Ashleigh Gardner, the Sydney Sixers player who featured in the Women’s Big Bash League final on Saturday (January 28), has something in common with Jason Gillespie. And Faith Thomas, Dan Christian, Cathy Freeman, Adam Goodes and Michael Long.
All of them are some of the most prominent athletes who belong to Australia’s minority indigenous community, of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.
Boxing Day 2016. Before the first ball was bowled at the MCG, Gillespie and Thomas were felicitated as the only two indigenous cricketers to have played Test cricket for Australia. Thomas was the first, in 1958, making her the first aboriginal woman to represent Australia in any sport. Gillespie made his debut in 1996. Gardner, fifth on the WBBL batting charts and with ten wickets to back that, will be hoping to join their ranks soon.
Considering that in 1868, the first ever sporting team to leave Australian shores was indigenous, it is a comment on Australian society that only two of the 450 Australians who have played Test cricket have come from the indigenous communities.
After England’s James Cook landed in Botany Bay, part of modern-day Sydney, in 1770, the settlers, in the name of imperial colonization, claimed Australia as terra nullius, or ‘nobody’s land’. It sparked the start of two centuries of atrocities and discrimination against the indigenous Australians, the most infamous being the cases of the Stolen Generations. Reflecting the tensions still present, January 26, celebrated as Australia Day to commemorate the arrival of the First Fleet of settlers in 1788, is called Invasion Day or Survival Day by some sections of indigenous Australians.
Today, the Australian government has a number of welfare schemes to help in the education and social and economic empowerment of indigenous people. There’s still a way to go, however, as John Pilger’s award-winning 2013 documentary Utopia showed, by highlighting the poverty and discrimination faced by the communities.
So where does cricket fit into all of this? As part of their vision to make cricket a sport for all Australians, Cricket Australia (CA) have, for the past decade or so, implemented initiatives to increase the number of indigenous people playing cricket. CA are a supporter of ‘Recognise’, an organisation aiming “to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution and ensure there’s no place in it for racial discrimination”.
“We have a distinct national championship, the National Indigenous Cricket Championship (NICC) that is made up of indigenous players – men and women – from each state,” said Sam Almaliki, CA’s head of community engagement. “For the men it is T20 and 50 overs, for the women, T20. This tournament is designed to accelerate talent in a community that has been historically under represented. Besides this, we have about 15 indigenous cricket carnivals around the country, including the Imparja Cup, which are focused on participation.”
Australia’s Northern Territory, where 14% of the population is aboriginal, does not play in the Sheffield Shield, or the Women’s National Cricket League. “I think it’s more a reflection of population and historical talent,” said Almaliki. Northern Territory holds around 1% of the Australian population, despite comprising roughly 18 % of the area. With just over 2.11 lakh residents, it has considerably less people than Australian Capital Territory, which is 99% smaller. ACT do field a team in the WNCL, though not in the Sheffield Shield.
According to Almaliki, three years ago, there were about 8,500 indigenous players playing the game. That number rose to 36,000 last year. “We’re hoping that by the end of this season we’ll get to 50,000 cricketers across all disciplines.” There are eight state contracted played (seven men and one woman), and seven BBL and three WBBL contracted players.
An Australian indigenous team is selected from the NICC, which sometimes tours overseas. In 2012, an Australian men’s indigenous team toured India. In 2016, a women’s team was selected for the first time, for a historic tour of India. Their journey has been made a documentary, named Shark Curry.
Captain of that team was Sydney teenager Gardner. “It was a bit of a shock,” Gardner said of her appointment as captain, “because I’m only 19, and I was captaining girls almost double my age.”
She has since vindicated the selectors’ faith, with her WBBL performances earning her a place in the commentator’s tournament XI. Sydney Sixers have given her opportunities to bat at No.3, ahead of internationals like Sara McGlashan and Dane van Niekerk, and she made 414 runs in their title-winning run.
“To captain that team was a big honour. Also it was a very difficult tour (temperatures touched 45ºC). It was the first time going overseas for most of us, to a place that is like nowhere else. It was definitely a challenge.”
Gardner, who belongs to the Muruwari tribe on her mother’s side, is acutely aware of how she is now a role model, not just as a professional female cricketer (she is part of the fully professional NSW Breakers team), but also for young girls in the indigenous community. “Being the first ever full indigenous women’s team to tour overseas, that itself is pretty awesome. All of us girls are now kind of seen as role models.”
Another beneficiary of that tour was Natalie Plane, who plays for Melbourne Renegades. Plane had a good tour to India, taking at least three wickets in three of the five games they played. “Obviously I’d never been to India, never even dreamt of playing over there. It was amazing to see how they go about their cricket; the whole culture over there was really amazing.” Plane traces her roots to the Kamilaroi tribe.
“The tour of India facilitated a dialogue of culture, with many Indian journalist very interested in the history of Australia’s First Nation’s People,” said Almaliki. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 1868 all-indigenous tour to England, CA will take male and female indigenous teams there next year, retracing the steps of Johnny Mullagh’s historic side.
Faith Thomas’s place of pride in cricket history occurred in an age that Australia now looks back at with shame. Thomas encountered cricket because she was taken to an aboriginal children’s mission in South Australia soon after she was born. In a video interview, she said, “I consider myself not stolen, but chosen.”
The likes of Gardner and Plane have, fortunately, less dramatic childhoods. And they are this generation’s chosen. Thomas was selected to tour England and New Zealand in 1960 but could not, because she had to focus on her career and livelihood as a nurse. For today’s aspiring female cricketers, indigenous and otherwise, a path to a full-time career has been lit up. They can now choose to walk it. Like Thomas said in the same interview, “There is nothing really there to stop them.”