On this Day: Gilbert floors Bradman

Indigenous quick puts Don on his backside

On November 6, 1931, Donald Bradman was dismissed for a duck in a Sheffield Shield match against Queensland. That the great batsman failed to score a run made it a rare event in itself. But the manner of his dismissal, and the story of the man who claimed his wicket, makes this day a significant one for Indigenous Australia.

On the opening day of Australia's summer of cricket 83 years ago, Donald Bradman arrived at the Brisbane Cricket Ground a national hero.

Less than three years after making his Test debut in the same city, Bradman had been elevated to God-like status following his record-breaking performances on the 1930 Ashes tour, which had provided a timely boost for a nation that had been crippled by the Great Depression.

He posted four Test centuries on that tour, including two double hundreds and a world record score of 334, and followed it up with another double century against West Indies in the summer of 1930-31.

But The Don was brought back down to earth - both literally and figuratively - by a fearsome spell of bowling from a man who, like many Indigenous Australians at the time, had been removed from his family and forced to live in an Aboriginal settlement.

In what Bradman would later describe as the fastest bowling he ever faced, Queensland's Indigenous quick Eddie Gilbert first shook up and then dismissed The Don in a frightening opening over in the first Sheffield Shield match of the summer.

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Gilbert in full flight // Supplied

As recalled by Mike Colman and Ken Edwards in their 2002 biography of Gilbert, the fiery right-armer had NSW opener Wendell Bill caught behind with his first ball, which led to wild applause from the crowd as their hero Bradman walked to the crease.

Gilbert's second ball was confidently defended by The Don but his third, a short lifting delivery, clipped the peak of Bradman's cap as the great man lost his balance and fell backwards onto the turf.

The fourth ball, another fast short one, flew over Bradman's head through to the keeper before the fifth ball knocked The Don's bat out of his hands as he attempted to play a hook shot. 

Having barely survived the onslaught, Bradman attempted another hook from Gilbert's sixth delivery, but only succeeded in edging behind to the wicketkeeper to be dismissed for a duck. 

NSW skipper Alan Kippax managed to survive the final two deliveries of Gilbert's eight-ball over, meaning the Queensland quick had started with a double-wicket maiden to leave NSW 2-0.

At the end of Bradman's decorated career, which included the infamous Bodyline series, he would say that Gilbert's deliveries were "faster than anything seen from (England fast bowler) Harold Larwood or anyone else".

Respected ABC radio broadcaster Alan McGilvray agreed, saying he had "absolutely no doubt" that Gilbert was "the fastest bowler I ever saw".

But while The Don's star would continue to rise after that match - he averaged an astonishing 201.50 in the Test series against South Africa later that summer - Gilbert would court controversy before he eventually faded into anonymity.

He was dogged by allegations of chucking throughout his career and restricted by the racist Aborigines Protection Act, which required him to have written permission to travel from his Aboriginal settlement each time he played for Queensland.

The opportunities offered to Indigenous cricketers today, through Cricket Australia's partnership with the Clontarf Foundation and its national Indigenous competition, the Imparja Cup, are a far cry from those available in Gilbert's day.

So despite finishing his career with 87 first-class wickets from 23 matches at an impressive strike-rate of 56.50, Gilbert never represented his country.

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Gilbert with his Queensland teammates. // Supplied

With powerful shoulders and wrists that were reportedly developed by years of boomerang throwing, Gilbert possessed a slinging action that enabled him to generate great pace off a very short run.

It was this unique action that would lead to several allegations of chucking, including one match when he was no-balled 13 times in three overs.

On allegations that Gilbert had a suspect action, McGilvray said: "it was hard to tell whether he actually chucked or not, because he let the ball go with such a fling of his right arm you got precious little sight of it."

Despite the allegations, Gilbert was never suspended for an illegal action.

His career ended in 1936 and, sadly, he spent the final years of his life at the Wolston Park mental hospital in Brisbane battling alcohol addiction and dementia.

He died on 9 January, 1978.

While Gilbert's achievements didn't receive the recognition they deserved during his career, efforts have since been made to acknowledge one of Australia's first great Indigenous athletes.

The Eddie Gilbert Perpetual Trophy is contested annually by teams representing the Wolston Park Centenary Cricket Club and Queensland Police, whose academy is now based on the site of the former hospital where Gilbert died. 

In 2008, a statue of Gilbert was unveiled at Brisbane's Allan Border Field, which adjoins the Bupa NCC, the hub of Australian cricket.

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Gilbert was honoured at Allan Border Field in 2008. // Getty Images

And in September this year, Queensland opposition leader Annastacia Palaszczuk confirmed her support for a proposal that would see the cricket ground near the former Wolston Park hospital renamed the Eddie Gilbert Memorial Field.

One of the most significant moments came in 2007 when Gilbert's unmarked grave at Cherbourg Cemetery, near the Aboriginal Reserve where he was forced to spend his early years, received an update more fitting of a man of his achievements.

Upon removing an Aboriginal flag that revealed an impressive gravestone featuring Gilbert's bowling record, his son Eddie Barney noted the significance of the gesture, even though it had come almost three decades after his father's passing.

Barney had himself been given the honour of representing his country - unlike his father - having competed in boxing at the 1962 Empire Games in Perth.

"It means recognition," Barney told News Ltd at the time.

"For what he did, for Cherbourg settlement and for Queensland.

"For me it means an awful lot. It's taken 30 years but it's a milestone. I get emotional just talking about it. It's a great day for me but it's an even greater day for my dad."

Eddie Gilbert: the true story of an Aboriginal cricketing legend by Mike Colman and Ken Edwards was published in 2002 by ABC Books