The Aboriginal Innings
By Paul ConnollyDecember 14, 2012
So few indigenous Australians have played cricket at the elite level, and Cricket Australia isn’t sure what to do about it.
JOSH LALOR WAS AWARE of his Aboriginal heritage as a child, but he didn’t have a strong sense of being connected to it. He knew that his father’s side of the family hailed from the Kamilaroi people of northern New South Wales, but growing up in St Clair, amid the endless red-roofed plains of western Sydney, there was no swirl of ancestral stories informing his life, no mob of cousins enriching it. “Growing up in the city I felt a generation away from all that,” he says.
But in 2007, Lalor, then a promising 19-year-old cricketer, was invited to play for a NSW team in the Imparja Cup, a national limited-overs cricket tournament for indigenous teams, held annually in Alice Springs. It was, he recalls, an eye-opener into the richness of Aboriginal culture and “the spectrum of Aboriginality” itself.
“I met guys as dark as night from the middle of nowhere,” he recalls, “then others who’ve grown up in the eastern suburbs of Sydney with red hair and blue eyes… It was an emotional experience but also an educational one. I was starting to find a cultural attachment but at the same time I was having to learn so much.”
Five years on, Lalor, a left-arm quick, is not only the captain of Australia’s national indigenous side — in October, he led the team on a tour of India — but he’s also played Sheffield Shield cricket for NSW and the highest forms of one-day and Twenty20 cricket within Australia. This is admirable enough in itself but statistically speaking, given Lalor’s indigenous heritage, it’s bordering on extraordinary. And it’s why Lalor carries a little more weight on his shoulders than most.
AS ANY CRICKET FAN KNOWS, statisticals are hardcoded into the sport. Here are a few. Since Test cricket began in 1877 — nine years after a team of grazier-taught Aboriginal Australians travelled to England to become the nation’s first overseas cricketing tourists — only one known Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander male has played Test cricket. That was the popular fast bowler Jason “Dizzy’’ Gillespie, who retired in 2008 having played 71 Tests, taken 259 wickets, scored a double century and re-introduced the hairstyle known as the mullet to world cricket. That’s one indigenous man out of 429 to have worn the famed baggy green cap — a ratio of just 0.23 in 100.
Similarly, only one Aboriginal woman — Faith Thomas (née Coulthard) — has played for Australia since women’s Test cricket began in 1934. In 1958 the nurse and midwife, who was born at the Nepabunna Mission in South Australia, played a single Test match at the St Kilda Cricket Club Ground.
In men’s first-class domestic cricket, a tier down from international level, only a handful of Aboriginal players have featured since competition began in 1892. These include Murrumgunarriman (aka Twopenny) and Unaarrimin (aka Johnny Mullagh), who were on that 1868 tour of England; fast bowler and one-time Australian record-holding sprinter Jack Marsh, who debuted in 1900; and the slight but whip-quick bowler Eddie Gilbert — who, under Queensland’s Aboriginal Protection Act of 1897, had to get permission from white bureaucrats to travel to matches. Both Gilbert and Marsh were heavily discriminated against and were made to endure persistent innuendo about the legitimacy of their bowling action. But Gilbert played 19 Shield matches for Queensland in the 1930s and once, famously, dismissed NSW’s Don Bradman for a duck. Bradman, who knew a thing or two about the game, described Gilbert’s deliveries as “unhesitatingly faster than anything seen from [Harold] Larwood or anyone else”.
Among the six state teams, in which there are about 140 contracted players, only two indigenous Australians have played first-class cricket in recent times: Dan Christian for South Australia and Lalor for NSW. (The same two, plus D’Arcy Short for Western Australia, are the only three indigenous men to have played at the highest level of domestic one-day cricket in the past year.)
Of these three, Christian, an all-rounder, seems closest to joining Jason Gillespie in Test cricket’s annals. Christian, whose paternal roots are in the Wiradjuri tribe of central NSW, has represented Australia in 50-over and Twenty20 cricket, and was part of the Australian squad — without actually debuting —for two Test matches late in 2011.
When you consider that the 2011 Australian Bureau of Statistics census estimated the resident Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population was 548,370 people, or 2.5 per cent of the Australian population, the ongoing dearth of Aboriginal players at the top levels of cricket is startling, especially when measured against the enormous contribution of Aboriginal athletes in other sports, such as boxing and athletics and, in recent decades, their over-representation in the Australian Football League (about 10 per cent of total players this year) and the National Rugby League (estimated 9 to 13 per cent).
Before attempting to explore why so few indigenous men and women have played elite cricket, and why cricket continues to miss out on a significant talent pool, it’s worth pointing out that the numbers appear to be, relatively speaking, better in club cricket, the foundation upon which the game is built in Australia. In 2005-6, for instance, a survey of Australian cricket clubs calculated that indigenous players made up 1.35 per cent of junior players and 1.94 per cent of senior players.
Whether there has been any change to these figures in the intervening years is impossible to say, because Cricket Australia, the governing body for the game in this country, has no accurate data. The Global Mail was told, anecdotally, that there is a good proportion of indigenous players playing club cricket today, particularly in urban areas. That said, there is no evidence that this proportion has risen to 2.5 per cent of all participants, let alone the 4.5 per cent (or 25,000 out of a projected 550,000) that Cricket Australia targeted (for 2009) in 2006. Tellingly, Cricket Australia’s 2011 census made no mention of indigenous numbers.
Cricket Australia’s national market development manager since August, John Watkin, explains that privacy laws make it optional for anyone registering to play cricket to identify themselves as indigenous or as any other minority group, leaving the sport without a sound recording tool. “So I couldn’t give you a figure. I’d love to. That’s data we want to know ourselves,” he says.
Certainly the identification of indigenous players is a significant issue that might be skewing the figures downwards at both club and elite level. It’s possible — almost certain, some say — that some past and present cricketers, including Test cricketers, are Aboriginal but do not identify as such or have chosen not to reveal it. It was only late in Gillespie’s career that his Aboriginality became common knowledge.
Issues of identification aside, Watkin stresses that Cricket Australia, through its state and territory bodies, has been striving, for the past 5 to 10 years in particular, to engage indigenous Australians, immigrant groups, and other diverse communities, with the ultimate aim of getting them into club cricket. He won’t reveal what sort of budget CA has allocated for this, but he says the association is increasingly focused on its many grassroots cricketing programs operating through schools, communities and cricket clubs in urban, rural and remote settings, such as in the Tiwi Islands. “We want to reinforce the importance of cricket [as a sport] for all Australians,” he says.
The Imparja Cup, which now hosts about 500 players, including women, is something Watkin says is heartening for Cricket Australia. He’s also encouraged by the Cup organisers’ focus on fostering high performance: promising players are identified and receive on-going coaching and support, as well as the opportunity to represent their country as part of the national indigenous team. A core of very promising youth team players has come through this system including Victoria’s Ben Abbatangelo, Aaron Muir from NSW, Marcus McGregor-Cassidy from South Australia, and Dylan Fuller from the Northern Territory. For all this, however, Watkin concedes Cricket Australia has “got to do a lot more’’.
This raises the question: do what exactly? What does Cricket Australia need to do, that it’s not already doing, to attract indigenous Australians to the game? “We don’t have the answer to that,” admits Watkin. “Recently I met with [lawyer, academic and indigenous advocate] Mick Dodson and Dr Bill Fogarty [from the Australian National University’s National Centre for Indigenous Studies] and it’s one of the things our discussion covered: How do we become more effective with it?
“We’ve thrown a lot of resources at it and we feel like we’re making some gains, but in increasing indigenous presence in clubs we’re struggling,’’ he says. “And so we really want to find out why. That’s one of the things we’re investigating now.”
There are many theories as to why Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders haven’t engaged with cricket in the way they have with other sports. Colin Tatz, visiting fellow in politics and international relations at ANU, says chief among them, from an historical perspective, is that cricket was traditionally seen as the “colonial game, the white fella’s game … not only out of the financial realm [of Aborigines] but outside of their social class’’.
There was a time, however, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Aborigines played a lot of competitive but informal ‘carnival-style’ cricket played over a single day. Such cricket thrived at the New Norcia settlement in Western Australia (founded by the Spanish Benedictines), Coranderrk mission and Edenhope in Victoria, at Deebing Creek mission in Queensland and Poonindie mission in South Australia. “But the introduction of very restrictive Aboriginal statutes — 1897 in Qld, 1905 in Western Australia, 1909 in New South Wales, and 1911 in South Australia and the Northern Territory — made it impossible for Aboriginals to travel to matches,” says Tatz, who has written extensively on racism and on Aborigines in sport. “Politico-legal restraints ended a great interest and talent in the game, and left a legacy of disinterest and colonial memories... [and from that point] cricket became outside their domain of access. Cricket invariably [became] a club game and clubs presented a barrier to an 'open' membership.”
Melbourne University academic Paul Stewart, the chairman of the Victorian Indigenous Cricket Advisory Committee, thinks that the idea that cricket is a ‘white man’s game’ hasn’t completely gone away. “[It’s still sometimes seen as] a white, middle-class activity that’s not open to embracing indigenous cricketers within the club culture,” says Stewart, a descendant of the Taungurong tribe from central Victoria. “From my experience, boys I know tend to drop off the radar because of that. Racism has played a part in some instances.”
Former captain of the Western Australian Imparja Cup team, Matt Abrahamson, whose maternal grandmother was from Yamatji country around Mt Magnet, says he grew up in Perth consistently being the only Aboriginal player in his teams. Though he says he was never the victim of racism, he feels club cricket can be “marginalising to anyone different, whether Aboriginal or any other minority group.
“You do get thoughts going through your mind about being different from everyone else, wondering what others are thinking,” says Abrahamson, 30. “But you don’t know if they are your own perceptions or reality.” Either way, he says, if a person isn’t feeling part of something bigger, socially speaking, it becomes hard for them to continue. “Unless you have a friend or family member going the distance with you, then I think you’re more likely to drop off that bandwagon. It’s easier to drop off than stick with it.”
Associated with ideas of ownership and class are the cost of participation in cricket and other practical impediments. As Abrahamson, Stewart and Watkin all point out, with just a ball and a few mates you can play any code of football on a salt pan or a bed of red sand and with modest numbers recreate the real thing. Cricket needs a more consistent playing surface and, ideally, more participants. And as easy as it might seem to get a bat, a tennis ball and a garbage bin and have a slog with your mates it’s a huge leap between that and club cricket — in any cricketing country, not just Australia — with its turf pitches, leather balls, correct technique and etiquette, enormous demands on players’ time, and significant monetary requirements.
A football player needs little more than a pair of boots, shorts and socks. A club cricketer needs to pay “subs’’ (subscriptions, or memberships, which can be in the order of $200 to $300 annually) and buy expensive equipment such as bats, pads, gloves and whites (some $800 in total). Bats alone — and few players rely on just one — cost in the hundreds of dollars. Although state and national cricket bodies don’t have specific financial assistance programs, says Stewart, a few scholarships are available through charitable organisations like The Lord’s Taverners. Nevertheless, the cost of playing club cricket can put the game out of reach for a large proportion of the Aboriginal community. “That’s a barrier I believe,” Abrahamson says. “At the club I played at you had to supply your own equipment. And there’s nothing more embarrassing for our boys to have to ask to borrow someone’s bat.”
Talking about the barrier such costs impose, Tatz recalls former indigenous pastor and professional athlete, the late Sir Doug Nicholls, once telling him, “no flannels, no equipment, we couldn’t afford [to play cricket]”.
“So, when Aboriginals in the 19th century began to use sport as a way out of the control of government and mission authorities, they tended to run professionally or went into boxing,” Tatz says.
Nowadays, indigenous people turn to Aussie rules and rugby league, both of which have invested millions in Aboriginal participation in the respective games over the past 15 to 20 years. In the AFL, change was prompted back in the early ’90s when clubs, such as Kevin Sheedy’s Essendon, began recruiting in the Northern Territory and other non-traditional areas. The AFL’s Patrick Keane says the league was also prompted to address racial and religious vilification in the game at the time, and to think about better handling cultural differences and support mechanisms for indigenous players. “And that’s ongoing,” he says. “We’ve by no means solved all the problems.”
But great change has occurred, and in 2012 there were 78 listed Aborigines playing in the AFL — with five featuring in the grand final. The AFL’s annual “Dreamtime at the G’’ match between Essendon and Richmond, intended to celebrate indigenous achievements in football, has become a crowd puller. And in April, construction will begin on a $15 million Darwin-based AFL academy, which is intended to teach football, educational and life skills to indigenous children from remote areas.
In the NRL, indigenous Australians are prominent in club and representative sides, and rugby league’s season-opening Indigenous All Stars versus NRL All Stars has become a significant event on the calendar. The NRL also promotes a “Close the Gap’’ round which promotes Aboriginal health.
Josh Lalor, who says he “fell into cricket” when his father took him across the road when the local club was holding tryouts, recalls talking to a cricket official who told him the AFL spent about 40 times the amount on indigenous development than cricket did. “[The AFL] see it as a real talent pool, where cricket is still so early in the game-development stage. Cricket needs to increase numbers before they can see how talent can be brought through [to club and elite levels]. So the AFL is further along the line. That creates role models for young Indigenous kids to look up to, especially away from the city. [When] an AFL player shows up to a small town, that has a big impression on a young fella.”
Everyone TheGlobal Mail spoke to — including Cricket Australia’s John Watkin — acknowledged that the AFL and league have the jump on cricket. (As if illustrating the point, Cricket Australia’s former indigenous cricket officer, Kelly Applebee, a cricketer herself, now works for AFL Player’s Association as an indigenous officer.) “They have, they have,” Watkin says, before adding that when no major incidents occur to spark awareness sporting organisations can feel they are “ticking along okay”. He gives the example of the famous Nicky Winmar incident in AFL when, in 1993, in response to racial abuse from some Collingwood supporters, the St Kilda player lifted his guernsey and pointed to the colour of his skin: “If we’d had an indigenous fast bowler who was standing at fine leg and Bay 13 at the MCG started racially vilifying him, maybe that might have made us pull out fingers out a bit earlier. That [incident] no doubt [created a cultural shift in AFL]. But I’m not trying to make excuses.”
Any discussion exploring the lack of indigenous players in elite cricket might also look at one of the primary reasons Aborigines play sport, says Colin Tatz. He says the famous rugby-playing Ella brothers — La Perouse siblings Mark, Gary and Glen, who all represented the Wallabies — always insisted they played rugby for fun, “and when the fun evaporated they wanted to stop playing. Grinding out victories in a kind of trench warfare had no appeal to them.” Mark, the most decorated of the brothers, retired at the grand old age of 25.
Tatz says a culture of thinking persists in Australian sport that Aborigines have a genetic predisposition to certain athletic qualities. “So many Australian commentators ascribe, in a sense, a genetic characteristic to Aboriginal sportspeople. They’ve either got eyes in the back of their heads, or they’ve got peripheral vision, or they’ve got a different musculature. All of which is total bullshit. There is not a scintilla of evidence to show there’s anything genetic or genetically advantageous involved; it’s all about playing styles,” he says.
“Generally, Aboriginal parents allow children to learn by experience. Aboriginal sportspeople are taught at a much earlier age than any white kid, how to evade trouble, how to avoid trouble, and what is troublesome… they learn early to read the terrain and the environment, the streets, the countryside, the bush, and to have a sense of antenna to tell you what’s dangerous, what’s passable. They have a much wider horizon when looking at a situation. [They are also taught] about conserving energy for when it’s really needed.”
And here Tatz points to indigenous fast bowlers like Jack Marsh, Alec Henry, and Eddie Gilbert, who all generated fearsome pace off a spin-bowler’s mark. So too Faith Thomas, who once told him in an interview, "I was a fast bowler but you see, being a black fella, I conserved energy, didn't I ... and I'd take about four steps and I'd take it off my shoulder.”
Josh Lalor acknowledges that cricket may not appeal to indigenous Australians in the same way the football codes might. “Aboriginal culture is all about painting, story telling, communicating and expressing yourself. In AFL, league, there is more dynamism, you can run like the wind… cricket is comparatively restrictive. The attraction [of cricket, however] is the application, the patience, the concentration, the ability to execute skill time after time under pressure.”
Cricket Australia’s Watkin, who has been to numerous Imparja Cups and coached the Victorian Indigenous Team, says he can see a particular appeal to Aussie Rules (“You can express yourself in footy in so many different ways,” he says), while Paul Stewart recalls his own playing days where he and other Aboriginal players wanted to bowl as fast and hit it as hard as they could. “To sustain that over a day was not what we would want to do,” he says. “If you think football, we’ll take the game on. The way we do it, whether as a small forward, or a big man, we still take the game on, there’s an explosive nature. I do subscribe to that theory and that’s why I’m really excited about Twenty20. It’s a game that I believe will appeal to the Aboriginal community.”
Particularly popular with the younger generations, Twenty20 cricket is a relatively new abbreviated form of the game where each team bats once for a maximum of 20 overs each. There is little time for the steady construction of an innings. To the horror of traditionalists, it’s rock ‘n’ roll cricket set to flashing lights and booming music and it’s tactically simple: hit boundaries or, better still, clear them. Game time? Three hours tops.
Darwin-based Aaron Briscoe, co-chair of the National Indigenous Cricket Advisory Committee and manager of Australia’s indigenous cricket team, is optimistic about indigenous cricket. And he believes Twenty20 has the potential to increase regional and remote area participation. “And with that participation you get more chance of identifying individuals who are good at the game and worth investing in and guiding them down the track to longer forms of the game.”
Whether Twenty20 is the vehicle that changes things or not, Josh Lalor for one feels confident that Aboriginal athletes will one day become more prominent in cricket at all levels. Cricket, he says, is Australia’s favourite game. “It might just take one big role model to turn a generation of kids.”
Does it daunt him that that role model might be him? “I don’t think it will be me,” he says. “I’d like it to be me. But I don’t think I have the skill level yet. But if some Aboriginal kid came out one day with the pace of Brett Lee? Well that might just do it.”
What cricket would give for an Eddie Gilbert today.