Voice of Real Australia: Cricket's relationship with Indigenous Australia? It's complicated

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I love cricket. I love playing it, I love watching it, I love boring people with endless conversations about it. I love the slow pace, and the fact it has "laws" rather than "rules".

It's a game with a lot of colonial and class baggage, but I always felt proud of the "everyman" character of Australia's national pastime. Cricket in England, for example, is played by a bunch of privately educated poshos - aloof, aristocratic, and out of touch.

This isn't completely fair - of course English cricket is more diverse than that. And certainly Australian cricket isn't as "everyman" as we'd like it to be. Does it represent our diverse country?

The idea for this episode of Voice of Real Australia started with a simple question: where are all the Indigenous cricketers? When you compare professional cricket to sports like AFL and NRL, there is an obvious lack of Indigenous players on the pitch. It seemed bizarre to me that the most popular sport in the country - as Cricket Australia is fond of reminding us - would be deficient in such a key area.

As I dug deeper I learnt that Indigenous involvement in cricket actually has a long history. First Nations people picked up the sport almost as soon as the First Fleet arrived, and there were enough players around to field a team in 1868 to tour England.

Eddie Gilbert bowling to Sir Donald Bradman. (Credit: Unidentified. Copied and digitised from an image appearing in The Queenslander, 12 November 1931)

Eddie Gilbert bowling to Sir Donald Bradman. (Credit: Unidentified. Copied and digitised from an image appearing in The Queenslander, 12 November 1931)

Led by fierce all-rounder (and occasional wicketkeeper) Johnny Mullagh, it was the first Australian team ever to tour a foreign country. Faith Thomas represented Australia in the 1950s - the first Indigenous player to do so in any sport - while Eddie Gilbert famously bounced out Don Bradman for a duck.

But despite this interest, since the early 20th century racist policies made it difficult for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players. Eddie Gilbert had to seek written permission to travel from his home every time he played and wasn't allowed to stay at a hotel with the team, instead suffering the indignity of being forced to pack a tent and sleep on the practice pitch while on tour.

Can Australian cricket shake off that legacy of exclusion? Steps are being taken by cricket administrations to get First Nations kids playing cricket, and the newly-minted Mullagh Medal was for the first time awarded to the player of the match from the Boxing Day Test.

With tens of thousands more Indigenous kids playing the sport than ever before, the future looks bright and it seems certain that a titan like Mullagh, Gilbert, or Thomas will appear before too long. That will help the everyman sport truly become a sport for all.

For the whole story, listen to this week's episode of Voice of Real Australia on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

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