Indigenous role models make a world of difference
It is difficult to oversell the impact of having highly visible Indigenous role models involved in the game at the highest level
Josh Lalor can succinctly articulate the difference that separates a boyhood hero from a sporting role model.
Growing up in the Penrith region of the Blue Mountains that once served as an impenetrable barrier between Australia’s fledgling European settlement and its harshly mysterious interior, Lalor was a committed junior soccer player who idolised Chicago Bulls basketball legend Michael Jordan.
Not only was he yet to discover his passion and proficiency for cricket that has carried him to New South Wales’ Sheffield Shield team, his level of interest in the sport that has struggled to appeal to so many current and former Indigenous youngsters was so low he would turn off the television if he saw it being broadcast.
Which did not always sit well with his father – a devout player and follower of the summer sport – who was invariably watching the telecast at the time.
But the Lalor family home was across the road from a sporting field, and when the local team was offering try-outs for new players ahead of the coming cricket season, Josh’s dad convinced the sport-loving schoolboy to give it a go.
A move that has proved soccer’s loss but a substantial gain for cricket.
"My father, who was my most prominent role model, played at club level and he was a very passionate cricketer and probably somebody who would have liked to have played at a higher level," the 28-year-old left-arm seamer told cricket.com.au about his conversion to the game.
"But he wasn’t able to, whether through skill or a lack of opportunity I’m not sure, I haven’t spoken to him about that.
"He enjoyed playing with his mates on the weekend and he would always come home and tell me how bad his lbw decision was.
"Initially I was a batsman until the age of 12 or 13, and then I started getting picked in representative teams, once as a batsman and once as a bowler.
"I have no doubt that if I was a right-handed bowler I probably wouldn’t be a professional cricketer, but being left-handed was a unique point-of-difference that allowed me access to teams and learning that I may not otherwise have had.
“It also allowed me to play at a higher level such as the Emerging Blues (NSW junior) squads and then State squads.
“And although I never performed really well at those carnivals, it allowed me to get experience and to watch and learn and - after being left-handed – that ability to watch others and pick up tips and tricks from them has been my next greatest ability.”
The vital role of mentors and family leaders play in helping to increase the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boys and girls, men and women becoming involved in cricket has been highlighted in the recently released ‘For the Love of the Game’ report that examined Indigenous cricket in Australia.
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The report was completed over 18 months by former Australian of the Year and Director of the Australian National University’s National Centre for Indigenous Studies Professor Mick Dodson and his fellow academic Dr Bill Fogarty, with the support of Cricket Australia.
Lalor in action for a CA XI // Getty Images
The study cited a 2013 report published by the House of Representatives that examined the contribution that sport can make to the wellbeing and mentoring of Indigenous Australians.
"The inquiry … found that one of the greatest influences in sporting participation is from family and friends,” the authors write in ‘For the Love of the Game’.
"This is particularly true in Indigenous communities where the connection to kin and clan can be extremely strong and influential."
The increased role of mentors among Indigenous communities is one of the recommendations contained in the report, to which Cricket Australia has responded.
As is the need for CA to formally acknowledge a historical legacy of exclusion, racism and government policies that have combined to cause the disengagement and under-representation of Indigenous Australians in cricket
Among the other recommendations are that current funding and governance models for Indigenous cricket be reviewed, that CA’s existing Indigenous Cricket Advisory Committee (ICAC) structure undergo a review of roles and responsibilities and at the national levels.
And that in addition to broadening awareness of Indigenous issues and programs among all national and state cricket executives along with greater emphasis on the engagement of Indigenous females in cricket, that ‘Community Ambassadors’ be appointed in all Australian states and territories as well as explore options to create a nationwide Indigenous Cricket Players Network.
"To ensure that cricket has a meaningful presence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities," the report says.
According to the report, the number of Indigenous people in Australia is predicted to “soar” from its current 670,000 to beyond 1 million over the next 15 years, with the areas of fastest growth to be Brisbane, Rockhampton, Cairns, south-western Western Australia, South Hedland, Townsville and Mackay.
To help ensure that growing presence in Australian society is reflected in the make-up of cricket teams and organisations, and that young Indigenous sports lovers can choose a clear pathway to cricket as well as to Australian football, rugby league and netball, several specific innovations have been recommended.
For example, that CA’s successful partnership with the highly influential Clontarf Academies - that will see more than 3,000 Indigenous boys throughout 57 academies taking part in a 12-week cricket program with matches against other academies - be further expanded to include similar opportunities for young female players.
That CA examine the potential for funding three pilot programs targeting different levels of cricket engagement in remote communities in northern Australia, which could build on the scope and profile of the annual Imparja Cup competition in Alice Springs that has grown out of a ‘friendly’ match staged in the Centre more than 20 years ago.
That the number of development officers deployed to foster, to facilitate and to fast-track Indigenous cricketers with talent and an appetite for the game be expanded from handful that are currently involved around the nation, compared to almost 500 employed by the AFL.
And that a high-profile Indigenous role model, the calibre of the NSW/ACT ICAC Chair and former rugby champion Mark Ella, or recently retired Sydney Swans champion and Australian of the Year Adam Goodes, be appointed to chair ICAC bodies in each state.
"We’ve still got our own cricket heroes,” Cricket Australia’s Indigenous Cricket Officer Paul Stewart told cricket.com.au.
"Garry Maynard won the Emerson Rodwell Medal (for outstanding first-grade cricketer) in Tasmania, John Maguire made over 10,000 grade cricket runs in Western Australia.
"We probably haven’t been on the front foot to promote their success like we are now with Josh Lalor, (Tasmania’s) Ryan Lees, (NSW and National Performance Squad member) Jonte Pattison and Ben Abbatangelo here in Victoria, Ashleigh Gardner and Sally Moylan.
"Promoting our Indigenous cricket heroes is also important so that we’re creating our own role models instead of the anecdotal ‘my uncle was a great cricketer’ that was pretty much kept within families.
"We want to share those role models amongst a number of communities."
As Josh Lalor will testify, amid all the policy shifts and program implementation, it is difficult to oversell the impact of having highly visible Indigenous role models involved in the game at the highest level.
As has been the case in Australian rules football and the rugby codes for so long, and which helps to answer the vexing question of why there are not more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders involved in cricket today.
"I think cricket is very, very late to the party and luckily for cricket they are extremely active in this space and I have no doubt that they’ll catch up very quickly," said Lalor, who previously undertook a role as Indigenous Programs Officer with Cricket NSW.
"But there hasn’t been a high profile Indigenous cricketer – apart from Jason Gillespie, who played for a long time for Australia – but I guess from an Australian Cricket Board (CA’s predecessor) perspective back then it wasn’t communicated as much as an Indigenous player would be in the present day.
"The communication strategies around that would be enormous and the exposure would be fantastic, and you would be able to build off the back of that.
"Rightly or wrongly, it’s a fact that guys such as Mark Ella and Adam Goodes and (former Essendon AFL star) Michael Long are Indigenous, and in any write-up or publicity about them it’s one of the first things that’s brought up.
"Which means they are associated with not only being outstanding and inspiring athletes but being Indigenous athletes as well, and that does positively reflect on the abilities and capabilities of Indigenous people.
"You see that now, and I’ve been around to a few clubs (in NSW) on those Clontarf days and the kids are unbelievable.
"I know that a lot of those kids are drawn to other sports that are built more around those less cricket-specific skills of running, kicking and catching.
"But you put a bat in their hands and suddenly it’s as if they’ve had a bat in their hands every Saturday for the last 10 years."