World sport: Australia's top dollar cricket stars ready to strike for more cash

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The Independent Online
Australia's top cricketers plan to strike next month over pay and conditions. If they do they will disrupt an international one-day series. Robert Milliken in Sydney reports on a first in Australian sporting history

Some of them earn almost $A500,000 (pounds 217,000) a year, others drive Ferraris and BMWs, and all are considered the best-paid men for their skills in the world. Yet it seemed almost certain yesterday that Australia's top cricketers, including the Test team led by Mark Taylor, would strike next month, demanding better pay and conditions.

It will be the first such action by a national team in Australian history. As news broke during the second Test between Australia and New Zealand in Perth, and the prospect loomed of a summer marked by a war over recruitment of strike-breakers to replace the likes of Taylor, the Waugh brothers and Shane Warne, politicians pleaded with the players. John Howard, the cricket-loving Prime Minister, said: "Do not go on strike."

The stoppage is planned over 10 days, when Australia is due to play South Africa and New Zealand in one-day matches. The dispute threatens to drive a wedge through the Australian cricket world almost as damaging as that 20 years ago, when Kerry Packer hijacked the game to stage his World Series Cricket matches in a campaign to win the television rights for official Test cricket.

He won that war but stands to be one of the biggest losers from the latest dispute. His Channel Nine television network would lose ratings, revenue and Taylor, Warne, Ian Healy and Steve Waugh, who have lucrative contracts as commentators with the network. "I hope there's no strike," said Gary Burns, Channel Nine's director of sport. "Because if there's a strike, things might get ugly."

The row centres on a dispute between the Australian Cricketers' Association, representing 120 top players, and the Australian Cricket Board, the controlling body. The association wants to negotiate a form of collective bargaining, which, it says, will give a better deal for lower-paid and unknown players. The board wants to continue a system of individual contracts with players. It has accused the players of wanting to take control of the game. The association wrote to member players asking them to endorse the planned strike. By last night a majority had done so.

With stars such as Taylor already earning $485,000 a year from the board, and Warne, Healy, Glenn McGrath and Steve Waugh a fraction less - before their earnings elsewhere from sponsorships, endorsements and television - Australians are unlikely to give much sympathy to the militant players.

But some old-timers have. Greg Chappell, a former Test captain and selector, said: "This has been going on for 100 years. It's always been a master- servant relationship for the players. Unless the players now can get their reasonable demands heard, it will be like that for the next 100 years. It's about a principle."

But is it cricket?