The man from Narrandera
Two things make Daniel Christian a special one. He is one of a handful of genuine allrounders in Australia and he is an Aboriginal. Players who can make a regular impact with bat and ball are rare, especially in all three forms of the game, while national cricket representatives with an indigenous background are almost non-existent.
Australia's first tour to England was by an Aboriginal team in 1868, but it was not until 2001, when Jason Gillespie's family history became public knowledge, that a player with indigenous heritage appeared in the country's international teams. While Gillespie was most comfortable on the periphery of the culture, Christian is right in the middle of it. "It's the way I was brought up," he says. His childhood was spent in the small country town of Narrandera, in southern New South Wales, as part of a well-known family that remains in touch with the tradition of the Wiradjuri Nation.
Over the past two months Christian has become part of Australian cricket's elite after being promoted to the Twenty20 side following a series of brutal, clever and consistent performances in the limited-overs formats with South Australia. Having appeared in three internationals, he is a junior member of the 15-man World Twenty20 squad in the Caribbean, and is being tested as one for the future.
Securing a spot in the side is complex, especially in the fickle environment of Twenty20 in which opportunities are measured in deliveries. Christian has the added responsibility of being a role model for indigenous children; during his career he will often be looked at for reasons other than cricket.
"I'm comfortable with that, I suppose," he says the day before flying to the West Indies. "There are a lot of my cousins and guys I grew up in the country with who were probably more talented than me, some of them comfortably more talented than me. It's nice to be successful and to hopefully help out some of those kinds of kids in the future."
Christian, who has dark black hair, calls himself fair-skinned, and bristles of red peek out from his chin when his stubble grows. They come from the family side of his mum, Toni, who has Scottish heritage. She also provided her son with an example of a strong work ethic, which included her winning the clubman of the year award at University of New South Wales for her volunteering in the canteen. Christian's father, Clem, a former rugby league player for Newtown, still lives in Narrandera and is an artist who paints didgeridoos and emu callers. His boy was a talented rugby league five-eighth but chose cricket instead. "I love my footy, but cricket was a no-brainer really," Christian says.
When he speaks, quietly and often quickly, he seems older than 26. Initially he is cautious, but he warms up quickly to provide thoughtful answers to simple and sensitive questions. He captained his Sydney club side in his early 20s and was the big brother and skipper on Australia's national indigenous development squad's tour of England last year. School friends, team-mates, coaches and administrators praise Christian's cricket and personal skills. "He's a ripper of a bloke," says Gillespie, who played with him when he switched from New South Wales to South Australia in 2007-08.
Last Christmas eve Christian helped out a mate in Sydney by joining his gardening crew so his friend could finish work early and get home to his family. Geoff Lawson, the former Test bowler, woke at 7am to see Christian on his knees, pulling out weeds in the backyard. It is not typical behaviour from an established first-class player. "There's nothing big-headed or egotistical about the guy," Lawson says of his friend and former coaching charge. "He understands the big picture and he's really matured as a guy."
For the past seven years Christian has been part of Australia's indigenous programme and is expected to be the mentor and leader in another development tour to Papua New Guinea in the off-season. On the trip to England last year, when he spread the word about Aboriginal talent in many forums, including on Test Match Special, he impressed his younger team-mates with his ability to relate to them.
Since 2008 he has been a regular and increasingly important member in the Redbacks' mostly struggling sides, providing them with power and down-to-earth fun. Over the next two weeks he is chasing playing time in the World Twenty20 in an effort to gain acceptance in his new family.
A new role model
"I'm an Aboriginal man from the Wiradjuri tribe in New South Wales," Christian said as he prepared for his Twenty20 debut against West Indies in February. There may have been other Australian representatives over the past 123 years who have felt as strongly, but none has introduced himself in public as crisply as Christian did.
The Wiradjuri Nation, meaning the people of the three rivers, covers parts of southern and central New South Wales and is the second-largest indigenous region in Australia. In the mid-1800s Narrandera, Christian's hometown, was the site of a two-year war between the European settlers and the locals, whose history extends back tens of thousands of years. Following a massacre at Murdering Island the battle was conceded by the Wiradjuri people to avoid being wiped out.
Flo Grant, a Wiradjuri elder, said a lot of the community ended up at a local mission and when it closed down some children went to welfare-protection homes, while others were allowed to remain with their families. "The Christians were lucky enough to stay with their people in their country," she says.
Maintaining strong links to their ancient heritage is important for the contemporary members of the Christian family. Before Daniel, aged 13, moved to Sydney with his mum he would join his father and uncle on cultural trips into the bush with tourists. "I just used to tag along and help out getting witchetty grubs and identifying which trees to make didgeridoos out of," he says. His father also delivers cultural talks at schools, and Daniel worked in an Aboriginal employment service during his grade cricket days in Sydney.
As his profile has grown in sporting circles, he has become a mentor to young Aboriginal players and enjoys the position. But he wants to point out he is not a trail blazer. "I'm not the big Aboriginal role model, Jason Gillespie did it too," he says.
Gillespie was raised initially in Sydney knowing his great-great grandfather on his dad's side was a Kamilaroi warrior, but also that his mum's family was predominantly Greek. Not growing up in a close-knit Aboriginal environment created a bumpy transition from cricketer to ambassador.
"I've been criticised a little bit for not totally embracing my indigenous culture," Gillespie says. "It was never anything that was hidden. [After it become public] maybe I felt there was a bit of an expectation that I was needed to go and do something. And I just thought: 'This is who I am, who I've been all along, what do you want me to do?' I was a bit in the dark as to other people's expectations." Since he has retired Gillespie has learned that both parents of his father, Neil, who is the chief executive of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, had indigenous links.
Christian has no such confusion and has already inspired younger players during coaching clinics and provided valuable assistance to his team-mates on the development tour of England. "He's a big role model, very big," Preston White, a 19-year-old Queensland allrounder, says. White absorbed lots of tips on combining his roles during the two-month trip and, after initially worrying that Christian might be "up himself a bit", quickly became a devoted follower. "He's very reliable, you can trust him with a lot of things," White says. The weary players would watch in awe as Christian completed his tailored pre-season training sessions for South Australia on top of the squad's already taxing load.
On the trip the young men learned about the 1868 tour of their predecessors, who played 47 matches during their five months in England. During lunch breaks the pioneers entertained the crowd with traditional activities such as boomerang throwing. In 2006 they were awarded player numbers as the first Australian cricketers.
At the start of last year's trip only four of the 15 tourists had been out of Australia, leaving Christian to operate as much more than a captain. "They were a really good bunch of kids and extremely talented, which you come to expect from Aboriginal sportsmen," he says. "The NRL [rugby league] and AFL [Australian rules football] are littered with them. There's no reason why any of those kids can't play first-class cricket if they pursue it and work hard."
From antipathy to inclusiveness
Historically, the game has not been kind to indigenous players. "Cricket is seen as a white man's sport," Flo Grant says. "But 100 years ago it wasn't. The Aboriginal people embraced it. [Since then] they've been more accepted in football than they have in cricket."
In his book Lords' Dreaming Ashley Mallett, the former Test offspinner, outlined some of the racist decisions made by early administrators. "Any Aboriginal bowler at first-class level was considered a threat to the exclusive whiteness of the Australian Test team," he wrote. "So whenever an Aboriginal cricketer of Test potential turned up, officialdom stepped in."
Fast bowlers were the easiest target at the start of the 20th century. Alec Henry, Jack Marsh and Eddie Gilbert were effectively thrown out of the game by chucking calls. Henry, a Queensland first-class paceman, was rumoured to be the fastest in the world, but he was pushed out and died of tuberculosis aged 29. Even though the hugely talented Marsh, from New South Wales, maintained his pace with a length of wood strapped to his arm, he could not totally clear himself. Instead of making the 1905 England tour he left cricket and became a travelling performer. Eleven years later he was beaten to death on a footpath.
At Brisbane's Allan Border Field, where Christian trained with the Australians at their pre-tournament camp last week, there is a bronze statue of Gilbert. The plaque says Gilbert was the only Aboriginal player of his time to play first-class cricket and was the fastest bowler in Australia in the 1930s. It doesn't tell one of the saddest stories in the game.
From a short run-up, Gilbert was so fast that he was the only bowler to knock the bat from Bradman's hand. He did it for Queensland in a Shield match in 1931-32 before dismissing Bradman, a man at his peak, fourth ball. Bradman rated Gilbert faster than Harold Larwood at his best, but also judged his action suspect. The Little Master had spoken; Gilbert was no-balled shortly after and in 1936 was sent back to his settlement in Cherbourg. At the time Aboriginals couldn't vote and had no rights, a situation which had changed by the time of Gilbert's passing in a mental institution in 1978.
Cricket's reputation for treating Aboriginals poorly contributed to the widespread lack of participation. But after years of not wanting them the modern wish is to eliminate the cultural, behavioural and distance barriers. In 2002, Cricket Australia adopted a formal indigenous strategic plan and it continues to work hard at tapping into and developing the talent base.
The Imparja Cup, an annual interstate competition in Alice Springs, is the highlight of the indigenous cricket calendar and gives young players a chance to be noticed. A Taking Cricket to the Bush programme helps spread the game in the country and a Playing in Harmony indigenous resource, which teaches children about leadership and racism, is about to be expanded into 100 schools. A $4.5m proposal is currently with the federal government for more in-depth assistance, including equipment, for remote communities. Milo's in2Cricket, the country-wide entry-level game, caters for all children and there were two indigenous kids involved in the sessions at Narrandera's junior club last season.
In Australia ambitious players from the bush must move to the state capitals to further their career by appearing in the major grade competitions and being available for representative training. "A lot of young Aboriginal kids struggle to fit into the city and being away from family," Christian says. "One of the big things of Aboriginal culture is there's a strong emphasis on family, so moving away is pretty difficult for some of those kids."
It was a path Michael Mainhardt followed in the 1980s when he shifted the 750km from Clermont to Brisbane. "You don't make state sides from the country," Mainhardt says. He was a fast bowler who played six games for Queensland during an era when Jeff Thomson, Carl Rackemann, John Maguire and Geoff Dymock were the leading men. Mainhardt has no regrets over his career and achieved a post-playing goal when he coached the indigenous development squad in England last year.
Having worked closely with Christian during that period, Mainhardt is confident he can succeed in his on- and off-field positions. Most importantly, Christian is someone for children to look up to. "Indigenous cricketers are starving for role models," Mainhardt says. "I read what Dan said [about being an Aboriginal]. Hopefully it gets read by young kids, by parents, and we'll see where it goes."
A natural allrounder
Christian is made for Twenty20. He isn't afraid and likes slogging the ball, trying to bowl fast and flying around the field. Innovation and belief are essential in Twenty20 and Christian is well qualified in both departments.
At Australia's squad camp he was practising his ramp shot off Brett Lee, which is not something to attempt if you're unsure about your status in the game. "It's only a cricket ball," he says. "If it hit me in the right spot it might hurt me, but it's one of the shots I've worked a lot on. It's not that difficult, but you've got to have the courage to play it."
Allrounders can be broken into those who can do anything effortlessly and those who have to struggle like a decathlete in improving each discipline. While Christian has had to sweat for his promotions, he has been born into the natural domain. In top form he can swing the ball and nudge 140kph, but he's also comfortable slowing down to 95kph to produce offcutters. Such is his confidence he even delivered an over of legspin in a Sheffield Shield game. It didn't go well, but was worth a try.
With the bat he can be brutal, particularly when aiming at Adelaide's square boundaries, and he is one of those rare strikers whose eyes don't need a warm-up ball. Although he did take one on his debut with Australia. Coming in with the side needing one to win and the West Indies fielders ringed around him, he blocked Nikita Miller's initial offering. "The whole crowd booed me, which was pretty funny," he says. The second one was clipped over square leg for four. "I got a fair piece of it, it was a pretty good feeling."
The life of a Twenty20 allrounder is not filled with opportunities. Those two balls are the only ones he has faced in three internationals, and he has not added to his couple of wickets in that match during three subsequent overs. "Whatever it is, I just want to try and contribute, in any form of the game, in at least one discipline," he says. "Whether I bowl well on the day or bat well or take some good catches and a run-out. Obviously it would be nice to do all three in the one game, but it never happens. Well, very rarely."
Gillespie and Lawson are both impressed with the development of Christian's bowling during his time at South Australia. They also agree there are few men in the game who can do what Christian does. "He can turn an innings," Gillespie says. "He can really finish an innings off well and he's got a big array of shots, which is absolutely crucial in those final overs. He's got talent to burn, a good head on his shoulders, there's no reason why he can't succeed."
Lawson calls him "balanced" in cricket and life. "He's not just an allrounder in the sense that he can bat in the top six and bowl, as a frontline bowler, but he also plays all forms of the game equally as well," he says.
Christian is less effusive, rating his performances with bat and ball as "sporadic". There are state players who believe Christian can excel as a long-form representative, a more complete package than Andrew McDonald. To do that he can't limit his outlook and be satisfied with making his name in Twenty20. It is a dilemma for many young players who have been swept up by a game that they love and are so well suited to.
In the South Australia squad Christian is known as a cricket nuffy, someone who loves talking about the game and playing it. He's been that way since his backyard battles throughout his childhood in Narrandera. "If we weren't playing cricket we'd be playing cricket on the Nintendo," his school mate Ian Donaldson remembers.
The town doesn't have a proper clubhouse so there are no honour boards with Christian's name, but the cricket people still talk about him a lot. In his first senior game, aged 12 or 13, his captain seems to recall him being a bit scared before batting against the men. That attitude didn't last long. Nothing frightens him now. Not crouching down for a ramp shot to Brett Lee, or juggling his allrounder duties. Or being a cricket role model for Australia's indigenous population.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo