James Sutherland gives a thumbs-up sign to reporters after announcing his decision to step down as Cricket Australia CEO
© AFP/Getty Images

Talking Cricket

'No one should think of themselves as indispensable'

Still, if anyone could be said to be so, it was James Sutherland, who has stepped aside after 17 years at the head of Cricket Australia that have not been without their share of tumult

Interview by Daniel Brettig  |  

When James Sutherland became chief executive of the Australian Cricket Board in 2001, he was 35. The board had about 40 staff, and owned the No. 1 national cricket team in the world. Seventeen years later he has departed Cricket Australia as a business boasting comfortably more than a billion dollars in secured revenue, a blooming BBL and WBBL, and major increases in participation, but with a reputation damaged by the Cape Town ball-tampering scandal, and a summer of uncertainty ahead for the Australian team.

A couple of years into your tenure there was the Glenn McGrath-Ramnaresh Sarwan incident in the West Indies, where you made a very public showing of the spirit of cricket. Have you reflected on how prominent it was then relative to where it's been this year?
It's always been prominent, but there was a very conscious shift back in the 2000s to ensure that there's a greater awareness around that. Various measures came into play. That was quite public, but it's not in any way to say there's been a loss of focus around that. I've had countless discussions with captains and coaches along the way to remind them that it is enshrined in the laws of the game through the preamble about the spirit of cricket. The responsibilities of players, led particularly by captains, for the respect that teams show to umpires, their opponents and everyone else in the game - I've always felt very strongly about that, and I've always certainly dedicated my attention, when I've felt it was needed, to the captains to remind them of their responsibilities, as I did after the Durban Test match.

How hurtful was it that you did that, and then saw what happened at Newlands?
I was heartbroken by the events, and I think that in some ways I understand that in the heat of battle things can boil over and go awry and there can be regrettable incidents. But part of the extent of my disappointment around Cape Town is heightened by what happened earlier in the series [the altercation between David Warner and Quinton de Kock], and my feeling that there were warning signals. There were lots of other things going on, and some disgraceful behaviour during the Port Elizabeth Test - provocation by opposition fans but also administrators from the opposition team.

My views were expressed during and after the Durban Test - that we needed to take stock and be very aware that when you're playing South Africa, you're playing in a cauldron and we've got two teams that go very hard at each other. Our leadership needs to show restraint and understand that it's not the first time that things have boiled over on the field between CA and South Africa and it won't be the last time. But my view was that, putting everything aside from Durban, it was time to understand and settle back in to playing good, hard cricket.

CEO James Sutherland speaks during a Cricket Australia  AGM, October 29, 2015 © Getty Images Sutherland's career milestones

1998 Joins the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) as chief financial officer, and works on the first MoU between the players and the board

2001 At 35, is appointed chief executive of the ACB

2003 Flies to Johannesburg to announce that Shane Warne, his former Victoria team-mate, is to be sent home from Australia's World Cup campaign for taking a prohibited substance. Announces renewed focus on the spirit of cricket in a speech after an ugly incident between Glenn McGrath and Ramnaresh Sarwan on the West Indies tour.

2005 Signs a seven-year, A$280m deal with Channel Nine for free-to-air rights to international cricket. Secures a separate deal with Foxtel for domestic cricket, including the new state-based Big Bash.

2007 Involved in discussions around the setting up of the Champions League Twenty20, which reaps a ten-year, US$900m deal with ESPN-Star Sports, helping provide CA with funding for the launch of the BBL.

2008 Speaks at an ICC forum in favour of league structures and context for international cricket.

2009 The state 2nd XI competition is converted into the Futures League, limiting teams to three players each over the age of 23, thereby removing many older players from the system (especially after many had left in 2007-08 to play in the unsanctioned Indian Cricket League).

2010 Oversees Australian Cricket Conference where the board of 14 state-appointed directors agrees to a governance review with a view towards becoming a smaller, independent body.

2011 Australia's home Ashes defeat compels the commissioning of the Argus review into team performance. The BBL is launched

2012 Sutherland signs a new MoU with the ACA, retaining a fixed-revenue-percentage model but including performance-based payment bonuses for the first time. CA's new governance model is approved, resulting in a board of nine independent directors.

2013 Homeworkgate scandal in India sees four players suspended for a Test. Sutherland and Howard, after consultation with the ACA chief executive Paul Marsh, elect to sack the coach, Mickey Arthur, after a further scandal involving David Warner punching Joe Root during the Champions Trophy. New broadcast deal signed with Nine and Ten networks worth A$590 million over five years.

2014 "Big Three" carve-up of ICC events revenue by the boards of India, England and Australia proposed. Sutherland negotiates a delayed start to the Test series with India, following nationwide mourning in the wake of the death of Phillip Hughes.

2015 Kevin Roberts leaves the CA board and joins the executive, immediately being recognised as Sutherland's likely successor. The Women's BBL is launched. Inaugural day-night Test is played in Adelaide.

2016 Five consecutive Test match losses by Australia, in Sri Lanka and at home to South Africa, compel Sutherland and Howard to visit the dressing room in Hobart and stress that better is required.

2017 A new MoU is signed after a protracted and bitter fight between the board and the players after Sutherland works through a compromise deal with the ACA as the clock ticks down to a tour of Bangladesh. League structures for Test matches and ODIs are finally approved by the ICC, some 14 years after Sutherland began proposing them.

2018 Newlands ball-tampering scandal results in bans for three players, and the resignation of the coach, Darren Lehmann. A new broadcast rights deal, worth A$1.18b, is signed with the Seven and Fox Sports networks. Sutherland announces in June that he will resign as CEO after 17 years.

It has been observed that the place your kids Will (a Victoria player) and Annabel (Melbourne Renegades) have got to in their cricket had to be a consideration in terms of your finishing date. How much were Will and Annabel part of your decision?
It's a good time for me, a good time for my family, and a good time for cricket for me to be moving on. From a family perspective, the kids weren't even born when I started at CA, so to some extent it is all they know. But also by some strange phenomena they are playing cricket at a reasonable level and it should be more about them and less about me.

You've had 17 years of dealing with India and the BCCI. How did you develop that understanding between the boards?
There might've been ten different BCCI presidents during my time, and that's part of understanding about cricket anywhere - that there's a continual succession of leaders, sometimes for political reasons or other reasons.

Irrespective of how close I was or how much affection I had for anyone in office in India or anywhere, I always had the utmost respect for the office of president or honorary secretary. I always believed the people in office are the people you deal through, and that you have a respectful and robust relationship with. That stood me in good stead to continue to build relationships. I have a great deal of respect for people I worked with from the BCCI. I don't for a moment pretend to understand the challenges everyone has in their own environment. Someone in Afghanistan has completely different challenges to South Africa or elsewhere. But I respect and want to work in a bilateral sense to get the best outcomes.

There were probably three times when the relationship with the BCCI was tested - Monkeygate in 2007-08, the Big Three issue in early 2014, and then later that year negotiating with India after the death of Phillip Hughes. Did the experience of the previous two episodes help in the third one? Moving those Test matches was arguably a less discussed element of an awful and difficult time.
We were all in our own ways trying to deal with tragic events, but at the same time I and others within CA were trying to organise a funeral and also try to work out when the train was going to get back on the rails, not really knowing the answer but at the same time having an Indian team in the country preparing for the first Test. By and large they showed incredible empathy and understanding, and I'd like to think my relationship with the BCCI and the people in office at the time was helpful in doing that. But certainly we were incredibly grateful to them for showing the understanding they did, allowing us change the schedule and get things back going again.

All these various issues over time where cricket was on the front page as well as the back page, they have all seemed to place slightly different kinds of pressure on CA or on your role.
They do seem to spike, and you can get caught up in the moment like it's the end of the world. But the reality is that the game is strong and resilient and the public's passion for the game is abiding. It's part of the storyline, these moments that ebb and flow, the highs and lows of the game that people talk about. But, through experience, I can only say you've got to try to keep your cool, hold your head and think about process, justice and transparency, and getting the balance right. Above all, continuing to manage things in the best interests of cricket.

People will always have a view as to whether you've done that well or not. Some will want things to be dealt with in greater urgency than others, or they want to know more than you are legally able to talk about or whatever, but at the same time - and it's a boring position to take - keeping a focus on the process is something that's incredibly important in those moments, and not being driven by someone else's agenda. You've got to get through it somehow.

Do you think that thought is always at the front of your mind when addressing the media and the public in those moments? Does it explain why you've looked uncomfortable at times on camera, because you've had to be thinking that way?
Yep, absolutely. I'll be the first to admit I'm not a natural in front of the media, but I'm also a no-bullshit type of person and I'm not going to throw fluff out there. I also try to be respectful to the game and the people in the game as much as I can be, because I see that as part of my role. And I don't necessarily want to put people in difficult positions. It's important to work through situations, and as we know, at times the media want more than I can give them.

Over the past 17 years CA has grown exponentially in size and you've had to delegate responsibility. How challenging has it been to adapt yourself to that change - in the size of the organisation and also dealing with a lot of different executives?
Like a whole lot of things in the game it's been part of the changing landscape. It happens incrementally over time and you become used to that.

You know the importance of the leadership below you and the people in senior roles and their responsibility to manage their departments in such a way that it is more personal than what I'm able to give [from the position of CEO]. That's how it evolves, and one of the things for me is, I see the passion, I see how hard they work and how much they care about cricket in the community. That's always been a huge inspiration to me. That's true of the people I work closely with at executive level and all the way down.

Sutherland speaks at the funeral of Phillip Hughes in Macksville, 2014

Sutherland speaks at the funeral of Phillip Hughes in Macksville, 2014 © Getty Images

The relationships with executives who are there or gone, all of those I still have great relationships with. I'm proud of what they've gone on and done in their different careers. An important part of your role as a leader is coaching and supporting, helping them not only to do their job today but whatever else might be down the track for them.

In the last couple of years, and particularly this year, off the back of Cape Town, there has been criticism of the environment in the office, or of CA as a place to work. Have you been aware of that criticism and how do you view it?
I said it on my first day and I've maintained it throughout: I've always wanted for CA to be a great place to work. As you get bigger as an organisation, it gets less personal and you have moments where it's more difficult, or there will always be moments where things slip through the cracks and people have a different impression of what's going on. I get that, but that's not to say we don't continually try to improve that.

In corporate-speak, staff engagement is important, or values and behaviours are things I talk about a lot. I do feel that when people want to look for things to be critical about, you can find them very easily. It's not hard to find a disgruntled employee or former employee if you want to, and if you only want to write about them and not the others, then there can be a lack of balance.

"Cape Town wasn't a confrontation between two players, it was a premeditated WTF moment that shocked us all"

To some extent what CA and the board has done with the review has in some ways invited people to sling mud at CA. That's a brave thing to do, and out of nothing but good intent to learn more, understand more, ensure that sort of thing doesn't happen, but for the organisation to be better for the experience and for cricket to be better in the long term as well.

You never had a COO {chief operating officer) until Kevin Roberts. Was that deliberate?
I thought about it a lot, and there were people who were quasi-COOs along the way, so there were people I relied on when I was away to keep the hand on the wheel, but it got to a stage with Kevin's role that it was so broad and so much of a mouthful that it was clear to me that [COO] was what it was.

There are different types of COOs as well - it's not necessarily the deputy chief executive or the heir apparent. It was as much about the nature of Kevin's role as anything else. Looking after our back-office support and then the link through to the states meant that it just felt natural. Part of that was also giving him the confidence and certainty that he's an important member of the team for however long I might've been around.

There was importance to Roberts' role last year during the MoU negotiations. It has been over a year since that was signed. Do you agree with the view it was territory the game had to go through to get to where the deal is now, or do you think that deal could have been reached by some other way?
I definitely feel it could have been reached some other way, yeah. But that's not to assign unilateral responsibility to one side or the other. Certainly from our side there were things we would've done differently and could've done better.

I'm in some ways a players' type of guy, and I strongly believe in a good relationship with the ACA [Australian Cricketers' Association] and the players is important to the future of the game. But at the same time it takes two to tango, and I think for whatever reason, there are alternative agendas still reigning within the ACA that don't allow the game to properly move on and for us to forge a really strong relationship. The sooner that sorts itself out, the better.

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It seemed for a long time that the relationships you had with Tim May [former head of the ACA and FICA] and then with Paul Marsh [former ACA head] were critical - not just doing deals or front of house, but to share thoughts and ideas and get soundings about where the players were at from your perspective or where the board was at from theirs.
Tim May, Paul Marsh and I had huge barneys along the way, but I've got nothing but respect for them, and in fact I would consider them friends that I always enjoy catching up with.

We did some really good things together. One of the things that doesn't come from anything other than a really good relationship was the tsunami match at the MCG in 2005. Between Tim May and I, there was always something to fight about, but when that happened we said, "We're going to do something special" and he was able to get through his FICA the players to commit to come here and play. Together we put on an event that was extraordinary and raised more than A$15 million for a huge tragedy. It was a reminder of the power of what cricket can achieve when it galvanises all its forces.

Something else about that relationship was that you and Marsh first had discussions about context for international cricket and league structures as long ago as 2003. Was it a one-day league?
He had a model, which I loved, and it's been a long time trying to sell the virtues of it in one form or another, and obviously it extended through to Test cricket. I'm not ashamed in any way to give him credit for that model, and that idea that has finally been approved, albeit in slightly different form. A good thing for the game.

There are two things that now stand internationally that probably wouldn't exist without you having been around so long - Test- and one-day leagues and day-night Tests. With the leagues there seemed to be about three or four separate attempts. What made the difference when it eventually was approved, as opposed to earlier times?
It's not often in cricket that you get an idea up the first time you put it there. Cricket people tend to be a conservative bunch and they don't like change, even if it's staring them in the face as being bleeding obvious. So I think people weren't ready and it probably needed to do a few laps before it came back.

I think that by the time we came around to this cycle, the T20 caravan had expanded and had children, and so the awareness of protecting and growing international cricket was something people are more conscious of than before, so that meant the timing was right.

"To some extent what CA and the board has done with the review has in some ways invited people to sling mud at CA. That's a brave thing to do"

Kerry Packer was still around in your first four years as CEO, and you probably had the most to do with him in his last year, doing a TV deal in 2005, before he died. He wasn't necessarily keen for Nine to air domestic T20 and the first Big Bash, which evolved into the BBL.
My recollection was not as pointed or specific as that. What he had a view on was that he wanted Nine to own the big stuff, the really important stuff, and he was a great traditionalist when it came to international cricket. Nine was broadly suspicious of T20 cricket and state cricket. Even this year when we did the TV deal, Nine was very much about Test cricket. They wanted international cricket, but once they got the tennis, they were still very much in the game around Test cricket, and had a really strong view and belief in its longevity and importance.

Going back to Kerry, I remember having conversations with him about "the other stuff" being "wallpaper" and the premium stuff being Australia playing. Also, my grandfather was his headmaster, which is a bit of a weird irony we used to talk about.

How significant is it that this TV deal, signed in April, is the first one where Australians need to pay to watch some of the Australian team's matches at home? The way people are watching sport is changing, but that is still a big departure from what we've known.
The significance of it is more to do with the way of the world and the way people are consuming media today than anything else, and perhaps the economics of free-to-air television and all of that, but through other means we're continuing to try to broaden the access to the game, or to complement that access with digital-media platforms and other access. It'll certainly be a change, but by and large it'll be a huge positive for the game, because of the way Fox will provide huge bandwidth and promotion of cricket that we haven't been able to enjoy previously to that same extent, and the way that AFL and NRL have enjoyed for a number of years now.

There is a view that broadcasters are, because of the changing landscape, going to struggle to keep raising the level of rights fees at the rate of the recent past. How much of a factor was that in going for as many dollars as possible this time around?
I was very open throughout the process, talking publicly and to our media partners, that the preferred outcome was to land in a free-to-air environment and that we were prepared to take a significant discount for everything to be on FTA. But there was a point there where that discount became too great, and as a board we talked about that, and the board gave us guidance as to what premium we needed in order to go down a slightly different path, where we were on FTA but some went behind the paywall. So it wasn't a conscious decision to say, "This is where we're going", it was just how it turned out. We were very close to a different outcome, but it never quite got there.

There have been questions raised about the way CA is viewed by corporate Australia - sponsors or broadcasters. Do you reflect on the quality of those relationships, or is it a given that most must deal with cricket because it is as big as it is?
You can't be too concerned by what people write in the newspaper, and you can't necessarily manage that. All you can do is try to manage your incumbent and prospective relationships as best as possible and seek honest feedback as to whether we're delivering on expectations and whether we're giving people value, and where there is room for improvement. The true test of value in that relationship is ultimately all about renewal, and there's no one more important than your incumbent partners. Cricket's been fantastic in terms of maintaining long-term relationships and renewing partners over a long period of time. It's something we pride ourselves on. There will always be people who will - if they want to ask what's wrong with the relationship, you can always find something wrong, but on balance, people continue to invest in the game. If it was that bad they wouldn't be renewing.

"Tim May [centre] and I, there was always something to fight about, but [after the tsunami] together we put on an event that was extraordinary and raised more than A$million for a huge tragedy" © Getty Images

After his first Test series in charge, Justin Langer spoke pretty openly about technical issues he is seeing in Australian batsmanship. We are almost a decade into a system, starting with the Futures League in 2009, that's been about graduating young talent to develop it quicker than otherwise. How do you think the system is working?
The Futures League is really just an evolution of the 2nd XI cricket I played my fair share of back in the 1990s. It's in a more structured environment, partly from a pathway point of view but also because we've got more contracted players today and also players are more full-time. So we're creating an environment for them to develop. It's been happening for 20 years and a long time previously - whenever there's a blip in performance, questions of performance, it comes back to whether the Shield system is working or producing players.

The important thing is, the best available players are playing Shield cricket, and they understand their performances out here are highly valued by the selectors. I honestly don't believe that's changed. I know people will argue that Shield cricket's been devalued, but I would say the primary reason for that perception is that international players play less [domestic cricket] today than they used to, and that's because the international schedule is more hectic, and also on top of that we are more conscious of balancing international players' load, both from a physical point of view and a mental point of view, in order to allow them to perform at their best.

Having asked about the system, the buzzword of course is culture. What have you learned this year about where Australian cricket culture is as opposed to where you thought it was or needs to be? Perhaps even changing the word from culture to behaviour.
If we went back to the end of last summer, before the team went to South Africa, it'd be a different conversation about behaviour. We have moments on the field where you don't necessarily like what you see, but we know in the fiercely competitive environment of Test cricket that there will be confrontations. Looking back at last summer, Ashes cricket is as combative as it comes, and the number of incidents I can think of in the last Ashes series where players were at each other - I remember Jimmy Anderson and Steve Smith having a protracted conversation in Adelaide - but they were tiny little instances, not spikes that warranted people to say the behaviour of our team and players left a lot to be desired.

"That homework thing, if I'd been anywhere near that, it would have been a different outcome"

But if you go back five years to the gap between the two Ashes series in 2013, it's on the record from the players that they were given a sense of "Go your hardest at England, we want you to win."
I'm not aware of that, and it disappoints me a little bit if that was the view, because I just don't subscribe to a view that you necessarily play winning cricket by playing that way, where you're not showing appropriate respect to opponents and others.

But we talked about Durban, putting aside what happened in the tunnel [between de Kock and Warner], what we saw out on the field as being not appropriate and not the way we play our cricket. I think in some ways the issues of Cape Town were a different thing altogether. It wasn't a confrontation between two players, it was a premeditated WTF moment that shocked us all.

You had, though, got a letter from Brian Booth and Tom Veivers, two former Australian players, saying they didn't like what the were seeing, and their reported response from you was that cricket is a lot tougher and more uncompromising than it was in their time. Do you recollect that?
No, I don't remember that specifically. I know both gentlemen well - Brian better than Tom, but certainly always see him in Queensland when he's at the cricket. I'm not into making excuses for players, and I'm not in any way abrogating responsibility for events that led to very unfortunate circumstances. But whenever I have felt that things were boiling over or getting out of hand, I would intervene in various ways, including talking to the captain and/or the coach.

I think that the good thing about the public response to Cape Town is, it's a reminder to everyone as to how important cricket is, what cricket means to the Australian public, and the pedestal on which the Australian cricket team is held, and the expectations that come with being an Australian cricketer. I think our players, Cricket Australia and everyone in Australian cricket are reminded of that, and I think it is a huge compliment to cricket and a really stark reminder to everyone.

I said from the outset the game will be better for this. It already is, not just in Australia but around the world, through various things at ICC and other countries that people are picking up and responding to. But also within our own organisation and within our team, players are committed to seeing Australians being proud of the Australian cricket team and the players and how they carry themselves on and off the field.

Do you wish you'd been watching on TV, that night of the Cape Town Test. Do you remember what time you turned the TV off?
At a guess it would've been about midnight, I suppose, but yeah, I wish I was watching, absolutely. It was a serious WTF moment there. I'd like to think that my judgement, and possibly influence, would have meant that the media conference would have gone slightly differently. As we know, the penalty and the severity of the penalty, was to some extent related to not telling the truth, or not telling the whole truth.

"I love the game and it's been a privilege and an honour for me to serve the game I love and to be involved. I don't want anything but for cricket to be going from strength to strength" © Getty Images

It has been said over your time that if it is broken down into moments when you're in the room and others when you're not, the outcomes have been quite different.
No doubt that homework thing, if I'd been anywhere near that, it would have been a different outcome. I'd like to think in some cases where things have gone awry that that's true. You can't be everywhere.

Do you know yet what you want to do next? You've had plenty of time to think about it.
No, I don't. While I've had time, in that I gave notice a few months ago, I've also been very conscious to maintain my eye on the ball and do the job properly, and I didn't want there to be any suggestion that I'd done anything but keep my foot on the pedal until the very end. I owe that to the game, to the board, and to my successor as well. I've had opportunities to afford myself the luxury of looking forward a little bit, but there's lots of things for me to think about and explore and very interesting opportunities, but I'm also keen to take a break. Support Kevin in transition as much as is necessary and then make some decisions in 2019 about what's next.

For CA, without you around, both managing down through the staff and up to the board, and dealing at ICC level - it's a big adjustment for the organisation to make, isn't it?
Those dress standards are really going to slip now, aren't they!

I'd like to think that no one should think of themselves as indispensable, and part of our role all the time is to develop and support people, so when you're not there, people can make an easy transition.

My father-in-law used to have this idea that we're all nothing but a cup of water in a big bucket, and when you take that cup of water out, the bucket still looks exactly the same. You should never have any sense of self-importance, but the important thing is you make a contribution while you're there, and part of that is helping an organisation to transition quickly after your departure. I'm sure it will be seamless, and if there are things I can do to support, I'll be there. I love the game and it's been a privilege and an honour for me to serve the game I love and to be involved. I don't want anything but for cricket to be going from strength to strength.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig