Cricket Australia is examining ways through which the contribution of Indigenous cricket can be better recognised, celebrated and nurtured, though it is unlikely to take the form of a dedicated round of T20 matches as suggested by allrounder, Dan Christian.
It was while leading the men’s Indigenous XI on its 150th anniversary tour of UK last month that Christian, a nationally capped limited-overs player of Wiradjuri heritage, floated the idea that cricket might follow the lead of Australia’s football codes and introduce an Indigenous Round into the KFC Big Bash League and the Rebel Women’s Big Bash League.
"With so many Indigenous men and women now playing in the BBL and WBBL, I think it would be great for every player to be able to celebrate their culture and our teammates to learn more about our culture via a full Indigenous round," Christian said.
Even though the BBL will join the WBBL in expanding to a full 'home and away' season of 59 matches from this summer, the fact that the T20 competitions don't schedule individual rounds of matches through a season as does the AFL and NRL renders that proposal problematic.
However, CA Chief Executive Officer James Sutherland has indicated that plans are afoot to ensure greater emphasis is placed on the historical significance and ongoing impact of Indigenous players on cricket in Australia, a lineage that stretches back more than 150 years.
In addition to initiatives such as the UK tour by the Aboriginal men’s and women's (led by rising Australia star, Ashleigh Gardner) teams, and the annual National Indigenous Cricket Championship staged alongside the Imparja Cup in Alice Springs, CA had been exploring ways of showcasing cricket and driving greater engagement among Indigenous communities.
Last summer's BBL and WBBL fixtures in Alice Springs that featured the Adelaide Strikers also included coaching clinics conducted for children from remote communities, as well as emblematic playing uniforms for all competing teams that were designed by Aboriginal artists.
The Strikers have entered into a multi-year agreement with the Northern Territory Government that will see them return for matches in the Red Centre for the next two summers.
But Sutherland indicated that extra initiatives were being considered in the wake of the UK tour, which commemorated the first Australia cricket team – comprising an Aboriginal XI – to visit England, during the northern summer of 1868.
"There are things in place that are probably unique to cricket and its link to Australia's Indigenous heritage that we can recognise and celebrate," Sutherland told cricket.com.au.
"The Aboriginal XIs Tour, with the support of the Commonwealth Bank, was something we were incredibly proud of.
"We need to look at how we build further upon that, and we don’t have 'rounds' of the BBL and WBBL in the way that football does because a lot of our matches are played continuously through the week during the summer holiday period.
"But there may be opportunities to introduce some new things, and we were delighted with the success of the two women's Big Bash League and one men's BBL games in Alice Springs earlier this year.
"I think we can do more to celebrate our game's Indigenous history, and to hopefully make up for some of the errors in our ways in not supporting Indigenous cricket until the last couple of decades."
In 2015, the Australian National University's Centre for Indigenous Studies released a 128-page report 'For the Love of the Game' that was funded and supported by CA, and which found that Indigenous engagement and participation in cricket had fared poorly in comparison to the nation's major football codes.
As a result, CA adopted a Reconciliation Action Plan and implemented an Indigenous Engagement Strategy to help bridge the historical gap that saw just two players of Indigenous heritage – pace bowlers Faith Thomas (in 1958) and Jason Gillespie (1996) – selected for Australia teams up until the turn of the 21st Century.
As the first Aboriginal player to represent Australia in cricket, Thomas is being honoured during the current NAIDOC Week through use of the social media hashtag #BecauseOfHerWeCan.
Among the report's key findings was that the 'lost years' during which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were an almost invisible presence within Australian cricket had fed the wider perception that little relationship existed between Indigenous players and fans, and the national game.
Redressing that disconnect is one of the priorities for CA's Indigenous Engagement Strategy and Reconciliation Action Plan.
While the AFL and NRL celebrate the Indigenous contribution to football codes, the introduction of the National Indigenous Cricket Championships as a standalone competition designed to bring together Australia's foremost Indigenous men's and women's talents has helped to develop exposure and pathways for Aboriginal players.
"What’s unique about cricket is that we have the National Indigenous Cricket Championships in Alice Springs each year, and that is not only a great celebration of Indigenous cricket at representative level but it is also a keenly fought interstate competition," Sutherland said.
"Alongside that is a competition staged at a community level, where Indigenous clubs from regional areas and townships all over the country travel to Alice Springs and play a series of matches over the course of that same week competing for the Imparja Cup.
"It’s probably not quite the same profile as what we see with a BBL match being staged in centres like Alice Springs, or some of the initiatives from the NRL or AFL.
"But I think it's a really worthwhile concept, and provides a great starting point for us to think a little more deeply about how cricket can better engage with and provide access to our Indigenous communities and families that love the game."