Green and bold: Indigenous teens begin new legacy
Thunder pair Hannah Darlington and Anika Learoyd have each learned details of their ancestry in recent years that have put them - and their families - on new paths
Before this summer's Rebel WBBL tournament began, away from the buzz and the glare of the cameras, the Sydney Thunder squad came together on the southern edge of the Parramatta River.
Their captain, Rachael Haynes, wanted to acknowledge the custodians of this patch of land in Sydney's west, on which WBBL|06 was about to take place. She knew about this spot, the Murama healing space, which paid tribute to the local Wangal clan.
Haynes had another thought, too.
"She came to us at training with the idea to have our shirt presentation there," says Hannah Darlington who, together with close friend Anika Learoyd, is one of two 18-year-old Indigenous women on the Thunder roster.
"She wanted Ani and I to be involved. I was lucky enough to do the Acknowledgement to Country, then Rach spoke on behalf of the Australian cricket team about how they're trying to create unity, and then myself and Anika were able to share our stories.
"That's the first time I've sat with a non-Indigenous team and really expressed my story as an Indigenous person, and it got really emotional."
For both young women, it was a powerful experience. Learoyd is not prone to expressing her emotions so publicly, and normally she loathes the prospect of speaking to an audience. But she too found herself swept up in the moment.
"It was very special to be able to share that with the group," she says. "This was something that meant a lot to Hannah and I, and the way it was received by the girls was really amazing."
The pair had only found out they were Indigenous in their early teens, and in each other they had found willing confidantes as they cautiously navigated the liminal path between their respective family outlooks and their own innate curiosities.
When they reflect now, they use words like 'taboo' and 'stigma' to help explain why the ghosts of their family history were hidden, why the very existence of their ancestors went unmentioned.
Anika Learoyd never went to school. She and her younger sister Nicki were home-schooled by their mum, Cheryl, on their 22-acre property in Corindi Beach, about a half hour north of Coffs Harbour on the Far North Coast of New South Wales.
The two girls used to pack their day's work into around two-and-a-half hours which left Anika plenty of time to explore the paddocks that surrounded the Learoyd house. Over time, what had been a dairy farm morphed into something else altogether as the family planted three thousand native trees.
"We've got a couple of dams as well, so it turned into a little wildlife sanctuary," Anika tells cricket.com.au. "There's a bit of a wetland out the back, and there are animals absolutely everywhere.
"I used to spend as much time as I could out there."
It is easy to see now how the nature of Learoyd's childhood informed the two career paths she has since embarked upon.
One of those is in wildlife conservation or ecology, where the idea of working with threatened species appeals. A self-described nerd when it comes to mammals and birds, Learoyd knows her sea eagles from her ospreys and on bushwalks with Darlington (who, as it happens, is "petrified" of birds) she likes to call out the various species they happen upon.
A couple of years ago, she discovered the presence of some superb blue wrens on the Learoyd property, and when she thinks of home now, she can hear the petite little birds twittering away in the foliage just outside the house.
It is a scene a long way from Sydney, where along with remotely working on a Bachelor of Wildlife Studies, she has relocated to pursue her more immediate life goal, which is to become a professional cricketer.
Still a teen, Learoyd has shown prodigious talent as a batter since she was a kid. She also excelled at soccer but when the time came to choose, she opted for Australia's summer sport. A good chunk of the three years that followed were spent in the family car, with her dad, John, for company, as the two departed mid-morning every Friday and returned home around midnight Sunday, completing a 1,200km round trip to Newcastle and Sydney, where Anika spent her Saturdays and Sundays playing grade cricket.
It was a remarkable father-daughter undertaking, and one that would not have fit with the requirements of a traditional education.
"In that way," she points out, "home schooling has kind of facilitated my career."
It was in August that Learoyd signed with the Thunder to officially become a professional cricketer. At the time of writing, she was still to face a ball, after the first two matches she was listed to play in were washed out.
Big congratulations to our five debutants today! 💚 #ThunderNation pic.twitter.com/cVV4Gfvaui— Sydney Thunder (@ThunderBBL) October 25, 2020
In the meantime she is continuing to push herself, driven by a creed she once read that she has adopted as her own: Work until your idols become your rivals.
Across the road from the Penrith home that Hannah Darlington grew up in, there is a park that she divides into two distinct sections.
"One side was filled with trees," she tells cricket.com.au. "Dad would kick bombs with the football and I'd have to try and catch them through the trees.
"And the other half was where we'd play cricket with a whole heap of neighbours because there was a path that went through the middle that we used as a pitch.
"I probably spent more time in that park than I did in our house."
A sporting education from her father Charlie and mum Jodi was embraced by Hannah and her little brother Liam. Jodi had been a swimmer and a netballer, both of which were sports Hannah adopted, while Charlie was an old fast bowler who, according to Hannah, derived a little too much pleasure from sending them down at his kids. His daughter happily took Dad on while Liam jumped behind the stumps and quickly developed into a fine young gloveman.
When she was in Year Five, Hannah remembers accidentally throwing a tennis ball straight into the back of a school teacher's head. Fortunately, he also happened to be coach of the school cricket side.
"He said I had a good arm on me, and that I needed to join the team," she grins. "It kicked off from there."
By the time she was 12, Darlington was on the underage representative pathway. In her first year, she was the bits-and-pieces baby of an Under 15s side, but after showing a natural aptitude for leadership, she ascended to the captaincy in her second year.
"It happened really quickly, but I never thought anything of it really," she says. "I was just happy to be out there playing for NSW Metro – I got to travel the country with some of my best mates who I'm still close with now.
"So it was nice to be recognised early, but I guess I had to grow into my potential."
In 2019, Darlington was devastated to miss out on a NSW Breakers contract by a single spot. It was a bittersweet feeling watching some of her closest friends take that step to professionalism while knowing she had been overlooked. But reflecting on it now, she believes it has also proven the making of her. After earning a surprise contract with the Thunder for WBBL|05, her canny right-arm medium-pacers proved a revelation, and she finished as the team's leading wicket-taker with 16 while conceding 6.82 runs per over.
"It was the best thing that could've happened," Darlington says of the omission from the Breakers' squad. "It made me get a little grit between my teeth because it was the first time I didn't just get something given to me, in terms of the luck I'd had with cricket at a younger age.
"So it showed me what the professional sports world was like, and I'm pretty sure that's the reason I then had the season I did."
Learoyd and Darlington were only discussing recently how they have already known each other five years, and in that time, their cricket careers have run on both similar and disparate paths.
As Darlington was rushed through the pathways and brought into the Thunder system as a 15-year-old, Learoyd was trekking up and down the vast New South Wales coastline with her dad.
Yet their journeys had intertwined when, as 13-year-olds, they were roommates for a night in Sydney ahead of a departure the following day for Alice Springs, where the two girls were set to experience their first taste of the National Indigenous Cricket Championships (then the Imparja Cup).
Both had only recently discovered their Indigenous bloodlines.
For Learoyd, the news arrived during a conversation with her mum and grandma, the latter explaining in vague detail that the lineage began before her own generation and could be traced to Central West New South Wales, near Dubbo.
Unburdened as her grandma had been by the heaviness of a torrid recent history and the prejudices that pervaded Australia through the middle decades of the 20th century, Anika set about researching her family's past with the innocent enthusiasm of youth.
After meeting too many roadblocks (specifically, there were multiple mobs in NSW's Central West and she couldn't locate where her ancestors had fit in), she instead paid a couple of visits to the Yarrawarra Aboriginal Centre – conveniently enough just a couple of minutes down the road from her home in Corindi Beach – which celebrates the heritage and culture of the Gumbaynngir Indigenous people local to the area.
"I've basically identified as Gumbaynngir," Learoyd says. "I feel a real connection to that area. That's where I grew up and that's where I felt like I belonged, so for me it was a pretty obvious choice."
For Darlington, the same line of information came via a throwaway line from her dad, Charlie.
"I had a mate playing in the Imparja Cup up in Alice Springs," she recalls. "I said, 'That'd be pretty cool, it looks a heap of fun'.
"Dad said a sly comment like, 'You could play in that if you wanted'.
"Everyone kind of turned around and was confused, and that started the conversation. We got on the phone to Nan and Pop and sorted out the facts about it."
Two months later Darlington was in a hotel room with Learoyd, the two girls set for a new experience that would dramatically enhance their understandings of their heritage, and begin to shift the perceptions of their families' pasts.
"That was a major stepping stone for me," says Learoyd of the Championships. "It was really cool to come together with all the other Indigenous women in Australia who play cricket and to learn a lot about our culture – it gave me a real respect for it, and insights I'd never had before."
Darlington was joined in Alice Springs that year by her family, who have since made the tournament an annual pilgrimage, attending even when Hannah was unable to make it last year. Reflecting on it now, she is proud of the role she has played in shaping a new direction for her family, and it gives her hope similar change can occur more widely across Australia. Because while her heritage has been not only acknowledged but celebrated at Cricket New South Wales and the Sydney Thunder, she knows that places her on the fortunate side of the ledger.
"I've been quite lucky," she says. "I've grown up in a privileged household and I've never had discrimination or racism against me. But I'm well aware it's happening."
A couple of months ago, Darlington called Learoyd, and suggested they watch the well-publicised ABC documentary on Cathy Freeman. Twenty years on, it offered a comprehensive look at the legendary athlete's gold medal winning run at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, contextualising the achievement in the enormous media interest and public expectation at the time, as well as Freeman's own Indigenous family history and the national politics of the period.
"We kind of just sat there, and I remember looking over at Anika a couple of times and her jaw was just dropped," says Darlington who, like Learoyd, was born in 2002.
"We really didn't have an understanding that there had been so much hype around that one race. To have that much pressure on you, carrying Australia as a nation and the Indigenous people on your back as you run 400 metres, it just showed how incredible it really was."
Learoyd remembers the girls being "speechless" during their viewing, and for some time after as well.
Six years before that race, Freeman had celebrated her Commonwealth Games gold medal by draping herself in the Australian and Aboriginal flags. It was a landmark moment, one that drew political ire from old white men in suits but made her an instant champion of her people, and many others besides.
Her legacy endures. Darlington is already grasping the power sport has to influence and change. She has seen Indigenous kids spring to life when presented with a bat and a ball. She sees friends and families united by the spirit of competition.
"That's Australian culture," she says. "We go out and play sport, and even if you're not a sports fanatic, you can barrack for a team.
"It's those sorts of things that have that influence.
"I've spent time up in (Indigenous) communities and I've seen how much they enjoy it when they get to go out and play sport. If we can get them involved any way we can through the love of sport, it's only going to increase its influence."
Learoyd was initially drawn to the Thunder partly because of their involvement with local Indigenous communities. It is something that continues to appeal to her as she and Darlington look to follow in the footsteps of Australia allrounder Ashleigh Gardner, who in recent years has established herself as an Indigenous ambassador in the sport.
"You can't be what you can't see," reasons Learoyd. "Having someone for young Indigenous kids to look up to is playing a huge role in the sport that they're choosing.
"Ash has definitely played a big role in inspiring not just me but the next generation as well."
Which brings us back to that shirt presentation on the edge of the Parramatta River, where two 18-year-olds began following in the footsteps of Gardner by proudly bringing their Indigenous culture into a mainstream professional sports team.
Even more than that, Darlington and Learoyd personalised the moment by relaying their own stories, of discovery and family and education and hope. For both, it seemed an important step on their path to joining Gardner as role models themselves.
"The story I told was based on the fact that there is that stigma of being a white Indigenous Australian, and the struggle that it took … (for) my family to be fine with it, and (me) taking that front-foot approach in terms of creating conversations within the family that allowed us to learn more about the culture," Darlington says.
"That's a really tricky step when people might not want to learn.
"That's what I tried to explain to the team, and I think Ani went through a very similar path, so we've always chatted about it together.
"I'm really happy to say I'm a part of a proud Indigenous family.
"We're continually learning; I sit down with my aunty every week and we look through the family tree and see what we can find out.
"Just little things like that, it's really nice."
Hannah Darlington and Ashleigh Gardner will appear on the new episode of Cricket Connecting Country, which will premiere on Cricket Australia's YouTube channel at 8pm AEDT on Thursday Nov 12