Cricket: Uncaring strikes of May

John Benaud in Sydney argues that Australia's Test rebels are ignoring reality
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The Independent Online
One of Australia's icons in days gone by was a radio quiz master with a slicked down hairdo and an Errol Flynn moustache. His name was Bob Dyer and his trademark call sign was "Howdy customers, howdy ... what will it be, the money or the box?"

Bob's show had an element of suspense to it, if only slight, while the contestant considered the odds about winning a booby prize if he ignored Bob's constant appeals to his avaricious instincts.

Australia's present crop of cricketers would never have got a start on Bob's quiz show; on the evidence, they might only take the money. The "box", the two trophies that will go to the teams with all the answers in a summer of Test and limited-over cricket involving Australia, New Zealand and the South Africans, hasn't received a mention. And, here we are just a week away from the First Test.

The pay dispute between the Australian Cricket Board and the Australian Cricketers' Association had its origin in Kent during the Ashes tour and has been simmering for six weeks. The best-paid players, the internationals, deny they are seeking a pay rise. They say they want a bigger slice of the money pie to go to the next level of players.

The players have established a "union" of which the former off-spinner Tim May is president, Steve Waugh is the secretary and Shane Warne the treasurer. They certainly got that wrong - Steve Waugh's runs balance sheet demands he be the treasurer.

And there are some Australians who have suggested "Shane Warne for PM" - Australia is on the downhill run towards a republic, so possibly it should be Warne for May. And anyway, when he was playing, May was known among team-mates as "The Master of Disaster", a reference to his physical stumbles, one of which was treading on his bowling hand at a defining moment in a Test match against the West Indies.

It happened in 1993 at the Adelaide Oval and May was in the middle of an astonishing spell in which he took 5 for 9. While celebrating his second wicket, Junior Murray nabbed by Mark Waugh at bat-pad, a jubilant May confided to Allan Border, his captain: "Gee 'AB', this is scary, they're coming out so good."

Border was equal to the occasion: "Just keep treading on your hand," he advised May.

There are a few sticking points between the ACB and the ACA; the latter are being advised by Graham Halbish, a former chief executive of the ACB, and James Erskine, an entrepreneur, and the pair have formed a company which the players would like the ACB to use as a consultancy to negotiate future television rights and sponsorships.

The word is that some people, most likely Halbish and Erskine, think it would be a nice idea if that company was to take 20 per cent of any moneys negotiated; the ACB doesn't think that's a good idea at all and, to make their point, they refused to welcome either Halbish or Erskine to the negotiating table. Suddenly, the dreaded "strike" word was mentioned by May; the cold-blooded cynics saw that as a milestone for Tim, whose Test career strike-rate was a wicket about every 90. "Great in a timeless Test," they said.

There were other Aussies who deluged newspaper editors with letters, rejoicing at the prospect of their summer television screens being filled with something other than pictures of leather slapping willow.

The majority merely pointed out that Taylor, the Waughs and Healy were already earning about 400 grand each. And, just in case Joe Public hadn't got the message about Greed Greed, the ACB, in complying with players' wishes that all Board finances be made public, announced that since 1992-93 ACB payments to players had increased by 106 per cent.

Any query about them being too low previously was lost in the timing; the revelation came a few days after the Federal Government statistician announced that Australia was in "deflationary mode" - for the first time in about 30 years the cost of living had gone down.

It is hard to know where the players can go from there; they have zilch public support for their cause. Even hard-liners such as Ian and Greg Chappell, and David Hookes, children of the Packer-inspired payrolled World Series Cricket revolution, have been critical of the players' demands, and the way they have gone about them.

In releasing its financial statement the ACB acknowledged that it had about A$13m in reserves; but it also announced a A$2.5m loss for the last Australian summer. That raised the question: if a series between the world champions, Australia, and their foremost challengers, the West Indies, cannot make a profit, what can?

Certainly not Australia versus a second-rate New Zealand. South Africa's against-all-odds victory over Pakistan ensures they will be much tougher opponents, but you get the feeling that this could be a summer Down Under when there will be more interest in events in the corridors of power than events on the cricket pitch. Pity.