Transcript: Couch Talk with Heath Mills, NZCPA Chief Executive

Couch Talk Episode 80 (play)

Guest: Heath Mills (Chief Execute, New Zealand Cricket Players Association)

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. The guest on this episode is Health Mills. Heath is the Chief Executive of the New Zealand Cricket Player Association. We will be talking about the recent controversy surrounding the election of L Siva as the player representative on the ICC Cricket committee and the removal of Ross Taylor as new Zealand captain amongst other things.

Welcome to the show, Heath.

Heath Mills– Thanks very much, it is good to be here.

SJ– It is my pleasure having you on.

We will talk about Ross Taylor being replaced as captain of NZ team, that situation, and about women cricketers getting central contracts and other things. But firstly, we need to get this out of the way. This has been on everybody’s plate for the last couple of weeks. That is L. Sivaramakrishnan getting elected as the player representative to the ICC Cricket Committee, replacing Tim May. There is a lot of controversy surrounding it. First, I want your take on it and then we can discuss it further.

HM-It was a really disappointing and sad situation for cricket, quite frankly. We obviously were aware a few weeks ago, there were some interference happening. The captain were asked to vote for a second time, which in itself was strange. Typically, we know that 7 or 8 captains always voted for Tim May because they come from countries with strong players’ associations. So, historically they have voted for Tim May because he is the representative of the players internationally. We understand that after the second round, the votes were 5 all between Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Tim, which was strange. Another vote was held, and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan won 6-4. Through conversations that FICA had with players’ associations, it became quite apparent that captains had been interfered with, by the boards. Why the boards are involved in the process is beyond me, because it is a players’ representative, not a board representative. It appears that some players were interfered with, in their decision making and that has been supported by what has come out in the media articles in the last week or so. This is a sad situation for cricket when that sort of behaviour occurs; we obviously asked the ICC to investigate and are now waiting to hear from them. We don’t know if their ethics committee will look into it. I surely think there is enough to believe in it- there is enough media articles, one anonymous captain was quoted in one article, that he felt pressured to vote for Laxman. There’s enough in it that ICC should investigate this. I will be disappointed if they don’t.

SJ– Let me track it back a little. Were there doubts that this election process itself was  tampered with when the first media report surfaced? That was Neil Manthorp, I think.

HM– We were aware before then as these things are tracked normally. As I said, typically 7-8 vote for Tim because they have a players’ association and he is clearly their representative. When they came back, there were five-all, a few eyebrows were raised. I think what people have got to understand is that this is the players’ representative on the committee. Tim May is logically, for most of the players across the world, through FICA and their individual associations, is their actual independent representative. He is the one who goes to the meetings well informed, surveys information before the meetings, makes sure the players know the issues and collects their views he can present at the meeting. It does not make any sense that a captain would vote for Laxman to perform that role because he has no ability to communicate with the collective players around the world. He has no ability to understand their views, to survey them and and then to represent their views at a cricket committee. It does not make sense for people to vote for Laxman in the first place because he can’t perform the role that a players’ representative like Tim May can.

The whole of this does not make any sense. There is no true player representative sitting in the ICC Cricket Committee right now if this is to continue. That is a fact now. That is a sad outcome for cricket.

SJ– In terms of fairness, I am going to play Devil’s Advocate here. You mentioned that Laxman Sivaramakrishnan does not have the ability, in relation to Tim May and his past as founding the Australian Cricket Association and being with FICA. Just to be fair to Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, because, in my view, he is a pawn in this game, rather than someone you can point your fingers at. That is my belief, anyway.

He is an ex-player, he is a commentator, he has been around the game. perhaps, he could do it? Time alone will tell if he can do the job or not. But, if as the evidence seems to point out, if the process itself was tampered with, then the results should be null and void.

HM– You are 100% right about that. This is not about Laxman, and I don’t know him personally. He is a good guy, and has played the game at the highest level. He has a good cricket brain. It is not about how much I believe that he is being a pawn in this whole exercise. It is sad for him as well that he has been dragged into this. But, I believe, to be able to represent the players collectively, you have to be able to communicate with them. Tim may does that through various player associations, making sure he represents their views. What Laxman’s comments since he got the position, he made a comment that he is “looking forward to come into the team in the next meeting and giving my view on things.” That is not the role that he has been elected for. It is not about his view, it is about players’ view. We would all be sitting here and thinking that it would be fantastic to have a players’ association in India, with a representative who would go to meetings and give a collective view of the players.

Laxman may be a guy who could get involved in an organization like that. But, as we all know, BCCI are not too keen on players’ representatives, which is a bit sad. We want the game to be run well, governed well. It is now a fully fledged professional sport. Players and athletes around the world in other sports have representatives who are working to improve the game and it’s a positive thing for sports.

SJ– You are spot on when you said Laxman Sivaramakrishnan said he would give his views, while the job’s brief would be that he should be expressing the players’ views and perhaps he should be more learned about what the job description is. You are right, and he is wrong for having said that.

But, we saw that there was a media press release from ICC that there was some confusion in the first voting process – which captain should vote? ODI captain or the Test captain? It is not a new thing. It did not come up in 2013. We have had multiple captains for many years now. I am surprised that there will be still confusion as to who should be voting. It is fishy, but we can only take their word. Then, it says there was another voting process. The second. Whereas, the report that Manthorp wrote that Graeme Smith voted three times and you too mentioned (voting happened) three times. There was recent news release that I saw on Pakistan Observer quoted Tim May as saying that players voted three times as well.

Do you know anything from Brendon McCullum whether if he voted three times, as well?

HM– It is all very confusing, isn’t it? It makes your ears prick up quickly. As far as I understand, there have been three votes. I am sure Brendon was asked to vote three times, which doesn’t make sense. This process has been run many times, for many years. The first vote may very well have had multiple captains voting from the same country, I am not sure. It doesn’t make sense to me, but you have to take them on their word. But the fact that they had to vote three times, and importantly that the boards are involved in the voting, must leave any sensible person thinking that something must have gone on here, it doesn’t look right and must be looked in to.

SJ– ICC media release said that the captains weren’t put under pressure by the member boards to vote for any particular individual. Whereas, all things seem to point to the contrary, and that there was no evidence [of pressure on captains by the boards]. Graeme Smith, who has been mentioned by name in the Manthorp report, and one anonymous captain has also been mentioned, do you expect any of these captains to come forward?

HM– The captains are in a very difficult situation now. At the end of the day, they are employees and their employer has interfered with his thinking or strong views to do something. They are in a situation where it is very difficult not to do what their boss tells them. The captains are in a difficult situation. The ICC should know that this is coming from the media reports that there has been interference. We hope for the ICC to carry out an investigation. We hope they will talk to the relevant people and they will do it in a way where people will feel confident about speaking honestly about what has happened and not feel compromised about it. I don’t know if it does anyone any good to be throwing around names in public. “he said this. And he said that. And I said that.” That will not be a good outcome for the game. but, there is enough here for a good governance system to say “Listen, something is not right. Let us have a look at it.” I believe they need to do that in a manner where they protect the individuals. It is not a political race here. They are dealing with captains who are employees of boards. There is a lot at stake for them, and we need to be aware of that fact.

SJ– First thing that comes to my mind is that the ICC Cricket Committee does not have any power of implementing the recommendation. It has to go to the executive board and then the ICC board to get ratified. First question is – why would there be anyone pushing their candidate to this post? In this case, BCCI pushed or pressured other boards and captains to change their votes. Why would that happen for a pretty inconsequential committee?

HM– That’s a really good question and one that we are struggling to understand as well. The ICC Cricket Committee is an ICC committee, therefore it’s important. The ICC say that it is important and that they value the views of the committee. We all know that some of the recommendations proposed by the committee didn’t get past the executive board but they purport that it is an important committee. So, we have to treat it with respect when they say they want a players’ representative on their committee. We are only doing what the ICC say they want in their committee. So, in our minds, It is an important committee, and in the process of governance and in terms of electing the representatives, it is critical as a point of principle.

If we were to ignore what seems to have happened here, then we might as well pack our bags and go home and ignore every decision made. Because, every decision will be made by politics, lobbying, and so on and so forth. And when that happens, you don’t get the decisions that are made in the best interest of the game of cricket. It all relates to governance. If you can go back to the Wolff Report that came out a year and half ago, it has gone nowhere. Very little of it has been adopted. It is quite clear that we need to go towards a more independent structure in governing the game. So, when people sit around the board table, be it cricket committee or whatever it is, and vote on issues, it is in the best interest of cricket.

At the moment, there are too many people, the way the ICC has governed; there are representatives from each board. People sit on the table and vote on the best interest for themselves. So, the decisions that are made for ICC are not in the best interest of the game. As a matter of principle, if we see what happened here is not right and If we, the players and the player associations say nothing, we become a part of the problem.

SJ– That is a very valid point you raise – it is a matter of principle. Even if this committee does not go on to achieve anything, it is a matter of principle. I agree with you on that.

If, BCCI has the power and the money and the fans and the viewership and all that but still cannot exist in vacuum. They can’t play international cricket if they know that no other country is playing with them. So, if a lot of the problems, in terms of governance and power and money comes back and can be put at the feet of BCCI, then why aren’t the other 9 boards resisting BCCI’s influence?

HM– That’s exactly and that is a very good question, one that we ask all the time of other boards that we are involved with. International cricket needs to have ten, if not more, strong countries around the world playing it. And BCCI and Indian cricket needs that, because it needs someone to play.

Where are the other boards doing about this? If there are about 5 or 6 other boards who will stand up and say that they want to have a look at it in the best interest of the game, that would be fantastic. But, they are not doing it. It is sad that they are not doing it. It never appears to be the case. It comes back to the governance issue. Each individual organization and person is sitting around their table and acting in the best interest of them rather than the overall game. That encourages behaviour where people look after themselves or their own organizations. And that can in no way be the right answer for cricket.

SJ– When is that straw that is going to break the camel’s back going to happen? From what we see, every single board is out there to protect their own interests. Do you see a point where we break away from this terrible approach to sport?

HM– I have almost given up hope on the ICC, in effect, ICC is the team of Test playing boards, they are one and the same. I have lost a bit of faith that they will be able to change this environment. It might seem as if it will come down to the players. The players, independent of politics, the players collectively around the world – the Indian players will have a big role to play here. They must realise that this behaviour in the sport is not right. The players can then collectively stand up and say “No”. If you look at other sports around the world that is what probably happens. Whenever there is a major change in the management of professional sport, it is usually with the players standing up collectively. Or, a third party, whether it is broadcaster or through privatization, having the sporting body enforce a change. At some point, something will happen. I hope the change will be a good outcome.

One more thing we need to note is that the BCCI have done some wonderful things for cricket. That gets lost, we will have these debates and that seems a “Us vs Them” situation. The Indian Premier League is a fantastic sporting competition recognized around the world. It is a significant thing that the BCCI have helped develop. T20 cricket has been fantastic for the sport. It has attracted new viewership. A lot more people have started following the sport now. A lot more kids have taken it up. When you look at what BCCI has done around the world, to India as a country and the game in terms of revenue, it is fantastic. We all benefit from that. That is in large part due to BCCI and how they have run the commercial arrangements around broadcasters in India.

BCCI has a critical role to play in leading the sport. The current model of governance allows them to extend in to areas that isn’t right. I think they could embrace players, player feedback and player representation particularly from the Indian players. That will help a lot in decision making in the game. That is one missing piece in the governance of the sport. We need to be more independent. But, we would like the BCCI to lead the sport in a manner in which all the test playing nations can grow and develop and in a way where the players have a good say at how the game is run. I would love to see the BCCI show some initiative in that area.

SJ– Considering that they have the largest pool of players, largest viewership, I would say, significant change will have to come from them taking the initiative, and I hope they do. As the saying goes, with power comes the responsibility.

Alright. Let’s talk about your internal things that you have to handle in NZ cricket. One of the recent ones was replacement of Ross Taylor as captain of the NZ team and the surrounding hoopla. You then had John Parker thing that came out. A question comes from Michael Wagener from Auckland – did you, as NZCPA chief executive, ever consider suing John Parker?

HM– It has been a difficult six months for us in New Zealand as far as the Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum thing is concerned. We, on the players’ association had all of our focus on the players, and made sure they were looked after and got all the support as we could give. There is no question. We have certainly indicated to the NZC for the way in which the captaincy changed hands and Ross Taylor was stood down from captaincy and the way Brendon McCullum got the job was not good. They didn’t manage the process particularly well at all. We have to be very careful because an organization, a team, a country have every right to pick their captain. That is their decision, that is not a player’s decision. That is not my or my organization’s decision. That is alright. All we could focus on was the process, and we thought it could have been handled much better than that the NZC had done it. We hope it won’t be repeated. Unfortunately, what we saw in the months after it is that a group of past players who have been with NZC for a while decided to put up the a paper, with John Parker purported to be representing a number of players. Personally, I don’t think that he does represent a lot of players. I certainly have spoken to some of those on that email list, and they tell me that they are just on that email list and have nothing to do with what he has put together. In terms of what they have done for us is that they have created a whole lot of angst and an unnecessary discussion about the ability of the NZC board. There is no question that we would like to see one or two past players on the board of NZC. To be fair, this is the first term where there hasn’t been a past player on the board. The current CEO and president David White and Steven Boock are both past players. We believe that we could have a couple of past players on the board moving forward, and that will be healthy.

John Parker is a past player, a member of the players’ association. Last I read the documentation he put together, I was disappointed for a large amount of it. We will not make a move to sue or challenge a past player or member. That will send a bad signal. We wouldn’t do that but I can understand how certain individuals can feel about what was put in the public domain.

SJ– Excellent. I want to go to another topic as well. You have 4 NZ women’s cricketers getting professional contracts with the NZC, which is tremendous. What was the process involved? And, do you expect the pool of players growing more so that you have a base of 15 – 20 women that can play cricket professionally and not worry about how to pay the bills next?

HM– That is a really positive development for cricket here. The initiative came in the most recent negotiation with NZC, in an MoU which governs the White Ferns environment. We discussed with NZC the fact that in Australia and England, they have moved forward quite a bit in the last 18 months with the quality of the play in those countries. A large number of their players were contracted to their board and involved in development work and are also contracted to play and prepare. We had a situation where our players couldn’t commit full time to cricket because they had to work to pay their bills. We weren’t giving them the right environment and tools to compete with the sides like Australia and England who were more prepared than anyone else. We discussed how we can contract some of these players. We discussed cricket development program and the opportunity to contract 4 players in that program and work on their development of cricket- so they can practice and play the game full time. Now you have the 4 players who are going to work full time with cricket, which is going to be fantastic. We have to work with NZC to increase that number to about 12. That would help the game tremendously.

SJ– The contracts that were announced in April were for just one year. is there a reason why you chose one year? Because, they would  be playing in a World Cup that appears once in four years. So, from one world cup to another, that is 4 years. if you are working towards a tournament, they should be confident and secure that they are going to have a long term contract. Why was this a one year thing?

HM– Most contracts around the world are annual contracts. There is a reassessment at the end of the contract period. The players are contracted again for the next year. By and large, that is about 75 – 80 % of player contracts. We are comfortable with having one year contracts. We also wanted to see how the program goes in the first year. We will see if it is comfortable environment from NZC’s perspective, and the players’ perspective. Certainly, we will have the feedback from all of them and I will see to it that the program is being extended for more years and hopefully involving more cricketers. We need to do more to promote women’s cricket in general. I look at NZ and around the world and I am not sure we have done enough. it is obvious to me and will be to all the listeners, half the population is women, and I am not sure we have done enough to encouraged them. Women are the decision makers in the families, encouraging the kids to play cricket, the sport they love. We need to do more to promote and develop women’s cricket and help the game as a whole.

SJ– Absolutely!

We talked about the IPL, BCCI and all that. The thing we want to talk about is the thing that preceded IPL – the ICL. A few NZ players chose to play in the ICL, and a few decisions were taken later on which was terrible for them- that they were to be banned by their respective board. At that time, you had Shane Bond, Chris Cairns, Daryl Tuffey, Lou Vincent and others who were involved in it. Those players were left high and dry. What was the situation at that time between the NZCPA and the NZC?

HM– It was interesting time for us, I can tell you that. The ICL, obviously it doesn’t any more as there were problems with it in terms of players and money. But it was the catalyst for IPL. It had a positive contribution for cricket. It got cricket boards and other involved to become more organized. The growth of T20 cricket was explosive. Our players, in comparison to other cricketers around the world were quite poorly paid. They wanted our top players under the contract system here, and were paying them 200k – 300k $. The ICL was an opportunity for them to play in an exciting newT20 league in India. Given that the guys had independent contracts, they could go and play for anyone they wished to as long as it did not impact the commitments to NZC under the contracts, and those commitments were mostly playing and training. I can’t recall it all now, but ICL wanted the players to participate there.

Then, we had the politics coming into play. I can understand that, with the ICL being a private venture and BCCI deciding to have their own T20 competition. In effect, it was similar to a Kerry Packer war in India, with the ICL and the BCCI fighting that was not good for cricket and NZ got caught in it more than any other country in the world at that time.

SJ– My thing is this- the players shouldn’t be caught in between all of this- the private leagues and the boards. That is why you have the players’ association, like yours. So, what was your stance? What was going between NZCPA and the board at that time? I read some comments from you that you didn’t have a conciliatory tone towards NZC on how the whole thing turned out.

HM– My view was very strong- the players had the right to ply their trade, as independent contractors, for any other party. They had a right to play in the ICL. NZC agreed with us at the time. Of course, that is when the politics came in and NZC came under severe pressure from the BCCI and other boards to ensure that the players didn’t play in the ICL. It came to the situation where basically, we had managed the situation in Shane Bond, who signed with the ICL on the understanding that it was OK, because it was. He was allowed to play for anyone. Then, NZC came under pressure from other organizations to ban them. So, rather than take to the court or go to the stage where the player association were fighting NZC, Shane decided to, on his own, to step aside from New Zealand contract and on what he believes he could do to the ICL. So, we lost Shane Bond for a couple of years, which was not a very good outcome for NZ cricket.

SJ– Not just for NZ cricket. For the rest of the cricket as well. If you don’t get to watch Shane Bond bowing in a Test match for New Zealand, it is a huge loss for everybody.

HM– That period had a big impact on Black Caps, as a team, because we lost seven or eight players to the ICL, maybe a bit more because some of them were not playing for NZ at that time. For a small country like New Zealand, if you lose half a dozen players from your mix, that is a big impact on the performance of your international team. The Black Caps’ performance suffered as a result of it. It is not acknowledged by many people across the world.

That is why, if we had a good governance system that will take decisions in the best interest of the game, and having strong Test playing teams, we would not have had such a situation to occur. That is not to say that the ICL was brilliant and should have been allowed to continue. But, I am saying that I can understand why BCCI would not like that. The outcome was not what people expected. People need to work harder for an outcome that is good for cricket, than it ended up being.

SJ– I am going to let you go with one final question. How is Jesse Ryder doing?

HM– He is doing quite well, he still gets headaches. Hopefully he will be back to full health in the next 3 or 4 weeks, and will then consider hitting the nets and hit a cricket ball. He has had a tough time. When the incident happened at Christchurch, it was dreadful for all of us but he is getting to full health now and hopefully he will start hitting the cricket ball soon.

SJ– From the players’ perspective, what steps are you thinking about or have taken to not have repeat of such incidents. I am not saying that no player should ever go out, but they are public figures, they become targets for whatever. Have there been discussions on those lines?

HM– Yes. There has been. It is a realization now that, not just in cricket, but in other sports too, that they cannot go out in public domain like we used to. That is sad, though. With the modern media, It is not necessarily a bad thing because that’s life – with technology and cell phones and cameras, social media; people are looking to get a photo or a statement online into the public domain that creates a story. If they do one thing wrong, if they say one thing, or if they drink too much, they will have their names in the papers for the wrong reasons. That is just the reality. You want your athletes and players to mix with the public, but it is very difficult late at night. People have been under the influence, and they are young men mostly who are still learning the way in life. It is a sad situation; it is the reality that we need to manage the environment of the players now that they socialize in public domain. They need to understand, they need to be educated through education program about what are the best decision making processes that they should be following when they make this decision to go out.

SJ– On that note, thank you so much for talking to me on the various topics, Heath. It was a pleasure talking to you.

HM– I really enjoyed it. Hopefully, we will catch up soon.

SJ– Sure. Cheers.

HM– Thanks. All the best.

SJ– Thanks. Bye.

Download the full episode here.


Episode Transcribed by Bharathram Pattabhiraman