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Walking in the footsteps of Dick-a-Dick: a new path for Australia's indigenous cricketers

The 2018 Aboriginal XI tour of England is about celebrating the past - but the legacy could be significant for Australian cricket's future

Jarrod Kimber
Jarrod Kimber
People are throwing hats at an indigenous Australian man at Lord's. Not because he's indigenous, but because Dick-a-Dick, famed tracker, cricketer and showman, has dared them to do it. Dick-a-Dick was so quick and smart, that even when everyone threw their hats at once, he was basically never hit.
The Aboriginal XI of 1868 knew they were entertainers paid to put on a show. On the field it was star player Johnny Mullagh Unaarrimin, and off the field it was Dick-a-Dick, who also won the races for running backwards.
At the time it was just another sideshow. Cricket has had plenty of interesting tours, festivals and random games. The indigenous tour of 1868 was popular at the time, but the reason it grew in historical value was the rivalry that followed and because it was the only highlight in indigenous cricket for over 120 years.
The only other potential highlight in that time was when Faith Thomas played a Test in 1958. But that was a time when women's cricket was barely talked about, let alone coverage for indigenous women. Mostly there were bad stories. Three gifted indigenous bowlers were thrown out of cricket for chucking and the prolific West Australian John McGuire made over 10,000 runs in Perth club cricket 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."
Although potentially the worst wasn't even the rejection, it was all those players who never made it to the level to be rejected.
But things have changed. Australia is still wrestling with its past, but cricket is trying to make up for it. That not one but two indigenous teams - men's and women's - are currently in the UK is something special.
While the meaning of this tour is history, the critical part is the future.
Many players on this tour - especially those on the men's side - are professional athletes. They're part of development squads, academies, professional teams and state structures. Even the women, who are mostly amateur, have trained and prepared like pro players for this tour. Sure, it is nice the stumps have been beautifully hand-painted, and that the team has a beautiful logo, but the important thing for cricket is that indigenous Australians continue to play it. And not just because it's the right thing morally, but because it's in the best interests of Australia's cricket teams.
The women's team lost to Surrey Women's XI, which was quite strong. And their main problem seemed missing chances in the field. This was clearly a team in need of far more development. The men's team have already shown what can be done with this extra help.
D'Arcy Short wasn't raised knowing about his indigenous roots; it was something he learned in his late teens. But being from the Northern Territory, which is without a team in the Sheffield Shield, Short needed something to grab people's attention. That was his batting for Northern Territory's Imparja Cup (a tournament for indigenous players) side. It was also the Imparja Cup where Dan Christian first gained captaincy experience. That tournament didn't even exist when Short was born, and it was his form there that lead to him ending up in the Western Australia set-up.
Brendan Smith and Dan Christian both faced 24 balls. Christian, one of the most in-demand T20 players in the world, made 29. Smith made 61
Short has left the indigenous tour because he is required in the main Australian team for their ODI series against England. As Greg Aldam, Northern Territory's coach, said this year, "I'm really confident the next D'Arcy Short is out there."
So how many Shorts have been lost? Indigenous athletes have been world beaters in rugby, tennis, boxing, athletics, and almost everything else, not to mention their domination of Australian Rules football.
It's not just indigenous cricketers who have Australia missed out on. There are many sections of society - regional cricketers, first-generation refugees, Asian cricketers - who simply don't appear in the national sides often enough. If Cricket Australia is serious about putting out the best team they can, then perhaps they should be looking at encouraging all sorts of historically overlooked cricket players in tournaments and tours.
A tour like this may look like a gimmick - much like the original - with some games of low quality; and the matches The Oval are a guinea pig for Surrey's hybrid wicket (8% of the pitch is synthetic). But in the broader context of Australian cricket, it's essential. For the younger members of the squad, this is the chance to train and tour while getting experience in England and learning from Australian players like Christian and Scott Boland.
Boland was outstanding with the ball against Surrey XI, zipping the ball around on the hybrid pitch, and practically unplayable in his first-over maiden. Surrey struggled to get him away, and that meant the Aboriginal XI were always in front of the game. When Surrey got back into their chase, young legspinner Jonte Pattison took the crucial wicket and slowed down the scoring. And as Surrey had their last gasp at victory, allrounder Ben Patterson bowled a great over to all-but clinch the game (before a wobbly over from Brisbane Heat's Brendan Doggett almost gave it back). Neither Pattison nor Patterson have played a List A game; helping win a game at the Oval is a big deal for them.
Neither has Brendan Smith, who since representing Australia at Under-19 level in 2015 has not played a top-level match. At one stage Smith flicks a ball so effortlessly for six, it's hard to tell if it's a practice shot he's doing between balls. Smith batted for much of his innings with Christian. They both faced 24 balls. Christian, one of the most in-demand T20 players in the world, made 29. Smith made 61.
But it's Tyran Liddiard who made the most significant impact.
Surrey's Sam Burge tries to scoop a ball over his left shoulder, but wicketkeeper Liddiard is already on the move. Before Burge makes contact, Liddiard is down the leg side, running to where he would stand for a left hander. Burge does get a bit on the ball and it races towards the boundary… until it's stopped. Liddiard is horizontal, at full stretch as if his body was on a rack, the gasometer behind him, his left hand with the ball. It feels like it happens in a camera flash while also lasting a lifetime.
On a standard day, the ball would have been leg slips catch.
None of us ever saw Dick-a-Dick running backwards or dodging top hats, but as great as he was, it's hard to believe he ever did anything as athletic as Liddiard's catch. Dick-a-Dick will rightly remain a legend, but for all that he did, indigenous cricket never moved on. Liddiard's athleticism might be showing us a glimpse of the future of indigenous cricket.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber