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Aboriginal Cricket on the Rise

Feb 16, 2007:

A scorching sun was sending shimmers across Albrecht Oval in Alice Springs. The Macdonnel range was providing a glorious, barren, ancient backdrop. South Australia was chasing 218 on a field turned green by recent rains that broke a five year drought and caused The Todd to flood  Queensland had plundered 80 runs in their last overs. Brett Smith had worn down the attack with neat deflections whereupon Eddie Mills Grant had ignored a head wound to wreak havoc.  Afterwards the fielding captain told his players they’d “dropped their heads. We’re representing our people here.” Queensland are the Imparaj Cup’s reigning champions. Everyone knows they are the team to beat.

Kahran Mckenzie was trying to push the score along. A powerfully built left-hander of genial disposition, he had been finding the going tough.  At last he saw a ball to hit and had a crack. A moment later he stood aghast as gully took an eye-popping one-hander. He was soon laughing again, saying he’d asked a fieldsmen covered in white cream whether he was “gettin’ ready for a rain dance!”  He has never been sledged, he says, “except by cousins… mind you I’ve got a lot of cousins!”

Chris Swain had taken the catch. A boy of 15 topped with suddenly blond hair and sporting two notable earrings, he had already produced a pinpoint throw from the boundary.  Queensland had brought along several teenagers, including Ben Mainhardt, a tall lad with scraggling hair nicknamed Sideshow Bob after the Simpson’s character. His dad, the last aborigine cricketer to represent the State, had married a white woman. Many of the players from all teams have mixed ancestries. All take pride in it. Tyrone, another team-mate was working at McDonalds before starting Tafe.

Albrecht Oval Alice Springs

Albrecht Oval, Alice Springs. ©

Two things caught the eye about the Indigenous cricket festival taking place this week in Alice Springs. Firstly the standard was much higher than expected. Everything changed a few years ago, when Cricket Australia and The Lord’s Taverners started to take an interest.  Of course the Aborigines have been playing cricket for centuries, and in 1868 dispatched the first touring team ever to leave these shores bound for England. But it had fallen into decline. Reservations, the White Australia policy and the cost of playing had discouraged involvement. A few champions had appeared, and most were dismissed as freaks or flukes. Footy become the aborigine’s source of sporting pride. Valiant and brilliant players emerged to inspire youngsters. As far as cricket is concerned, it has been a waste. Happily the tide has turned. Alice was not just staging an interprovinvial event. Elsewhere, aboriginal teams variously representing major centres and communities were taking part in separate tournaments. Daryl Harper was umpiring and CA chairman Creagh O’Conner had come to watch. Aborigine officials hold both men in  high regard.

Most  players said that cost had been he main impediment. In the old days teams used to have kit-bags. Now players must provide their own. Moreover travel is expensive and many live in rural areas. One player points out that 1,200 aborigines live in his home town and only “20 or 30” of them own houses. Race was not mentioned, except briefly by Tasmania’s leading players, the much feared Lamont brothers, full-blooded aboriginies who moved to Devonport in search of cricketing opportunity. Townsville had been inhospitable. But Bernie thinks it is improving and says he has made friends everywhere.

Queensland and New South Wales, especially, impressed as well drilled sides containing numerous talented cricketers. Joshua Lalor, who takes the new ball for Penrith’s first grade side, bowled his left-armers with particular menace. Cameron Rosser moved from 75 to 105 in the last five balls of one innings. Jeff Cook is the side’s captain. An accomplished batsmen who has played county cricket, he only discovered his aboriginal inheritance last year after moving to Tamworth and renewing contact with his father. Dan Christian is NSW’s leading indigenous cricketer but work and club commitments prevent him attending. He wants the Cup to be played midweek so that he can take part.

Not every side was strong. In the past Victoria has treated the Cup as a social occasion. But now the side has a coach and the players are working hard. After 13 years the team recorded its first victory. Northern Territories have been stretched owing to the widespread nature of the region. But NT has appointed its own indigenous coach in the estimable Ian Redpath, a fine batsman and current captain. Not every province has been as farsighted.

The second surprise was that lots of the players in Alice were young, dashing and unhurt. It wasn’t just Sideshow and the athletic Swain. Callum Morse, a gifted teenage spinner from northern Tasmanian was delighted to proclaim his heritage. Naturally blond, he  stays on the land of his ancestors. Denzil Hector is another case. He hailed from Timber Creek, a traditional community located hundreds of Kms west of Katherine that has found itself in the front line of the war against cane toads. Cricket had been strong in Timber Creek until the 1970’s when it fell into neglect. Then Marcus Rosas, a keen sportsman from Katherine, paid a visit. He saw “all the kids playing footy and none playing cricket” Then he noticed cricket trophies on the wall and heard the history. Realising that the boys were playing “footy in the wet and sitting around in the dry” he had decided to rekindle interest. A shy 18 year old, Denzil had forced his way through the ranks.

Marcus had driven to Alice with three mates to represent Katherine in the major centres comp. Afterwards they watched their protege. Sipping lemonade on a bank,  he says he is “rapt and startled” by the recent improvement in the Imparja Cup. Jenny, his sister, has the last word. “Of course it helps ,” she says of the tournament, “its gives people an opportunity to show their ability. They haven’t got anything else. Everyone looks forwards to it. We all come together like one big family.”

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