More focus on Indigenous talent
Cricket Australia continues to work closely with the Indigenous community
For all its envied cross-format-success, charismatic star power and global influence, a singular question – whispered and uncomfortable – has enshrouded Australian cricket for more than a century.
Why are so few Indigenous Australian players represented among the historic and contemporary figures that drive the key plotlines in the nation's cricket story?
Cricket has enjoyed a formal, popular presence on the Australian sporting landscape for far longer than Aussie rules, rugby union, rugby league and soccer yet the football codes have long been the pursuit of choice for budding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander athletes.
Only three Indigenous cricketers – ex-Test fast bowler Jason Gillespie, one-day all-rounder Dan Christian and 1950s trailblazer of the women's game Faith Thomas (nee Coulthard) – have represented their country at a sport that has engaged and involved Indigenous players for 150 years.
In attempting to solve the question that has spawned myriad anecdotal answers but worryingly little hard data, researchers at the Australian National University's National Centre for Indigenous Studies have found there is no easy, definitive explanation.
Rather, the disenfranchisement of Indigenous competitors from the premier national sport has its tangled roots embedded in a history that incorporates racism, exclusion, policy barriers, mistrust and the long lingering influence of colonialism.
As the authors of 'For the Love of the Game' – former Australian of the Year and NCIS Director Professor Mick Dodson and fellow academic Dr Bill Fogarty - happily and gratefully acknowledge, cricket is making substantial strides forward to honour its mission statement as the 'game for all Australians'.
But there is much lost territory to regain.
"Whichever way you compare it, in terms of Indigenous engagement and participation, cricket has done badly compared to many other sports and in particular the football codes," Professor Dodson told cricket.com.au.
Cricket Australia has welcomed the report, which it funded and supported, and has now adopted a Reconciliation Action Plan (a business plan detailing how CA can contribute to reconciliation in Australia) as well as implementing a comprehensive Indigenous Engagement Strategy. .
And while there is mutual agreement that Cricket Australia has much ground to make up on the AFL, NRL and other sporting codes, at least one enduring myth as to the reason why Indigenous Australian cricketers are seemingly more scarce than a double hat-trick has been disproved.
"If there's one thing this report should do, it should put to bed the notion that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people don't want to play cricket," said Fogarty, a Research Fellow at the NCIS who has lived and worked in Indigenous communities for more than a decade.
"That notion is fundamentally not true."
Indeed, as the 128-page report that canvassed almost 100 people and a number of focus groups and was released earlier this month highlights, Indigenous players were a far more visible presence on the cricket field in the mid-19th Century than during much of the 150 years since.
The first recorded instance of Indigenous players' involvement in cricket in Australia was at Adelaide's St Peter's College in 1854, and a decade later an all-Aboriginal team was established in Victoria's western districts and was later coached by Australian rules' forefather Tom Wills.
It was Wills who captained that team in a match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground that began on Boxing Day 1866 (and drew crowds estimated at around 10,000) and who two years later led the first Australian sporting team to travel overseas – the 1868 Indigenous cricket tour to England.
By the time another Australian team engaged their colonial masters in the Old Country 14 years later where the 'Ashes' legend was born, and increasingly for 100 or more years that followed, cricket had evolved almost exclusively into a game that did not include Indigenous Australian players.
The reasons for that change can be laid at the feet of racism, exclusion and the prevailing policy climates of the times, the report finds.
Most tellingly, the introduction of 'protectionism' in the late 19th Century that the reports states "encouraged racial segregation, state control and subjugation of Aboriginal people across Australia".
"History shows that going back to before the turn of the last century, there's been involvement of Indigenous Australians in cricket," Professor Dodson said
"And during that time, history shows it was played extensively.
"We looked at why it fell off, and partly responsible for the falling off of participation was the protection laws that were gradually introduced.
"The first of those was introduced in Victoria in 1869 and in other states during the latter part of the century and into the early 1900s.
"They took a decade or more to bite but what the protection laws did was absolutely control people's lives in every way.
"They weren't free to go and join up with a local club."
Following the 'protectionist era', public policy towards Indigenous Australian shifted to 'assimilation' that was aimed to integrate Aboriginal people but which the report claims had the effect of further distancing Indigenous participants from cricket.
"During this time many Indigenous Australians saw cricket as synonymous with 'being white' and participation was both discouraged in Aboriginal communities themselves and through racism at club, district and state levels," the report finds.
While a handful of individual Indigenous cricketers – most famously fast bowlers Jack Marsh (New South Wales) and Eddie Gilbert (Queensland) – earned selection at first-class level, their experiences only served to discourage other Aboriginal players from following their lead.
Marsh, a sprinter regarded as the fastest man in Australia at the turn of the 20th Century and "the most threatening and inventive bowler of his generation", played alongside the legendary Victor Trumper and collected three five-wicket hauls in his first three Sheffield Shield outings.
But his career was effectively ended soon after when Archie McLaren, captain of a touring England XI, refused to take the field if Marsh was selected to play and the cricketer subsequently died in a violent pub brawl at Orange in 1916.
Gilbert was also rated the fastest bowler of his time, and famously sat Don Bradman on his backside with a fearsome bouncer before claiming the game's greatest batsman's wicket for a duck, with Bradman later recalling:
"He (Gilbert) sent down in that period the fastest bowling I can remember …one delivery knocked the bat out of my hand and I unhesitatingly class this short burst faster than anything seen from (England's Bodyline bowler Harold) Larwood or anyone else."
But like Marsh, the legitimacy of Gilbert's bowling action was questioned, he was subjected to the institutionalised racism and exclusion of the era (the 1930s) and he spent his last 23 years in a Queensland mental institution, with Bradman attending his funeral in 1978.
"Look at treatment of Eddie Gilbert in Queensland," Dodson said.
"What kid would want to subject themselves to that sort of racism?
"It's unlikely to happen these days, but probably at the time it had an impact on a generation of Aboriginal kids who said 'I'm not going to play with those bastards'."
The authors heard no contemporary reports of overt racism towards Indigenous players at grade cricket level and above, but found that racist attitudes do exist at club level although that was not an issue endemic to cricket among sporting codes.
"All Indigenous community members as well as CA and state and territory staff consulted expressed a great desire and commitment to work to rectify the current situation," the report finds.
"There is, indeed, a great deal of genuine will for progress.
"In this regard, we are heartened that the problems … are structural, not institutional, and can therefore be changed."
Perhaps more worryingly, not one of the respondents spoken to by researchers for the report felt that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are seen as a key part of cricket in Australia.
According to the report's authors, one of the lingering effects of the "lost years" of the protectionist era was the effective exclusion of Indigenous participants from cricket saw them gravitate instead to the more 'anti-establishment' football codes.
They also add that because the greatest influence on sporting participation comes from family and friends, and this is especially true in Indigenous families and communities where "the connection of clan and kin can be extremely strong", cricket in Australia has paid a heavy price for that disconnect.
"If you look at what we call the 'lost years', that's what put this gap in the whole relationship between Indigenous Australia and cricket," Dr Fogarty said.
"And what happens then is you lose your inter-generational transfer from father to son, from mother to daughter and that's where a love of sport is invariably born.
"When we first started looking at this, I was flabbergasted that some of the big names in cricket up in Darwin around the turn of the 20th century and right up until the 1920s when the protection era really started to grab hold were names like Rioli, Long, Motlop (families now steeped in AFL folklore).
"They were cricketing names before they became synonymous with Australian football."
Data in the report shows that for Aboriginal boys aged four to 14 years, the most popular participation sports are Australian rules (17 per cent), rugby league (16 per cent) and outdoor soccer (10.5 per cent).
For Aboriginal girls in the same age bracket the sporting preferences are netball (13 per cent), swimming and basketball (both 7 per cent).
The latest cricket census participation statistics released by Cricket Australia earlier this year show a significant increase in Indigenous participation to more than 26,000 nationwide, which is slightly more than two per cent of all those who play cricket in some form across the nation.
That's a sizeable increase from a survey conducted by the Human Rights Commission a decade earlier found that Indigenous participation at cricket clubs across Australia was 1.94 per cent among senior players and 1.35 per cent of junior participants.
"That's probably a lack of reliable data as much as anything," Dodson of the low participation figures.
"There's probably more involvement than the official stats indicate, there are entire Indigenous competitions going on at various places in the country that official cricket doesn't even know about."
The report delivers 10 recommendations to help increase the level of Indigenous participation in Australian, among them that Cricket Australia examine the funding, governance and strategy initiatives currently in place.
It also suggests CA initiate a series of pilot programs in remote locations in northern Australian to heighten engagement, and 're-set' the relationship between the game and its Indigenous players and fans through a major event that would mark as a "turning point" and act of reconciliation.
According to the report's authors, one such "turning point" could be next year's Boxing Day Test at the MCG in which Australia is scheduled to play Pakistan, and which marks 150 years since the all-Indigenous team captained by Tom Wills played at the same ground.
Cricket Australia has indicated will work closely with the Indigenous community to recognise and celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first Australian touring team – the All-Aboriginal squad that played almost 50 matches in the UK in 1868 – when the anniversary falls in 2018.
But Dr Fogarty claimed that Boxing Day, as Australian cricket's biggest annual event and the direct connection between that day and the involvement of Indigenous players in the game, would carry greater and stronger significance.
"I think the opportunity is there," he said in relation to the chance of the 2016 Boxing Day Test marking a 'line in the sand' for the relationship between Indigenous Australians and cricket.
"The 1868 tour is a great thing, but an event has got to be used as a platform for more general engagement and the general story needs to be about recognising the historical relationship between cricket and Indigenous Australia.
"Recognising that there's been some problem and re-setting the relationship on a new footing.
"That's why we came up with the Boxing Day Test idea.
"You've got all the elements there, you just need to have the leadership and will to make it happen.
"It's an opportunity for cricket to grab the moral high ground on this issue for the first time and I think they are now ready to do it. "