Josh Lalor, CA and the long road to reconciliation
Brisbane Heat's veteran fast bowler has played a pivotal role in delivering Cricket Australia's second Reconciliation Action Plan while finding purpose as a cricketer and person
Josh Lalor isn't sure 'legacy' is the right word. He looks back on the work he and many others have done across the past two years in putting together Cricket Australia's Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) and considers its potential for bringing about genuine change within Australia's Indigenous population.
For Lalor, the RAP is more of a beginning than an end point, and so he wonders aloud about the appropriateness of legacy.
"I feel like with a legacy you need to have an end-goal in mind," says the Brisbane Heat fast bowler and Cricket NSW employee. "I don't know what that is. An Australian team with two or three male or female Indigenous players, is that the goal? Or is it seeing Indigenous kids all around the country loving cricket like they do AFL?
"I'm not exactly sure what the end goal is. But in terms of a legacy piece, if I'm sitting in an office somewhere in 20 years and there are announcements being made that are built off the back of the work we're doing now, well from that point of view, then maybe it is.
"But at the moment I'm more interested in continuing to move it forward – we're talking about huge change being implemented."
It is the kind of work that appeals to Lalor; something he can attach significance to. Not long ago he read a letter by Hunter S Thompson, in which the legendary American writer discussed the notion of finding purpose and meaning in life.
"A man has to be something," Thompson wrote. "He has to matter."
The words struck a chord with Lalor, summing up his thoughts more succinctly than he knew was possible.
"To the core I'm extremely ambitious," he says, "but I'm just not sure where to point that energy."
Josh Lalor had been on the books at New South Wales for eight or nine years when he realised his love affair with cricket was dead. The passion that had been ignited as a child by his Indigenous father, Miles – that which had prompted him to scribble scorecards during backyard games with his little brother; that had propelled him through the highs and lows of junior representative cricket and into the world of professionalism – had gradually ebbed away.
"By 28, 29, you're struggling to keep your place, you're starting to get a couple of niggles, and then cricket has absolutely lost its innocence," he tells cricket.com.au.
"It became like work. I remember really enjoying playing for Penrith, doing well and taking a ton of wickets, but then the last two or three years of when I was contracted, I hated it, because if you were playing grade cricket that meant you weren't playing (for NSW), and it meant every ball you bowled you had to try to get a wicket.
"You can imagine how stressful that becomes. It just became a bitter, sour experience for me."
Through much of that period, Lalor was straddling two worlds. Alongside his aspirations of trying to make it as a professional cricketer, his inclination towards the business sector drove him to pursue a day job. Early on, that came in the form of 'Indigenous Programs Officer' at Cricket NSW. It was a role Lalor viewed as promising, both for the learnings on offer and the potential to make a difference. But the search for meaning quickly proved to be more elusive than he had suspected.
"I would show up to the (annual) National Indigenous Cricket Championships (NICC), and say a few things to the teams," he reflects. "It was pretty haphazard.
"Most of the job was just speaking to regional cricket managers about what they were doing in the Indigenous space, what their participation numbers were like, if there was anything we could do to unify the strategies between the groups.
"Because I was still playing I wasn't able to give it as much attention as it needed, and it felt like the approach to it was they knew it was important but they didn't really have the funding or the priority from anyone (higher up in the business)."
On the field, the left-arm quick played nine first-class matches in four years and was beginning to feel jaded.
And the more he became exposed to the challenges faced by the remote Indigenous communities he would visit during cricket clinics in the far west of New South Wales, the more he felt reluctant to accept the tag of 'Indigenous role model'.
"It could be confronting at times, and you feel guilty that you're not having the same experiences that people in those communities have," he says. "It's interesting being seen as a role model for Indigenous people when you've got an Aboriginal dad, a white mum, and you've grown up in a middle-class white family in suburban western Sydney.
"These kids just have a completely different life experience."
Two years ago, Lalor was approached to be part of Cricket Australia's Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). The RAP, which was officially released today in the form of a 36-page document, identifies CA's accomplishments and visions in the Indigenous cricket space. It comes five years on from CA's inaugural RAP which, among other things, established a new National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cricket Advisory Committee, and organised a commemorative tour to the United Kingdom for Australia's National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander squads to mark 150 years since the 1868 Aboriginal XI became the first Australian sporting team to tour internationally.
No statistic better highlights the growth of the sport within Australia's Indigenous population than a participation increase of 800 per cent – up to 69,092 – since 2014, and now CA's second RAP is looking at building upon that foundation. Part of that will be through initiatives to be launched next year that include an annual 'Reconciliation Round' for community and Premier Cricket clubs, and significant internationals for both the men's and women's national teams that pay tribute to that 1868 Aboriginal XI touring team. More broadly, the RAP outlines a focus on shifting the landscape of community and Premier Cricket clubs across Australia by encouraging a greater commitment to reconciliation through digital campaigns, face-to-face mentoring and education, with an end goal of having all clubs connect with Traditional Owners and committing annually to one consistent act that contributes to the reconciliation movement.
As a coaching and talent specialist with Cricket NSW, a member of the National Indigenous Squad and an active professional player, Lalor was invited onto both the RAP's Steering Committee as well as its High-Performance working group.
By this point, he was no longer playing first-class cricket, though any downtime was filled by full-time work with CNSW and his new duties as a father to baby boy August.
All of which was structured around an annual two-month KFC Big Bash commitment with the Heat.
"When I lost my (NSW) contract, I was actually quite happy," he remembers. "It clarified things for me: there was work, there was family, and cricket became just the Big Bash."
The newly-discovered sense of balance also allowed him to consider again the matter of purpose. In that sense, involvement in the RAP was appealing; in comparison to the work he had done in the Indigenous space previously, there seemed to be greater intention and commitment from key figures in Cricket Australia.
"I guess in the past, outside of showing up to a couple of cricket tournaments and having a few interviews around being Indigenous, it's hard to know what kind of impact you can have," Lalor says. "Given that I'm a bit of a sports and business nuffy, it was great to be asked to be on a Steering Committee where I could actually have a say in things that I thought would make a difference."
Reconciliation Australia outlines four RAP frameworks designed to cater for different stages of an organisation's 'reconciliation journey': Reflect (scoping reconciliation), Innovate (implementing reconciliation), Stretch (embedding reconciliation) and Elevate (leadership in reconciliation).
Cricket Australia's being awarded Stretch-status for this RAP by Reconciliation Australia builds upon the foundation laid five years ago via the organisation's Innovate RAP, and for Lalor it represents both a small step and a giant leap.
"We didn't want to move mountains as such, but it was more about substantial sustainable difference," he explains. "As we can implement these things, we'll aim higher down the line … we're at the point now where the working group we have includes State and Territory CEOs, CA board members, (CA chairman) Earl Eddings – that's providing a lot of clout that is probably overdue.
"And this plan is built into the goals and objectives of senior leaders around Cricket Australia, so it actually is tied into the organisation rather than just sort of being one person's responsibility; to see people so passionately engaged and wanting to contribute – these are non-Indigenous people putting their money where their mouth is with things that are going to be tied to their performance reviews – that was really inspiring."
Lalor believes CA can target the Elevate RAP phase in coming years and become a leader in reconciliation given the organisation's "scope and influence across the whole country". Personally, it has been a rewarding experience, and one light years ahead of his first foray into the Indigenous space in the early part of the decade.
"There's been big change in that 10 years," he says. "(His initial role as an Indigenous Programs Officer) probably wasn't as fruitful as I would've liked, but it all helped with the education of where Indigenous cricket sits within Australian cricket.
"To now see there are substantial things that are going to be built into the fabric of cricket in this country, it makes me feel a lot better that change is going to happen."
With time and greater understanding, he has also come to embrace his position as a role model within the Indigenous community.
"The thing I've learnt from being involved in the NICC over a 10-12-year span is that being Aboriginal isn't just about being someone out in those remote communities," Lalor says. "There's a huge spectrum of people who are Aboriginal within the country, and when you think of prior injustices or the way these people are starting from a long way back, it's not just affecting the people who live in remote communities – it's young male or female Indigenous cricketers who don't want to identify as Indigenous, and the fact they don't want to do that means they've either had friends or family who don't speak very favourably about Indigenous people or there's some historical context there as to why that is.
"Role models can be anyone. It can be the young New South Wales cricketer who is in our Under 17s program who is now confident enough to identify as Indigenous, where a couple of years ago that same kid might not have been."
Cricket is yet to be blessed with an Indigenous superstar in the Adam Goodes or Johnathan Thurston mould but while Lalor admits he "couldn't fathom the impact" of such a presence in the sport, he does not see such a scenario as a cure-all. Instead, he believes in a multi-faceted approach, of which role models are but one layer. He also sees the work being done and examples being set by the Big Bash's Indigenous stars, and even young Sydney Thunder Indigenous XI captain Tyran Liddiard (who is a teammate of Lalor's at Penrith), and believes meaningful change is afoot.
"I don't think putting all your eggs in one basket – say with an Adam Goodes or a Buddy Franklin – is single-handedly going to change the (Indigenous) community," he says. "I definitely think role models help, and I know the likes of Dan Christian, Ash Gardner, even Ty Liddiard, they're being role models more so in their communities.
"Obviously the bigger reach they have, the more influence they'll have … but from little things, big things grow.
"If they get a couple of people to identify (with being Indigenous), to play, and to create more Ty Liddiards, then suddenly you've got a little army of advocates out there.
"It's about small steps. It's not easy to find remote kids who can bowl like Mitchell Starc or bat like D'Arcy Short, but small steps."
The end of Lalor's first-class playing career brought with it a couple of notable silver linings that have since aided his reinvention as a T20 player. Without the punishing demands of a full-time fast-bowling schedule, the niggles and soft-tissue injuries that had begun to affect his performances had a chance to heal. Heading into both this season and last, he has never felt in better physical condition. It has also afforded him an uninterrupted, targeted preparation.
"I'm 32 but it's almost like the past three years has been 'Part B' to my career," he says. "I'll catch up with (Heat teammates) next week who are coming out of back-to-back Shield games, or coming back from Aussie teams, or from months of grade cricket – they've got all these other things going through their head and all I've been thinking about for the last three months is the Big Bash, and making sure I can do well."
Last summer, his numbers supported the theory: 20 wickets at a strike-rate of 11.7. In the space of one tournament, he almost matched the 22 wickets he had claimed across the past six Big Bash campaigns. He claimed a maiden five-wicket haul and surprised himself and those close to him with his success.
"I remember coming off the Gabba, I had about 0-30 off my four overs and our strength and conditioning coach Paul Chapman said to me, 'I don't know what it is but you just seem to be so measured and assured in what you're doing'," Lalor recalls. "I had bowled OK, but I hadn't taken any wickets, but I think just that comment and a few others from coaches, it was almost like, 'Whatever you're doing, keep doing it'."
In his next outing, he dismissed five of the Sydney Sixers' top seven to record career-best figures of 5-26. Another 10 wickets followed in his final five matches as he earned a place in ESPN's unofficial Team of the Tournament.
"You sort of think you're on the right track but then that positive reinforcement gives you that confidence," he adds. "It's amazing how when you're a bit clearer the little things tend to go your way."
After he plays a T20 quarter-final for his Sydney Premier Cricket side Penrith on Sunday, Lalor will pack up and make the move to Brisbane, less than 10 days out from the opening match of BBL|09. He knows the routine now; the sun-drenched 5am wake-ups and the unrelenting heat of the Queensland capital. This year his wife, Dannelle, and 18-month-old August will relocate as well.
He enters BBL|09 armed with newly-acquired intel on the art of T20 bowling, courtesy of fellow left-arm paceman Harry Gurney. Lalor's returns last summer led to a late call-up with Barbados Tridents in the Caribbean Premier League, where he played five matches before Gurney's arrival ultimately consigned him to the bench. As the Tridents went on to win the title, Lalor mined the mind of the Englishman, who was a pivotal player in Melbourne Renegades' charge to the BBL|08 championship.
"He's a bit of a guru," Lalor says. "Just to talk to him about the way he goes about things, seeing his very relaxed nature, that whole last month I wasn't playing but I was learning a hell of a lot from him … and everything I learn I want to take back to the Heat to hopefully help us perform more consistently over this next couple of years."
As he considers the coming season at the Heat, Lalor sees opportunity, and perhaps, meaning. The business and commerce graduate admires the way the club operates, the sponsorship it attracts and the manner in which it has marketed itself as the Big Bash's most dynamic team under the captaincy of Chris Lynn and his predecessor Brendon McCullum. He sees the upside to it all and believes the playing group is well positioned to begin pulling its weight after a couple of underwhelming summers.
"There's an opportunity with the Heat to find a special period for two or three years where we can be really dominant and intimidating, and it'd be nice to keep the band together and get to that place," he says.
"That's a goal I have, to help 'Lynny' and the management get to that spot before inevitably things change.
"While we've got this recipe, it'd be nice to capitalise on that as much as we can."
Lalor sometimes catches himself daydreaming about making a return to first-class cricket. He saw Alister McDermott regain a Queensland contract this season after more than four years away from top-level cricket, and he watches fast bowlers who are older than him performing well in the Shield. Then he remembers the down times, the way cricket became work and the bitterness that soon followed, and he quickly resets his focus forward.
He also recently revisited a "fork in the road" moment in his life. He had just finished university when the offer of a well-paid internship with NSW Railways came his way.
"It would've been a great start to my career," he says. "I got offered a rookie contract and decided to go down the cricket line.
"I sometimes think about what things would've looked like had I taken the job. What would my career look like? Would I still have ended up in cricket?
"When you've been in cricket for 11 or 12 years, that's 11 or 12 years that you could've put into your career, so what stage would I be at?
"I'm always thinking about that and constantly trying to catch up to where I should be, even though I've only really been in a career for two years."
He would like to head into team management at some stage and even push his boundaries beyond cricket. The NFL appeals but he knows the career credit points he has accrued in cricket count for more if he stays within the sport. Besides, there is still more to be done; as well as his continued involvement in the RAP, he sees wants to explore ways to better utilise analytics in cricket.
"I would like to make a mark on cricket in a positive way, that's for sure," he says. "The Indigenous work will definitely be a piece of that but also the enhancement of our game, I'm very much into the analytics side of things and learning how other sports are growing.
"I was reading the other day about neurological testing for athletes and how you can track that and increase the rate of their development, so instead of taking a player seven years to turn into the player he's going to be, how can you do it in four?
"There are 19-year-olds in (US) College football playing in front of 100,000 people and built like a house – how is their physical and mental development happening at such a quicker rate than ours?
"Those things interest me, and I want to see how we can bring some of that into cricket so we can increase the capability of our athletes, and therefore make it a better product, more commercially viable, and everybody wins."
It is no surprise that Lalor zeroes in on former teammates Moises Henriques and McCullum when asked to nominate his role models. Both have found meaning and purpose, be it in cricket or life. Both stand for what they believe in. They are traits he is searching for within in himself.
As he strives to strike a happy balance with family and work, and looks to sate that pursuit of purpose, he has the words of Hunter S Thompson ringing in his ears: "Beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living within that way of life."