In the hours and days following the Cricket Australia (CA) chief executive James Sutherland’s resignation announcement in early June, a host of names were thrown around as possible successors.
Cricket Australia chief operating officer Kevin Roberts? Former New South Wales chairman and Westfield executive John Warn? Western Australia Cricket Association’s chief executive Christina Matthews? ICC operations chief Geoff Allardice? Cricket Australia game development executive Belinda Clark? Even CEOs from other sports (Todd Greenberg and David Gallop) were briefly mooted. Undoubtedly, the corporate recruits at Egon Zehnder had a long list of possibles to sort through.
As a pointer to likely candidates, the CA chairman David Peever had this to say about finding a new chief for the first time since 2001: “This is an incredibly complex job, it has many dimensions. What we must do is find the best person for the role. While I don’t want to put any constraints around it, it is a Cricket Australia role, so we’re probably going to have a little bit of bias towards an Australian, and it is a role in cricket, so we’ll probably have a bias towards someone in cricket.”
But one figure eluded the speculators, in a manner akin to the best disguised variation from Rangana Herath. He has been both chief executive and chairman of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix, CEO of the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, CEO of the South Australian Cricket Association (SACA), and CEO of the wildly successful 2015 ICC World Cup. Since April 2016 he has also served as a CA Board director. Who is this vastly experienced administrator, born a mere 16 days apart from Sutherland himself in 1965? John Harnden.
A civil engineer by trade, Harnden found himself as one of many beneficiaries from the Formula One Grand Prix’s celebrated decade as an end-of-season party in Adelaide. Starting as a member of the project management team in 1989, he moved through the ranks and found himself moving with the event to Melbourne in 1993.
Key to his contribution were oversight of the design of both tracks, as well as the set-up and dismantling of F1 precincts built temporarily, first around the streets of Adelaide and then Melbourne’s Albert Park. After Martin Brundle’s out-of-control Jordan hurtled into the wall shortly after the start of the 1996 race, there was no-one happier than Harnden to see the Englishman dust himself off and resume the race in the team’s spare car. Two years after the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola, Melbourne had avoided a similar tragedy in its very first race.
By 1998, Harnden had been promoted to chief executive of the Melbourne Grand Prix Corporation, a role he filled until 2002 when he was appointed to helm the city’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games, an undertaking that would overtake the 1956 Olympics as the largest sporting event ever held in the Victorian capital. While there was some disquiet at ticket giveaways being required to ensure the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) was brimful for the opening ceremony, the games were ultimately considered highly successful. A left turn then saw Harnden work as the head of Village Roadshow’s theme parks division for three years.
Cricket, though, was to nab Harnden at a critical time when he replaced Mike Deare as the CEO of SACA. Amid labyrinthine and sensitive negotiations for a A$535 million upgrade of the Adelaide Oval from a picturesque cricket ground to a globally-envied, multi-purpose stadium, Harnden was a key link between previously warring parties over the redevelopment.
Glimpsed pacing nervously and looking at his phone as SACA’s members voted on whether to approve the redevelopment in May 2011, Harnden and the association’s then president – former government minister Ian McLachlan – were perhaps the two most relieved men in Australian sport when an overwhelming yes vote not only opened the way to a rebuild but also wiped out A$85 million in SACA debt. “It was just hard to believe,” Harnden said at the time. “There has been so much talk about it and quite frankly it was quite unbelievable.”
That bridge crossed, a still larger project loomed – a World Cup jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand for the first time since 1992. Harnden was unveiled as the organising committee’s CEO in November 2011, beginning the four-year road to an event that would ultimately be watched by more than a million spectators at the grounds and an estimated 1.5 billion on television. If the final between the two host nations was ill-tempered and one-sided, the MCG attendance of 93,014 made for a spectacular backdrop and outstripped the 87,182 who had seen Pakistan defeat England 23 years before.
Within a few months of the tournament’s conclusion, Harnden was back at the Melbourne Grand Prix, this time as chairman. Intriguingly given the current vacancy at CA, it was for a three-year term expiring in August 2018. One link to cricket was re-established in April 2016, when he filled the South Australian spot on the CA Board left by the death of John Bannon (a former Australia premier) in December the previous year. At the time, Peever gave a glowing assessment of his “outstanding business credentials and experience,” and his “genuine passion to grow the game”.
A question surrounds the suitability of choosing a Board director for the chief executive’s role, given the fact that CA is currently in the midst of dual cultural reviews post-Newlands. But a similar query would be made of Roberts, widely considered the front-runner from the moment he left the Board to become Sutherland’s second-in-command in September 2015. There is also the matter of last year’s MoU standoff with the Australian Cricketers Association, a saga that left CA and the players at a distance when they needed, if anything, to be closer.
Those who have worked with Harnden praise his diplomacy, his engineer’s attention to detail and a lack of ego relative to other senior executives. They also point to the diversity of his experience, and runs on the board helming major events when Australia is due to host dual ICC tournaments – the women’s and men’s World Twenty20s – in 2020. It is also thought that, given a free hand, Harnden would be capable of bringing the sort of cultural change desired within the four walls of CA’s Jolimont headquarters, while managing the complex web of international relationships that underpin Australian cricket’s comfortable position in the global game.
Also significant is the fact that in the weeks preceding Sutherland’s announcement, the Board approved Peever’s continuation as CA chairman for three more years. It’s a role that, at one point, might have been suitable for Harnden. But the way events have unfolded, the chief executive’s berth may now be the best one for an administrator who, to many, has flown quite adroitly under the radar.