a FICA World XI together at short notice, led by Shane Warne. The whole relationship [between NZC and NZCPA] blossomed. It came at a time when other countries faced significant issues with their players. New Zealand was held up as an example of what could be achieved."

Ten years on, Mills remains NZCPA chief executive, a different career to the one he was pursuing at Mt Albert Grammar School as director of sport.

He set up the NZCPA after bumping into New Zealand cricketer Dion Nash, years after they'd first met at Otago University.

"It was an essential dispute to get to a better place," Mills says. "The game was being commercialised and players were not being suitably remunerated.

"They also needed a body to raise issues on their behalf. I only had an amateur sport background but my brother Kyle had recently been selected to play for Auckland and I'd helped a few Auckland players negotiate commercial deals.

"I was sent in the direction of [former test cricketer] Tim May, who ran the Australian players' association. He outlined what needed to happen and advised I needed to be slightly mad because I'd be reasonably unpopular in some quarters. Those would be prophetic words.

"I greyed prematurely in those six weeks," Mills chuckles. "But what really was bad was seeing the impact on your family, and the vitriolic abuse players took in the public domain.

"I remember reading an opinion piece in the paper when we were flying to our lawyer's office in Wellington. It referred to us something along the lines of 'the clowns are coming to town'. It was symptomatic of the feeling at the time."

Since then, the NZCPA has recruited about 250 past players as members. Mills believes they've set the tone for other athletes to ask questions of their governing bodies because so often they "tip-toe around the tulips". He says athletes are often afraid because they fear the consequences.

"Today's cricketers have a lot to thank those 2002 players for. Players and their families were harassed, sometimes by people at their own clubs, asking 'why are you doing this?' I doubt there has been a group of New Zealand sportspeople who have withstood so much pressure."

- Herald on Sunday

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