November 1, 2012

An indigenous team's Australian dream

A side different from the usual Australian ones visited India last month

The sight of foreign cricketers playing or practising at a ground in India is a matter of curiosity for passers-by. A slip-catching and fielding drill, scattered applause and chirps in a familiar accent had drawn a few spectators outside the perimeter of the MIG Club in Bandra, Mumbai, on a hot day in late October. It was an Australian side but one unlike any other that had visited India before.

The Australian National Indigenous Team was in India for its first tour of the country, to play a few matches against local clubs. The experience was of special significance for the squad of players, some of whom were travelling outside Australia for the first time. They were young, confident, proud of their Aboriginal identity, and not discouraged by the past in their pursuit of achievement. Playing cricket for Australia was the ultimate goal, and their conviction that circumstances would not impede their progress came across loud and clear.

"We're the face of indigenous cricket in Australia," said coach Barry Weare, 31, as we sat on a small bench just under the pavilion, behind the straight boundary. Tapping away at his iPad, scoring each delivery as his side bowled, Weare patiently heard out the inevitable questions about being part of a community whose previous generations had had cause for apprehension, not optimism, about their life in Australia. Was he a victim of discrimination? Are there still institutional barriers to progress? How did he react to the Kevin Rudd apology? Why has Australia only had a couple of Aboriginal cricketers playing international cricket in recent times?

In his answers, as with other members of the squad who were interviewed, politics took a back seat to sport. Most of the players were under 23, from cities or from near them, and had been raised in an increasingly multi-cultural environment in which exposure to cricket came easily. Their smooth initiation into the game and subsequent progress to grade level, and initiatives undertaken by Cricket Australia, have given them hope that cricket can be a vehicle for greater integration and recognition.

"Overall, Australia is becoming more and more cultural, and we've just generally got to be aware of everybody's culture. That's the glue, it's about having that respect," Weare said. "Sport's a big one, it brings everyone together. Remember, with the IPL, the scenes between Harbhajan [Singh] and Roy [Andrew Symonds] - when they played in the same team, there was an understanding between those guys."

Weare is a former captain of the indigenous side, toured England in 2001, and is among the few indigenous Level 3 coaches in Australia. He grew up in Cairns, where he picked up the game playing in the backyard, and went on to work with Queensland Cricket for seven years.

A majority of the players on the India tour participate in major city competitions in their states. For some, that's a path to playing first-grade cricket, and eventually of graduating to the first-class level. The squad comprises the best players from the Imparja Cup, the annual Aboriginal tournament in Alice Springs. The competition, which also includes a girls' component, has three tiers: state, which is where these touring players are drawn from; major townships like Darwin and Alice Springs; and the communities league, which features players mainly from Central Australia and also, recently, from Southern Queensland.

According to Australia's 2006 census, Aborigines make up 2.5% of the country's population. Most live in regional areas and cities, and 24% were classified as living in "remote" and "very remote" communities. "What we need to do is make sure what we learn here is paid back and spread, and we give the opportunity for other Aboriginal people to play cricket by our guys going out and engaging with people, particularly in the remote communities," said Aaron Briscoe from Alice Springs, the manager of the side and the oldest member of the touring party.

In the last decade, only two Australians of Aboriginal descent have played cricket at the international level - Jason Gillespie and Dan Christian. In 2006, the Aboriginal squad that toured England in 1868 was officially acknowledged as the first to represent Australia in any sporting code but cricketing role models for the community have been few thus far. Australian Rules Football and the rugby codes have drawn more Aboriginal players.

"The tradition for cricket among Aboriginals has been quite strong, but in a less formal way," Briscoe said. "There is not the step up to the High Performance level. There are lots of players who play grade cricket and community cricket, but we haven't necessarily provided the right sort of environment to expose and encourage young Aboriginal men to come and play at that level. But we're working on the structure and support mechanisms to ensure they do get the opportunity."

Among the squad members, the captain, Josh Lalor has played first-class and List A cricket for New South Wales, and a game for Sydney Sixers, and vice-captain D'Arcy Short has had a Ryobi Cup game with Western Australia. "If someone asked them, they would describe themselves as of Aboriginal descent," Briscoe said of the touring players. "I don't think they carry the ghosts of 1868 on their shoulders. They play cricket because they enjoy it.

"They also happen to be Aboriginal people who can contribute to the development of indigenous cricket at the national and state level. The more people we get, the more likely it is that we'll get an increasing critical mass."

Their roots are a matter of pride for the players, and their desire to give back to the community strong. John Green, 30, and the oldest of the players, grew up in Melbourne, idolised Curtly Ambrose and Glenn McGrath. He said the subject of his identity was not discussed much at home. "It was kept pretty low on my side," he said. "I've just started realising a bit of my background now. Just knowing that I'd got a lot of family out there I didn't even know." Green works with the Aboriginal Health Service, looking after elders. "I hear a lot of stories, and it's just really hard for a lot of them, what they went through."

The most pleasantly talkative of the lot was also among the youngest. Dylan Fuller, 17, is from Darwin but studies at boarding school in Adelaide. His mother, with whom he occasionally talks in her native tongue, is from one of the remote communities around Katherine, 380km from Darwin.

"There's a lot of indigenous guys who play cricket, and I love it, so no one can stop me," Fuller said. "There [were] a lot of other indigenous boys [at boarding school], so we just have that connection once we've met. We just feel like we're brothers, but I hang out with just everyone, really."

That didn't mean racism was absent. "You, kind of, like, hear at the footy and cricket - Aboriginals playing the game get stuff like that over the fence towards their race," said one of the players, but added: "It's starting to stop, which is really good."

Relations between Aboriginal people and the state, and the various burning issues around racial divisions do not seem to be major points of discussion for these players, even among themselves, given their own relatively comfortable and integrated upbringing in Australia. However, their playing cricket could help draw attention to problems affecting many in the community. "I don't want to overstate it but there is still a level of institutional barriers that limit Aboriginal people from participating in the sort of activities they want to participate in," said Briscoe.

"Aboriginal people, and the broader Australian community, need to help all Australians understand what it is to be an Aboriginal person, why it is that there are disadvantages, and why it is that there are support programmes to increase the level of their participation in education, the legal system, and the everyday working environment. [When] you get young kids like this playing grade cricket, mainstream Australians get to ask questions about the hot-topic issues for Aboriginal people, which they might not have done before."

This tour was a part of an initiative by CA, which sends an indigenous side overseas each year. It travelled to England in 2009, Papua New Guinea the year after, and to India this year. Four members of the squad had been to India before on scholarships, as part of a working arrangement between CA and the Mumbai-based Global Cricket School. This tour ultimately developed in partnership with the Australian government and became part of the launch of OzFest, a four-month-long cultural festival covering 18 Indian towns and cities.

The trip, which also involved some games in Pune, included a visit to Asia's largest slum, Dharavi, in Mumbai. Many players described the experience as an eye-opener; others compared the circumstances to those of the disadvantaged Aboriginal population back home. Exclamations of "Jai-ho" to some of their Indian hosts revealed some of them had watched Slumdog Millionaire, and the team participated in a garba and dandiya dance performance.

There was much learnt. "One of our boys got his bats stolen the other day, in Pune," Briscoe said. "He's had to regroup, think about what he's got to do, organise new bats and get on with his batting. That is a challenge and he's moved on, and I'm proud of the way he's dealt with the situation."

Tours such as these encourage greater bonding among players, the youngest of whom in this case is 16, but just as invaluable is the mentorship from a professional support staff. "Some players don't care about how much you know but how much you care," Weare said. "For me, it's about knowing each and every one of these players. I've sat down and had a coffee or a drink with them over the past week or two, and spent a long time getting to know them, just so that they trust me and I can get a way in to know what they're thinking and how they operate."

For the record, the side won three of its five games in India. The players will scatter across Australia upon their return and play in the Imparja Cup in February 2013. To have been part of a flagship squad for Aboriginal players is bound to have been a special experience. Short, Fuller and Lalor could possibly be among those to follow the lead of Gillespie and Christian and break into the Australia side. There's no shortage of confidence among these players that merit, not their identity, will determine the path their cricketing careers take.

Siddhartha Talya is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo