Tracing Australian cricket's indigenous past until the BBL

Cricket Australia is trying to rectify the mistakes of the past; they know they're playing catch up to sports like Australian rules football. But for the first time they are trying to find indigenous players

Jarrod Kimber
Jarrod Kimber
Getty Images

Getty Images

Monday night was just a regular Big Bash League game. The Brisbane Heat are searching for wickets, the Hobart Hurricanes have just broken the hard part of the chase. D'Arcy Short is taking a deep breath at the non-strikers' end, Brendan Doggett is talking to his captain (Brendon McCullum), and Daniel Christian is preparing to face up.
It's such a standard piece of cricket, such a small moment; you could've missed it. The men in the middle didn't even think about it. Later, when it was brought to their attention, they wished Josh Lalor (in Brisbane Heat's squad) had been playing too. In that one instant, Australian cricket did something it had never done, it had three top-level indigenous cricketers in action at the same time.
Then Doggett ruined it by taking Christian's wicket. Of course, Doggett is just doing what fast bowlers do - take wickets.
Former England batsman Pelham Warner had said Australia's Jack Marsh was the best bowler in the world in 1903. Marsh was quick; he took Victor Trumper once. But Warner and many others accused Marsh of being a shier, what today we call a chucker. To combat those accusations, Marsh went to a hospital and requested they put splints on his arm, to keep it straight. Then he bowled, and those there said he was bowling as fast as ever.
He should have been cleared forever from chucking. After 1903, Marsh never played another first-class match. In six games, he took 34 wickets at 2147. Marsh was indigenous. Warren Bardsley wrote of Marsh "that the reason they kept him out of big cricket was his colour".
If Marsh wasn't the quickest bowler of his era, Albert Henry probably was. In seven first-class matches, he took 21 wickets at 32. He also got called for chucking. Henry reportedly said, "You no-ball my good balls and the ones I did throw, you never. You know nothing about cricket." He didn't play much after that. This all happened in cricket's golden age.
A similar story concerns Eddie Gilbert. He played 23 first-class games, taking 87 wickets with a 29 average and striking every 56 balls. But being that he was also indigenous, he had to get permission to leave his settlement to play because of the Protection of Aboriginals Act 1897.
When Don Bradman arrived at the Gabba after his previous knock against Queensland of 452*, Gilbert played. When Gilbert took a wicket first ball, the crowd cheered with delight. Not for the wicket, but because Bradman was coming in. Bradman handled Gilbert's first ball. Bradman was knocked over by the second delivery. A couple of balls later Bradman tried to hook and ended up with the bat leaving his hand. Bradman tried to hook again, this time edging behind. Gilbert knocked him over, smacked the bat out of his hand and dismissed him for a duck. That spell partly inspired Bodyline.
But the talk about Gilbert being a chucker only got louder. And despite being a talented player, he was sent back to his settlement, after being asked to give back his cricket clothes to the Queensland Cricket Association. Indigenous cricket was practically relegated to the settlement with him.
For the longest time Gilbert was the most famous indigenous player. Faith Thomas represented the Australian women's team at a time no one much cared for women playing cricket, indigenous or not. Ian King and Michael Mainhardt played some first-class cricket. And that's not that far from the full list of players. In the 1980s, John McGuire made more than 10,000 runs in Perth club cricket and trialled for Western Australia, but never got a Shield game. "There wasn't a match," he told the Guardian last year, "I wasn't racially abused in when I went out to bat."
Australia has had players born in Sri Lanka and Portugal and the children of Eastern European immigrants with no knowledge of cricket. In Richard Chee Quee, they had their first Shield cricketer of Chinese origin. Usman Khawaja is the Test match No. 3. But indigenous cricketers, with their great history in the game, never made it past grade cricket. There were rumours, stories and myths about great players, and racist attitudes they couldn't overcome. But you never saw them, almost none for a state, certainly not for their nation.
Their history in the game was as solid as anyone's. The first Australian touring side to England was made of almost only indigenous players. Many of them not known by their real names, but by racist nicknames, like (Jim Crow) Jallachmurrimin and (King Cole) Brippokei. Twenty years ago, there was a move to make them Test players. Some cricket fans fought it, saying they weren't real Test players. Which is overlooking that many early players weren't Test players at the time and were only given that status years later. And the first Australian Test team to England was a team who paid their own way as a business venture, and had no Tests planned before leaving. Which was very similar to that the indigenous team that toured before them. On that tour, (Johnny Mullagh) Unaarrimin averaged around 20 with the bat and 10 with the ball.
Between this tour and Jason Gillespie playing for Australia, indigenous athletes starred in many sports. They won Olympic gold, the Brownlow medal (the highest honour) in Australian rules football, captained Australia in rugby league, represented in hockey and rugby union, won Wimbledon, the Australian and French Opens, and won world title boxing belts. Over the last few years, there has been an indigenous athlete in the NFL and also the NBA.
For most of the time cricket had history with indigenous Australians, almost every other sport had current day reality.
Since Gillespie's debut as the first indigenous male cricketer to represent Australia, things have changed. In 1994, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek would play an indigenous game that then became the Imparja Cup. Cricket Australia made that into a national competition in 2001. That has allowed for many indigenous players to be seen by state associations and get into academies. Cricket in Australia is still about the six Sheffield Shield teams, and the cities they are based. If you're from the Northern Territory, far north Queensland or the Tiwi Islands, your chances of making it are much lower, regardless of your race. Cricket Australia is trying to rectify this; they know they're playing catch up to sports like Australian rules football. But for the first time they are trying to find indigenous players.
In the past, Australians rarely looked into their ancestry, and if white families knew of indigenous heritage, they often hid it because of the shame. Gillespie is the first known male indigenous player to represent Australia; it's possible that other Australian players of previous eras didn't know, or weren't comfortable speaking up. Now people embrace their heritage. D'Arcy Short and Scott Boland weren't raised thinking they were indigenous; they found out later.
Then there is the BBL, men's and women's. Australia has more professional cricketers than it has ever had. More people can take up cricket as a profession. Thirty years ago, Ashleigh Gardner wouldn't have been a professional cricketer because she was a woman. And being indigenous might have made it fairly unlikely she'd have played for Australia. Now she's done both.
Right now, with eight teams per competition, franchises are desperate for new players. Your background is less important than the fact you can hit sixes. With Short, there was a fight over his services, because, like Gardner, he hits the ball very hard. The old state cricket system, which almost made it feel like it was a privileged men's club you were asked to join, is gone. The old blazer wearers no longer have the power. Cricket has general managers and list managers who want to win to keep their jobs, and your ethnic blend or upbringing is unimportant.
In the BBL this year, there are Lalor, Christian, Short, Doggett, Gardner, Boland, and Gillespie as the Strikers coach. Other fringe players may get on lists next year. That doesn't seem like many, but it's a hell of a start.
The moment of Short and Christian batting together with Doggett bowling should be noted, because cricket has changed.
Gilbert has a cricket ground and competition named after him, Jack Marsh a competition, and those first Australian tourists were put into Cricket Australia's hall of fame.
Gilbert spent time, and ultimately died at the Goodna Hospital for the Insane (renamed the Wolston Park Hospital). Albert Henry died of tuberculosis at the age of 29. Jack Marsh was killed outside a pub; the two men charged were acquitted. They played 41 first-class matches and no Tests. Australian cricket has a terrible past, and there is nothing that can change that history.
As a nation, Australia is still struggling with its racist past and present. Recently, there has been the war on Apex gangs coming from the prime minister, people following African Australian families home to threaten them, and Channel 7 doing puff pieces on Nazis re-branded as a "kind of neighbourhood watch". Not to mention the fight over whether the 26th of January is invasion day or Australia Day.
But on Monday night, Christian was caught off the bowling of Doggett for 23, and Short was the not out batsman on 58 at the time. Just a simple normal everyday moment in cricket. It doesn't sound like much, but it was one of the most beautiful moments in Australian cricket history. This isn't a golden age for indigenous Australian cricket, but for the first time, you could see how there could be one. Last night was not just a regular Big Bash game.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber