IN DEPTH

It's time to redress a cricket imbalance in Australia

When Faith Thomas walked out to bat against England in 1958, in what would be her only Test match, she became the first Indigenous Australian to represent her country in any sport.

She was the first Aboriginal Test cricket player.

No one would have guessed, perhaps, that it would be another four decades before another would join her - Jason Gillespie in 1996. Ash Gardner entered the fold in 2019.

That's just three First Nations Australians playing at the sport's highest level in its nearly 150-year history. Compared to other Australian institutions, such as the AFL and NRL - which both have long and proud histories celebrating Indigenous sporting achievement - cricket's tally is meagre. So where are all the Indigenous cricketers?

Despite her short time on the cricket pitch, Faith Thomas achieved great things and is still being recognised to this day as a South Australian cricket great. Photo: Kara Johnson

Despite her short time on the cricket pitch, Faith Thomas achieved great things and is still being recognised to this day as a South Australian cricket great. Photo: Kara Johnson

It's that question which led the Australian National University's Dr Bill Fogarty - along with colleagues Mick Dodson and Corinne Walsh - to produce a report called For the Love of the Game. Compiled from hundreds of interviews in every state and territory from local community players and kids right up to the Cricket Australia Chief Executive at the time, James Sutherland, it sought to answer that and figure out how to fix it.

"Anecdotally you kind of hear that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aren't interested in cricket. And that's just not true at all," he tells me in his office in Canberra.

Bill tells me about the time he and Mick Dodson - in the course of their research - organised a meeting in Cairns to talk Indigenous cricket. They expected a handful of people but about 70 rocked up.

"And one of the really surprising elements for me was how many of them weren't actually playing, but that they wanted to play or that they had wanted to play or their kids want to play."

He tells me that Indigenous Australians have a relationship with cricket that stretches almost as far back as the First Fleet, but that along the way practices of exclusion and racism soon pushed them out of the sport.

Eddie Gilbert bowling to Sir Donald Bradman during a New South Wales versus Queensland cricket match, 1931. (Credit: Unidentified. Copied and digitised from an image appearing in The Queenslander, 12 November 1931)

Eddie Gilbert bowling to Sir Donald Bradman during a New South Wales versus Queensland cricket match, 1931. (Credit: Unidentified. Copied and digitised from an image appearing in The Queenslander, 12 November 1931)

Bill found there was solid Indigenous engagement in the sport right up until the early part of the 20th century. By the 1860s, cricket was widespread enough in First Nations communities that a team from the Western Districts of Victoria was able to tour England - the first sporting team of any kind to depart Australia for a foreign tour.

But Bill says officious Protectionism policies in the early 20th century, particularly those limiting travel, were a huge barrier. Bill thinks this is part of the reason levels of engagement in footy and cricket started to diverge - footy was played within communities, so people didn't need to travel. Cricket is played between communities, requiring a lot more movement.

Courtney Hagen is the Indigenous Engagement Specialist at Cricket Australia. (Photo: Cricket Australia)

Courtney Hagen is the Indigenous Engagement Specialist at Cricket Australia. (Photo: Cricket Australia)

CA has been quick to take on board many of the recommendations - notably, focusing on youth and grass roots outreach programs. Courtney Hagen is the Indigenous Engagement Specialist at Cricket Australia. She's a Butchulla and Gubbi Gubbi woman from south eastern Queensland, and says CA's mission is to become a sport for all.

"That means not just inclusion, but celebrating and championing for the sport. Because this game is traditionally one of the most colonial sports in the world. So we're trying to undo some of that stereotype with First Nations people also telling the story of our deep, rich, cultural contribution to the game, which I don't think we've told enough historically and therefore has created a lack of representation at a higher end."

Courtney says racism has long been a problem in Australian cricket. Fast bowler Eddie Gilbert famously bounced Donald Bradman out for a duck in a NSW v Queensland match in 1931. But as an Aboriginal man, he was not allowed to stay with his team mates, he slept in a tent on the practice pitch. He needed written permission from his "protector" - a Queensland government bureaucrat - to travel. He was ridiculed and bullied and never got to don the baggy green.

Counrtney believes that as our national sport cricket should lead by example when it comes to inclusion and celebration of First Nations people.

"You think of Australians and you think of bronze, tan, surfers playing beach cricket. So for us we have that extra responsibility to be advocates and [be] respectful to our first nations culture."

Dan Christian is from Narrandera in the Riverina region of New South Wales, a few hundred kilometres west of Canberra. When he walked out to face the West Indies in his Australian jersey in a T20 in 2010, he was just the sixth indigenous men's player to do so in any format. He's optimistic that any racist culture in cricket is changing.

Dan Christian bats against Derby during the 2018 Indigenous Men's Tour of England. (Photo by Darrian Traynor - CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

Dan Christian bats against Derby during the 2018 Indigenous Men's Tour of England. (Photo by Darrian Traynor - CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

"It's more casual racism that seems to exist in Australian cricket. Thankfully, that's all being spoken about more often - people just know it's not acceptable."

But, Dan says there's more that can be done, and that other sports are leading the way while cricket lags behind.

"It could be something as simple as just having an Indigenous BBL round. I've been trying to get Cricket Australia to do that for a long time now."

He argues that part of the reason the highly talented First Nations kids wind up in the AFL or the NRL is due to a lack of role models in cricket.

Role models are part of the solution - and Dan has been one for a long time now - but paradoxically young players need to be motivated to become those role models. A key recommendation in the For the Love of the Game report was to have specific, targeted programs for Indigenous kids. And you've got to make them free or cheap, because cricket's initial cost presents yet another barrier.

Samad Shaikh works for Cricket NSW. Late last year he ran a program targeted at Indigenous kids in the Sydney suburb of La Perouse. He says this is Rugby League heartland, and he's keen to introduce cricket. "One of our goals is to try and make cricket as available as possible to every little boy and girl. There's a strong Indigenous community in this area."

This seems like the most fertile ground for redressing some of the imbalances at the top level of the game, and these sorts of programs are clearly working. In 2013 there were just 8500 first nations kids playing cricket. In 2019, that number was nearly 70,000. A key change has been investment from the top.

I got a chance to chat with some of the parents in La Perouse as they were waiting to pick their kids up. One thing that kept coming up was that they didn't know how they'd keep their kids in cricket. Were there any programs in the area? Would this one even run again?

One parent said to me it wouldn't have mattered what sport was happening at this oval on a Wednesday afternoon in early summer they'd have been here. For cricket to become a "sport for all", what it needs to do most is be on ovals like this around the country.

Racist policy put the barriers in place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders pursuing professional cricket. Indigenous exclusion in cricket comes down to a historical lack of action from governing bodies. But it means these bodies have the power to redress the imbalance. While more needs to be done over a long period, it seems they've made that commitment, and it's working.

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