Cricket South Africa (CSA) and its players are set for a showdown in the coming months as discussions over their MOU, which expires at the end of April, begin. The agreement is renegotiated every four years and has included a revenue-sharing model for the last 12 years, but CSA wants to relook at player contracts and could alter them radically.
"We need to change how we contract our players. The game of cricket has evolved, the economy has evolved, but our way of doing things hasn't really changed. That's something I have realised isn't really working for Cricket South Africa," Thabang Moroe, CSA's acting CEO said. "One of the ways we are looking to contract our Proteas is maybe by awarding Test contracts like the ECB does, and allow everybody else to be paid on pay-per-play. Ultimately all white-ball cricketers make their money playing in these (T20) leagues outside of their local programmes. By contracting Test players you have the opportunity to look after your premium players, players you would like to keep for long in the game."
When asked whether the revenue-sharing model would be re-examined, Moroe hinted that CSA's board could consider it. "That is for the board and its members to debate. I just have a view on how a company should be run from the management point of view and how a company needs to engage with a trade union. Obviously I will be presenting my views to the board and the board will make its decision. If the board feels that's the way they want to go, so be it. Ultimately the people that make money for cricket is Cricket South Africa, it's not a union."
The trade union Moroe referred to is the South African Cricketers' Association (SACA), which is yet to be informed about any possible changes to player contracts. SACA will act on the players' behalf during the MOU discussions and though it always expect tough talks, this time it is worried about the direction CSA may be taking. "We have these negotiations every four years and it is always a hard negotiation because it is very detailed. But the noises we are hearing from CSA are concerning and goes against the spirit of how things have worked in the past," Tony Irish, SACA CEO told ESPNcricinfo. "I would be astounded if CSA takes a confrontational approach to the talks. They should look at what happened in Australia."
Earlier this year, Cricket Australia and its players were involved in a lengthy stand-off over player contracts precisely because CA was going to scrap the revenue-share model. There were talks of a player strike and an Australia A tour to South Africa was cancelled. While Irish is asking CSA to keep the Australian situation, which was ultimately resolved when a compromise was reached that included sharing of revenue, in mind, Moroe was fairly bullish about the organisation's stance.
"We would be (wary of what happened in Australia) but ultimately CSA needs to run cricket and the trade union needs to protect their players' rights," Moroe said. "If CSA is trampling on peoples' rights, the union must step in. If CSA decides to take a different direction in growing cricket, there is no room for a union there because we are not trampling on peoples' rights, we are protecting the sport that we have been put in charge to administer."
Another aspect of the contract negotiations will include an examination of a clause which, for the last 14 years, has allowed nationally contracted players to nominate which domestic team they would like to represent. Though this has usually worked out without complications, especially since the centrally-contracted players seldom appear for their franchise teams, this season an obvious problem occurred when all internationals were available for the Ram Slam, the domestic T20 competition that was moved forward when the T20 Global League was postponed.
Titans, the team that dominated the tournament and won, were loaded with South African superstars, so many that they could not fit them all into their playing XI. Big names like Dean Elgar, AB de Villiers, Quinton de Kock, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel were rotated, which CSA felt diminished the value of the tournament. To avoid such a situation in future, CSA is considering making changes to the contracts that will distribute the internationals more widely across franchises.
"We could look to implement a draft system," Moroe said. "We realise the importance of having the Proteas spread throughout the franchises. We were very happy with how the Ram Slam was executed, but as Cricket South Africa we feel that it could have been that much better if we had all Proteas playing at the same time in different teams."
If CSA is to take this step, it may do so without consulting SACA at all. "As far as we are concerned, the players' association should represent players' needs. They are a trade union ultimately; we are the employers. So as much as we would like to engage with the players' union, we can't do it with everything we want to execute," Moroe said. "If our players don't want to be drafted into different teams they will come to us first and talk to us. Failing those talks between employer and employee, they can go to their union, and then their union can come back representing a certain viewpoint. This is not about stopping the growth of cricket and how cricket can be administered in this country, so we might not even consult with SACA to be honest with you."
Irish explained that SACA would have to be involved in the debate because, "any changes to the contracting system will form part of the MOU and negotiations with SACA." He even said that players could be open to the idea, despite several suggesting they are against it.
"We will have to see it works. We don't know what CSA's proposal is at this stage. For almost 14 years, national players have been allowed to nominate which franchise they want to play for. We all know what happened with Titans in the Ram Slam but that was for one event. If CSA have a T20 league, then they may do a draft, as they did with the T20 Global League," Irish said. "We will have to consider it once we know what CSA have in mind."
The problem is that CSA may not be as accommodating to SACA as Irish would like. "I come from a corporate environment. I don't recall a union consulting me on how they want to change the business. I just got an email saying this is how we want to change direction, and this is what it means for you. My manager would call a meeting with me to say that this is how our department executes that strategy. I don't remember a union being involved in how our company executes its strategy or the direction in which it must go. It only happens in cricket."
Irish warned that trying to change things could prove futile in the current climate. "Players have alternatives. Boards need to be able to keep their players and to keep them playing international cricket," he said.
CSA already knows that, having lost many recently capped internationals to the Kolpak system but remains adamant that its relationship with players and SACA needs to be "redefined". The contract talks will take place this summer, when South Africa also host India and Australia and this situation could prove a distraction.