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MELBOURNE (Reuters) - A bitter pay dispute between Australia's cricketers and the national board appears set to remain unresolved by a Friday deadline, leaving more than 200 players unemployed and upcoming series against Bangladesh and England in jeopardy.
Eleventh hour talks have failed to produce a breakthrough this week and relations have soured to the point that the players' union is refusing to deal with Cricket Australia's (CA) lead negotiator.
The Australian Cricketers' Association (ACA) has demanded CA's long-serving chief executive James Sutherland step up to the dealing table and help end a standoff that could ultimately trigger a damaging round of player boycotts.
The existing pay deal, known as the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), will expire at midnight on Friday, two days before players selected for an Australia A tour of South Africa are to report for a training camp in Brisbane.
CA has remained silent on Sutherland's intentions but high performance boss Pat Howard has made the board's position clear.
Howard warned players in an email on Wednesday not to sign with other sponsors or play in "disapproved" cricket in case it put them "at risk" of a potential, future CA contract.
The sticking point remains the argument over a revenue share scheme which has underpinned contracts for 20 years.
The model has helped make Australia's cricketers among the best paid in the world but CA says it no longer fits commercial realities and is robbing the grass-roots of vital funding.
"Things have changed. Cricket has changed significantly," the board's former chief executive Malcolm Speed told local media this week.
Speed was in charge of the governing body, then named the Australian Cricket Board, when it reluctantly struck the original revenue-sharing model with players in 1997.
"It doesn't make sense for the cricketers to say, 'We like this model, we want to stick with it come hell or high water'."
CA made a revised offer to players last week, its first concession in six months.
Its pledge to share "international surpluses" with all domestic players fell short of the union's demand for a share of overall revenues, however, and was quickly rejected.
Prominent players, including captain Steve Smith, have been vocal in backing the ACA's hardline stance, but their resolve will not truly be tested until they wake up on Saturday morning with no deal on the table.
The ACA's integrity is also threatened by the diversity of its membership, which involves differing priorities for men, women and international players versus domestic cricketers.
While about 230 players may be uncontracted by Saturday, some 70 will still be tethered to state contracts, News Ltd media reported, and will be still expected to train and play regardless of whether a new MoU is struck.
A number of state-contracted players were selected for the Australia A tour, opening up a potential rift between players who stand to gain nothing from touring South Africa and those who would still be paid and motivated to press their claims for selection at international level.
The ACA is expected to hold a meeting on Sunday to discuss the road ahead, including whether players would go ahead with the Australia A tour.
From there, the stakes get progressively higher, with a two-test series in Bangladesh starting in August, a one-day international series in India in October and the five-test Ashes series at home to England kicking off in November.
The last two competitions are vital sources of revenue for CA, and the dispute will be dimly viewed by local rights holder Channel Nine which is set to market the Ashes to advertising clients next week, according to Fairfax media.
Australia's top players may be able to weather a lockout indefinitely and carve out lucrative careers as free agents on the global Twenty20 circuit.
But there is far less security for the lower tier of domestic players, some of whom could be tempted to break ranks if offered a chance to secure a baggy, green cap, even with its prestige dimmed by the absence of the most deserving cricketers.
A more likely outcome may be that players and the board strike agreements on a series-by-series basis until an overarching MoU can be settled.
That could take time in the current climate of distrust.
"During the process a whole heap of trust has been lost, it's pretty hard to recover that," former players' boss Tim May, an architect of the ACA and the original revenue-sharing model in 1997, told Reuters.
Editing by Amlan Chakraborty