Roberts and I are sitting in the courtyard in Leichhardt, at the back of Norton Street institution Bar Italia. Four months into his tenure in cricket’s top job, he is in Sydney for a CA board meeting but he’s sat at these tables many times before. Two decades ago, when he was in the midst of a playing career with NSW, he lived just down the road in Whiting Street, sharing a house with his club and state squad teammate Corey Richards.
Then in their mid-twenties the pair would often wander up for a meal, Roberts’ go-to dish being the veal romana with vegetables on the side. Not just for old time’s sake has he chosen it again off the giant menu board behind the counter after we’ve walked inside to order.
There has been plenty of change around here in 20 years. The area’s last remaining video rental store next door was finally knocked down and replaced by apartments a couple of years ago. The nearby pub has been done up. But some things never change. The planes still fly low and loud overhead – “our light fittings used to shake so I took a couple off and just had the bare globe hanging out of the ceiling” – and the atmosphere at this inner west favourite is still refreshingly unpretentious. As it turns out, the veal, buried in bacon, chilli, mushrooms and Napoli sauce, still inspires food envy in one sitting opposite, too.
As you would expect, Roberts’ life is also very different these days. He has five daughters – Emma, 16, Kate, 14, Sophie, 13, and eight-year-old twins Mia and Jess – with his wife Trudy, a former Basketball Australia national development manger who has just set up her own business tutoring primary school children with dyslexia. And after a high flying career in the sportswear industry in which Roberts was Australian managing director of adidas at age 30 before heading up the company 2XU – he finds himself in one of the most powerful and challenging posts in Australian sport.
Now 46, he succeeded long-time CA supremo James Sutherland last October, beginning in the job only days before the release of a damning review into the organisation that branded the sport’s governing body arrogant and disrespectful and identified a “win without counting the costs” culture that set the scene for the sandpaper scandal.
Six months before, on the Monday morning Roberts turned his backpack around on the train, he had as Sutherland’s second in command brought office staff and executives together to try and process what had just happened to their sport. He was in “acting PM” mode with the boss en route to South Africa.
“I was quite emotional in terms of sharing my experience of that morning and what I’d done and inviting others to share theirs rather than hide from it,” he says. “I was so conscious that people in that building, they hadn’t played a role in what happened in Cape Town, and yet they were part of a sport where that did happen and no doubt had family members and friends and so on saying ‘how can you be a part of that organisation?’.
“We had hundreds of cricket people dialling reception, making calls about how they felt about Australian cricket as a result of the Cape Town incident. Who would think that some of the people hardest hit by it might be the receptionists at Cricket Australia?”
When we meet it is only a couple of weeks until the suspensions of Steve Smith and David Warner, the former captain and vice-captain, are lifted. They are officially free to play for Australia again on March 29. Cameron Bancroft, the player who was sprung with sandpaper on the field last March, returned from his shorter ban in December. As well as sitting out all international and domestic cricket they were ordered to complete 100 hours of service in the community.
Roberts has been involved in preparing for their “reintegration” under a new national coach, Justin Langer, and Smith’s replacement as Test captain, Tim Paine.
“I’m really impressed with the way they’ve handled themselves during their period of sanctions,” he says. “I think in their own way they’ve all given a lot to their communities and if we believe in the old adage that if you give you will receive, they’ve also got a lot out of that, and in some cases experienced real growth as people.”
Roberts acknowledges cricket was on a slippery slope before the now infamous third Test. As a server approaches – “sicula penne?” – with my meal, pasta with bacon, chilli, garlic and olive oil, he talks about one of the immediate objectives since he’s been CEO: to try and restore trust.
If it was lost with of the public after South Africa, it had already been severely jeopardised with other so-called stakeholders in the damaging years before as CA’s relationships with the players and with its state associations in particular went south.
Roberts was in the thick of it as CA’s chief envoy in the troubled negotiations with players over a new memorandum of understanding two years ago. At the height of the bitter dispute, 230 players were locked out and not paid for more than a month. The players’ association were angered at what they described as a dismissive approach from Roberts as he led the head office push for a new pay model, and in the end it took Sutherland himself to enter the talks before a peace deal was finally reached.
“I think we can all learn from that period,” says Roberts, who ironically had worked with the players’ association in the past, mentoring young cricketers and focusing on life after cricket.
“On the one hand I could say I guess being appointed to this role provides some indication of the role that I did or didn’t play during the MOU. Cleary, if the role I played was akin to what was being reported at the time, it was fair to say I wouldn’t have ended up in this role.
“But we’re all human and the biggest lesson to come out of that is we didn’t have the depth of relationships either with the male players or with the ACA [Australian Cricketers’ Association] to achieve the amount of reform we were looking for. The relationship between CA and the players needed to be a lot closer.”
Whatever went on behind closed doors in 2017, Roberts is now cast as a change agent of a different kind than he was during that divisive period.
What is clear over an hour I spend with him in his old hood is that his passion for cricket is matched only by his ambition for it. Long after I’ve wolfed down my pasta, he is eagerly sharing his vision for the game, content to pick away patiently at his veal as if compiling singles carefully with the bat in his playing days for Bankstown or the Blues.
During an incredible era when the NSW batting line-up regularly included Steve and Mark Waugh, Mark Taylor, Michael Slater, Michael Bevan and Greg Matthews – “there wasn’t a lot of room for Roberts in there at full strength” – he set himself a goal of scoring one hundred in the Sheffield Shield and one in the domestic one-day competition, and ended up doing exactly that.
When it comes to cricket while he’s in charge, Roberts also has clearly defined aspirations. They include to comtemporise community cricket to fit better with people’s time-poor lifestyles – “It’d be great to have competitions that go for six or eight weeks,” he says – and to achieve gender equality “so we’re unstoppable in that regard”. As he’s indicated he’s also intent for head office to work more closely with its shareholders, the states, and ensure competitions in Australia are not treated simply as development leagues for national teams or playthings for experimentation as they have been at times. More than anything he wants the game to “unite and inspire”.
“It’s very early, four months in, to be talking about legacies,” he says. “But it’s more about the difference you’d like to make to the game.”
169-171 Norton Street, Leichhardt NSW 2040
Sunday to Thursday, 8am – 11pm, Friday and Saturday, 8am – midnight.
Chris Barrett is Sports Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.