Philip Barker ©ITG

Australia’s cricketers and their national governing body Cricket Australia (CA) could find themselves on the way to war after no agreement is reached on a Memorandum of Understanding.

The men’s and women’s teams have been a dominant force in the game for over 20 years and are national heroes throughout the country. But they are unhappy about the new contract structure unveiled by CA back in March.

Revenue sharing is a key area of dispute. If the dispute is not resolved, it may well have an impact on the Australian team for the prestigious Ashes series against England starting in November, just as it did at the start of the 20th Century.

“There is never much surprise to a disagreement between the governing body for Australian cricket and the representative players who are Australian cricket in its popular sense,” were the words which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

But not in 2017. They were written 105 years ago in 1912.

That year, the Australian team travelled to England without six of their top players after a bitter argument. The absent players included Victor Trumper, considered one of the finest batsmen of all time.

The nationwide governing body for Australian Cricket had been founded in 1905. It was then known as the Board of Control and this was a dispute all about control. In previous years, the practice had been for the players to choose a player-manager. Rule 9 of the constitution stipulated that: “The appointment of manager of any Australian team shall be made by the players and submitted to the board for confirmation.”

Now, the Board was determined to exert its influence. Colonel Justin Foxton of Queensland made the proposal that the Board should appoint the manager of the tour in order to “keep the books and accounts and to generally supervise all matters relating or incidental to the tour”. For this, the appointee would be paid £400. His expenses would be paid from the proceeds of the tour, which had traditionally been divided amongst the players.

Prophetically, the Sydney Morning Herald forecasted: “It is feared that the appointment of an official of the board will not tend to induce some of the certainties to join the team.”

Current Australian captain Steve Smith is among the players set to be unemployed after the contracts expire ©Getty Images
Current Australian captain Steve Smith is among the players set to be unemployed after the contracts expire ©Getty Images

It proved an issue to divide Australian cricket. Other newspapers reported that the move would be “resented by the players”. They reported that one considered “the idea was to ‘ring in’ a representative of the board and give him a luxurious trip to England at the players’ expense”. Other Australian newspapers spoke of “shackling the team”.

Foxton’s proposal was eventually passed by eight votes to four.

In fact, the players and the board had been heading on a collision course since 1909. That year, Australia had toured England and successfully retained the Ashes. Frank Laver had been a popular player-manager, but cricket administrators back home had been unhappy with the way in which in he carried out his other duties.

His contract had stipulated that another official was responsible for the official accounts of the tour, and they had been audited to the satisfaction of the Cricket Board. The Sydney Morning Herald reported “some friction with the Board regarding certain “private” books of account”.

Laver stated: ‘’For my own convenience, and that of the players, I kept a set of books and entered all transactions of a private nature and done through me between the players and outsiders.”

Laver had refused to hand these private books and explained that “the players, not wishing their private affairs to become public property, naturally requested me not to deliver them up”.

In December 1911, Australian cricket bosses met in Melbourne and discussed Laver’s conduct behind closed doors. Laver himself was reporting on the Australia v England Test series taking place at the time.

“I do not wish it to be inferred that I have had a row with the Board of Control over the books,” said Laver.

The Board’s nominee as manager was one George Crouch who had played five matches for Queensland. This angered the team who wanted Laver as player-manager once again.

The highly respected Clem Hill had been named as the captain of the touring party but was particularly unhappy. It didn’t help that Australia were losing to England in the series going on at the time. Hill had angry exchange of telegrams with another selector when he had suggested that a star batsman, Charlie Macartney, be recalled to the side. He even came to blows with one of the selectors as emotions ran high.

Hill and his designated vice-captain Victor Trumper gathered in Adelaide Hanson Carter, Tibby Cotter, Vernon Rainsford and Warwick Armstrong. They were dubbed the “Big Six”, although some critics called them the “Recalcitrant Six”.

They set out the conditions in which they were prepared to be part of the touring party. These were that the Board select 14 players who would then select a player-manager. They also asked that travelling expenses be paid by the Board and not taken out of the profits of the tour. They were not short of public support. At public meetings in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Hobart, the six players were given “immense ovations”, according to reports. There were even moves to support and raise funds to send an independent Australian team to England.

Clem Hill was appointed captain for the touring Australians in 1912 ©Getty Images
Clem Hill was appointed captain for the touring Australians in 1912 ©Getty Images

Laver told how he tried to persuade the players to take part in the tour. He sent them a telegram, which said: “THOUGH I CONSIDER BOARD HAS BEEN MOST UNJUST, I BEG YOU IN ALL CONSEQUENCES TO ACCEPT TERMS. INSIST ON YOUR RIGHTS TO APPOINT MANAGER BUT IGNORE ME.’’

The Board were unmoved. As reporters asked if the tour itself was in jeopardy, the chairman of the Board, Alderman William McElhone, insisted: “A team will go to England this year, (even) if all those taking part in Test cricket decline to make the trip.”

In the end, the touring party was led by Syd Gregory.

For the first and only time, Australia joined England and South Africa in a Triangular Test tournament which called for each team to play against one another.

Without their “Big Six”, Australia were still good enough to defeat South Africa. Crucially though, Australia again lost against their great rivals England.

“It is peculiarly unfortunate that the Australians did not sink all personal differences and send us over their best team, but it useless now to indulge in laments on this score. No doubt the Board of Control knew as well as anyone else, that the great players left behind could not be adequately replaced,” reflected the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

“Manager Crouch lodged a scathing attack with the Board of Control, stating that some of the players conducted themselves so badly as lead to the team being socially ostracised. He urged that in the selection of future teams, something more than the ability to play cricket should be taken into consideration,” Wisden added.

Hill never played for his country again and Trumper died only three years later at the age of only 37. Armstrong returned to captain the team to glory after the First World War.

When Laver died, a newspaper obituary described him as “a true Australian, a grand man on a side and a true friend”.

From 1912, the Australian Board did indeed have full control and kept it for almost 70 years. Australia were never forced to field a weakened team until an even more devastating dispute in 1977 when television magnate Kerry Packer signed up the top players for his World Series Cricket.