Hunt for Aboriginal talent starts at the Top End

Field of Dreamtime … the Tennant Creek and Alice Springs teams in the Imparja Cup.AT THE age of 47, Digger has seen better days. But with his Tennant Creek side in trouble against the old foe, Alice Springs, he strides proudly to the crease, his long, wiry beard barely moving despite the late afternoon breeze. For 20 years he’s padded up to face his arch-rivals in this annual clash. Now he wields the willow like a fighting stick, a series of dashing cut shots drawing roars of approval from the modest crowd at Traeger Park. The legs don’t move as fast as they used to, and when there’s a chance of a run out, he dives full length and barely scrapes into the crease. The crowd erupts. Even the Alice Springs fans jump to their feet and, as one, will him home.

A modest 10 runs seems like a spectacular century, and as Digger trudges back to the dressing room the onlookers rise once more, showing their appreciation of an Imparja Cup legend.

As the game unfolded on Wednesday, a thoughtful Ross Williams watched on, remembering the day back in 1993 when it all started.

”I was actually sitting in the Tennant Creek Hotel and one of my cousins, Mervyn Franey, went through. We had a quiet beer – it was 48 degrees outside. I said to him, ‘You’re a member of the Imparja board of directors – is it possible that we can have a game between Tennant Creek and Alice Springs? I said most of us are families and a lot of our younger relatives and cousins haven’t met their family in Alice and it’d be a good way to get the connections going together again.’ ”

The pair had a friendly wager on which team would win and the Imparja Cup was born.

Twenty years later and 500 indigenous players descend on Alice Springs from around the country, competing in community and state competitions. But behind the celebrations there is a universal acknowledgement that the indigenous population has been largely ignored by Australian cricket since 1868, when the first Australian touring side, made up entirely of Aborigines, set sail for England.

Of the 432 baggy greens handed to Australian men, only one has been worn by a player acknowledging indigenous heritage – Jason Gillespie. The former Test fast bowler said he always knew of his background but did not realise its significance until it was revealed in a newspaper report.

”I must admit when I was first alerted to that fact [I was the only indigenous Test player] it absolutely blew me away but then I thought about it a lot more,” Gillespie said. ”Cricket Australia would love nothing more than an indigenous player and, with all due respect to myself, they want a full-blooded indigenous Australian playing in the Test side. That would be their ultimate goal, but how do you get there?”

The women’s game hasn’t fared much better. In 1958, South Australian fast bowler Faith Thomas opened the bowling for Australia against England and took the wicket of the English captain with a searing yorker that sent middle stump cartwheeling straight over the keeper’s head. Now 80, Thomas remains the sole indigenous woman to represent her country, but it is not the baggy green that stirs her pride.

”We’ve got the maroon and white one, the first team that went to England, I call that the black fella’s baggy green,” Thomas said. ”So when I go to schools I take that and talk about the first Aboriginal team, the first cricket team that went to England, and the kids have a choice of putting on whichever cap they want, and most of them go for that one … the Aboriginal baggy green, and that really makes me proud you know, that they want to sit on my lap and have their photo taken.”

The case of Eddie Gilbert illustrates the difficulties indigenous cricketers have faced. The Queensland fast bowler terrorised opposition batsmen in the 1930s and once famously dismissed Donald Bradman for a duck. Bradman compared Gilbert’s pace to Harold Larwood and several players considered him the fastest bowler of the time. But state laws forced Gilbert to obtain special permission to travel from his settlement, there were suggestions of an illegal bowling action, and it is widely believed prevailing racist attitudes played a part in preventing him playing for Australia.

If Gilbert were to emerge today, it would be a different story. Cricket Australia officials consider it a significant goal to increase the number of indigenous cricketers in state and national competitions. Early in the week, National Talent Manager Greg Chappell spent two days casting his eye over the current crop of state representative players.

”Cricket Australia’s quite serious about it,” Chappell said. ”There’s a big contingent from different departments here this week, not least of which is game development, which is really important because we’ve got to get indigenous kids involved in the game as early as possible”

Chappell is frank about the game’s failure in the past to produce elite indigenous players. ”None of us are happy about the fact that we’re only aware of one indigenous player having played Test cricket and that’s Jason Gillespie,” he said. ”We’ve had a number, probably a handful, that have played first-class cricket, a couple playing currently in Josh Lalor and Daniel Christian. It’s nowhere near enough when you consider the talent pool that’s there.”

Cricket Australia’s commitment to improve indigenous participation leaves it trailing far behind sports such as AFL and NRL, which have long been embraced by Aborigines. There are no Ben Barbas or Buddy Franklins at the highest level of cricket to inspire the next generation to pick up a bat or ball and, particularly in remote areas, high-quality equipment and facilities are scarce and expensive.

As Gillespie noted: ”The cost of just putting together a basic kit to play cricket – it’s immense. You’ve got your bat, your pads, gloves, whites, and shoes. Footy – you put a pair of boots on and you’ve got 40 kids running around and off you go. You don’t even need boots, you just start booting a footy around.”

Over the past week, representatives from several communities said they wanted more game development officers, indigenous officers, and regular clinics and competitions for children.

”Instead of just having cricket clinics during Imparja Cup, it’d be good to see more cricket development officers go out to more of the communities and spend more time with the kids, coaching, running the clinics,” Williams said.

Perhaps one answer lies north of Darwin, on the Tiwi Islands. Last year the Tiwi Islands put together a team to compete in the Imparja Cup’s community division, under the guidance of local sports and recreation officer Mick Rees.

”We basically put out onto the table what cricket was available, what formats and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ We didn’t go there and say, ‘This is cricket, this is how you play it,’ ” Rees said. ”We worked out the best format to suit was a super eights format that the guys play at Imparja Cup because we identified early that, if we’re going to be successful in building some sort of pathway, we need it to lead to high performance.”

A year on, player numbers have tripled, the Department of Sport and Recreation runs regular cricket clinics in schools, and a high-performance pathway has emerged.

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