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Stuart Wark

The Aboriginal question

Aboriginals make up only a small percentage of Australia's cricketers, raising questions about the board's track record in terms of player integration

Stuart Wark
Stuart Wark
The Aboriginal players who toured England in 1868

The Aboriginal players who toured England in 1868

A question, posed to me recently, asked whether Andrew Symonds was the first "non-white" player to ever represent Australia.
In fact, the first "black" cricketer to play for Australia was Sam Morris - born in Tasmania to West Indian parents - who made his Test debut on January 1, 1885, nearly 130 years ago. It is also worth noting that the first tour of England by players from Australia was the 1868 side composed of Aboriginal cricketers from Victoria. At the time of commencement of Test cricket in 1877, Australia was predominantly populated with people with British heritage, and as such, it is not surprising that historically players were "white".
However, since the time of Morris, Australian cricket has not featured many people of indigenous heritage other than Jason Gillespie and Dan Christian in recent years. This is in significant contrast to the representation of aboriginal players in the various football codes. For example, the Australian Football League (AFL) notes on its website that there are currently around 70 Aboriginal players featuring for the various top-line clubs. This means that around 10% of players have indigenous heritage. Similarly, 12% of all the National Rugby League players identify as being Aboriginal. This representation is very high, when considering that people of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage make up around 2-3% of the total Australian population.
It would appear appropriate therefore to wonder about Cricket Australia's track record in terms of player integration and whether they need to adopt a quota system similar to that of South Africa in recent years. Australia in general undoubtedly has a very shameful past in terms of its racial policies; I won't go into the "White Australia" policy in great detail that was phased out decades ago.
However, the issue of getting more Aboriginal players in cricket is not as simple as adopting a quota system. While I agree wholeheartedly that we should encourage Aboriginal participation in higher-level cricket, to bring in a quota system may actually disadvantage Aboriginal players in light of the relatively small number of cricketers contracted at the first-class and Test level. The parallels with South Africa are not appropriate, as the non-white population is actually predominant in those countries.
It is also worth recognising that bat-and-ball games like cricket were not played generally in Australia prior to 1770, but there were a number of games similar to football. In fact, Australian Rules Football is very similar in structure to a traditional Aboriginal game called "Marn Grook". Tom Willis, the famous cricketer who wrote the rules for AFL back in 1858-59, played Marn Grook as a child with the local Aboriginal community in Victoria. This background meant that there was some historical bent for Aboriginal people towards playing football over cricket, golf and tennis - which are the three major Australian sports in which there has traditionally been little Aboriginal involvement at the highest level (apart from Evonne Goolagong in tennis and more recently Scott Gardiner in golf).
In the past being Aboriginal has cost players representative honours in cricket. Many people will cite Eddie Gilbert as an example. However, I don't think his race was necessarily the deciding factor in his non-selection. He was picked to play against both English and South African touring teams for Queensland, but his performances in these games were very average, and this probably counted against him. There is a very good biography of Eddie by Mike Colman and Ken Edwards that is well worth tracking down for those interested. There were a lot of claims that he threw, but it's hard to know whether this was true or simply a bias based upon his colour.
Jason Gillespie has been used successfully as a role model, and spends a lot of time raising the profile of cricket among Aboriginal people
The most unlucky player was probably Jack Marsh who played back in the early 1900s. He was a very talented bowler who terrorised touring sides. The English team one year refused to play against him at Bathurst because they felt his pace bowling was a threat to their safety. Many cricket historians feel that he was worthy of a place in the national team, but he was never picked beyond NSW duties. It would appear highly probable that he missed out due to his race, rather than ability. JC Davis, a prominent journalist of the time, wrote in the Referee that "Jack Marsh would have been one of the world's greatest bowlers if he was a white man", which was not to downplay Marsh's skills but rather the attitude of national selectors towards him. Marsh was also a great sprinter, and actually broke the ten-second mark for 100 yards in professional meetings (which was claimed as a world record at the time). Sadly, he was killed in a pub brawl at a young age. There is an excellent book about Marsh called How many more are coming? by Max Bonnell.
Other Aboriginal players who went on to first-class cricket included Roger Brown from Tasmania back in the 1980s, Ian King in the 1970s, and Albert Henry from the very early 1900s, as well as Twopenny and Johnny Mullagh who played for Victoria after being a key members of the 1868 touring party to England. Christian has played for Australia after representing NSW and South Australia for the past few years.
It is often commented anecdotally that there are few Aboriginal players in grade cricket around Australia. However, a survey of Australian cricket clubs indicated that around 2% of senior players were indigenous players, which is almost exactly in line with the 2011 Australian Bureau of Statistics census estimation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. Nonetheless, it still raises the question why there is less representation than in the various football codes.
Cricket Australia has identified this issue, and indeed deserves credit for working to promote the game in Aboriginal communities. Their current schedule includes the Imparja Cup, an annual national all-indigenous cricket competition. More than 500 indigenous cricketers from across Australia went to Alice Springs in February 2013 for the National Indigenous Cricket Carnival. There is also a National Indigenous Development Squad that plays games against other national sides.
Courtney Walsh and other West Indian players have been roped in to spend time in central Australia promoting the game to indigenous communities. Gillespie has been used successfully as a role model, and spends a lot of time raising the profile of cricket among Aboriginal people. Each state has a development squad as well, with players such as Worrin Williams, Josh Lalor, and D'Arcy Short gaining mainstream state selection or contracts after being initially identified through the Indigenous squad.
Whether these steps are enough to redress the current under-representation of Aboriginal players is uncertain, but it is possible to be hopeful that we will see more players like Gillespie in the near future. Australian cricket will undoubtedly be the stronger for it.

Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow