Australian cricket's Indigenous inclusion - 'You can't just window dress things'

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Indigenous cricketers lift the lid on racism (1:13)

Indigenous cricketers talk about being questioned about their heritage and how that affects them. (1:13)

Justin Mohamed remembers feeling somewhat cheated. It was late in Jason Gillespie's storied career when he discovered, purely by chance, that Glenn McGrath's greatest fast bowling offsider was, like him, an Aboriginal Australian.

"I actually worked with his father [Neil] - and early in Jason's career I didn't realise he was Aboriginal," Mohamed tells ESPNcricinfo. "Then I met his father and thought 'Gillespie' and said 'oh do you know Jason' and he said 'yeah, that's my son', and I remember thinking 'wow', and feeling a little bit ripped off that I couldn't sit and watch him and feel proud of another Aboriginal person running in to bowl at Lord's."

Up to that point, most of Mohamed's role models in cricket had been members of the great West Indian sides of the 1980s and early 1990s, largely because there was a stronger sense of common ground than he shared with Australia's national team. "Seeing the West Indies out here and seeing people of a similar sort of colour doing their thing, where I grew up in Bundaberg in Queensland, we connected with that team."

Mohamed's childhood sense of identification with West Indies, and then his belated discovery of shared heritage with Gillespie, speaks volumes for the landscape of cricket that he entered and sought to help change when he became co-chair of Cricket Australia's National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cricket Advisory Committee (NATSICAC). If the name of the group is a mouthful, the brief was greater still - finding ways to connect the nation's Indigenous population to a game that, after some notable early history, more or less ignored them for 80 years.

ALSO READ: Dan Christian lifts lid on casual racism in Australian cricket

Many have carried the burdens of that willful neglect over numerous generations, not least the West Australian opening batsman John McGuire, whose struggles for first-class recognition in his home state have been well documented. More recently, he asked to have his name removed from a WA under-age trophy because he had tired of what he saw as a lack of substance behind gestures, whether they be trophies, statues, or Welcome To Country ceremonies before matches.

In the obvious pain emanating from McGuire's story, Mohamed sees the key to what he and others have been building on for more than five years now, since the 2015 release of For The Love Of The Game, an often-searing independent report on the history of cricket's relationship with Aboriginal Australia.

"When I heard about that, this is part of the example we see - you can't just window dress things, and that's what John was saying," Mohamed says. "Having my name on a trophy's fine, but then I look around to the championships and I see very few if any Aboriginal young people coming through, so it's a bit of window dressing where you're acknowledging Aboriginal people, but the work that's done beneath that is not enough to get the involvement that's needed.

"That's a good example of someone standing up and saying, well, it's alright to raise the Aboriginal flag, or have a Welcome To Country, but if that's all you do, that is not going to resolve the imbalance that is happening. John was saying 'I'm not going to let my name be used to window dress something when there's not enough happening behind that'. Each state and territory is different in how they've acknowledged or seen their champions.

"One of the things where I think it is pretty well known is the number of Aboriginal athletes that have come through other team sports compared to cricket. When you see that, you know something's not right, because the hand eye co-ordinations and reflexes that flow with other sports, knowing when I was younger many of us played cricket, but we never saw it as a pathway. There's a couple who broke through that, but one or two breaking through doesn't mean all is working well."

"One of the things where I think it is pretty well known is the number of Aboriginal athletes that have come through other team sports compared to cricket. When you see that, you know something's not right" Justin Mohamed

Another area touched on by the report, and seen in practice by Mohamed almost as soon as he joined NATSICAC, was that the focus seemed too much about the short-term, a couple of events each year such as the Imparja Cup, and gestures over substance.

"I think at my very first meeting, there were these groups and people in states and territories feeding information up to CA, but a lot of it was around activities like the Imparja Cup and getting to tournaments on game day, getting CA to get behind some of the local or state initiatives," he says. "A lot of the things that were done in the Aboriginal space were once offs and not really part of the strategic plan, which all organisations would have. So there wasn't a lot of planning, if something important came up there'd be a lot of lobbying and talks about 'we should do something on this date' instead of planning it out to say 'in 2022 we have this coming up and we want to have this focus'.

"From early days it was more about getting short or small wins, carnivals, small recognition at particular times of the year, but this approach was saying it needed to be more strategic, it needed to be drawn across all of CA and all that it does. That's the journey we're on now. Not just the designated Aboriginal carnival, but all parts of CA. That was from the history of the game through to the elite level and the grassroots."

Early on, Mohamed had a win when he found himself co-chairing NATSICAC with Earl Eddings, who would eventually find himself rising to the position of CA chairman. This offered a sense of gravity to discussions, in the knowledge that this was not just being shared with a CA board member, but one of its most senior directors. Numerous events, from a 2018 tour of England to commemorate the Aboriginal trailblazers of 1868 to a reconciliation match involving the Australian women's team earlier this year, were given impetus by this avenue.

At the same time, players, staff and officials are all on the journey of fully appreciating and acknowledging how cricket missed a chance to keep Indigenous Australia close for nearly a century and must not toss that opportunity away again.

"With Aboriginal Australia's history, sadly in the cricket sense, there was a rich involvement which was never valued at the level it should have been," Mohamed says. "The value of cricket went back to the Sir Donald Bradman era, whereas the first XI [in 1868] was seen as something which happened, but it was never really spoken about at the level it should have been.

"If cricket wants to have an edge over the AFL, rugby league or any other sport, the first ever team to travel and represent Australia is in the form of cricket and an Aboriginal team doing that. But it was a missed opportunity. Once people started seeing this was factual and the amount of activity that happened with Aboriginal Australia in these early days, and the influence that it had on our national game, people like Earl and others said 'we need to be doing more about an embarrassing situation we're in'."

Seeing past that embarrassment to deal with the sometimes ugly truth was a pivotal idea behind the decision to set-up a series of panel discussions under the banner of Cricket Connecting Country, in which Dan Christian spoke frankly of his experiences this week. At the same time, members of Australia's men's team are working through their own process of education and understanding, helped in some cases by on-on-one meetings with the New South Wales and Brisbane Heat paceman Josh Lalor to talk through the cricket experience of people of colour.

Inside CA's own organisation, its diversity and inclusion manager Adam Cassidy has done an enormous amount of work in helping to build towards greater connection, aided by CA's Indigenous engagement specialist, Courtney Hagen. For Hagen, the end of the journey is one where any person of colour sees cricket as an enticing and welcoming place to be.

"It would show that cricket stands for the rights of human beings and that doesn't stop when it comes to people of colour in Australia," she says. "It's not in a tokenistic way, it's a real journey, an authentic movement, and by creating this positive environment for conversations to be shared, I think as a prospective cricketer you'd have a lot more respect for the game.

"Seeing some of the Australian one-day players seeing the Aboriginal teams' shirts and saying 'we should have some of those designs on our uniforms', it was a really good moment"

"You're probably more likely wanting to engage more in the sport itself, because you know that in the environments you're going to be in, you're culturally safe and that you're welcome. You won't be put in situations where you're going to suffer harassment or racism in the game, because we've moved so far forward, and that cricket as an organisation will look after you."

Mohamed's best illustration of what he is aiming for is to ask people to think of something they value, and why. "There's definitely no one thing that can make it happen, it's a combination of things, but really the way I like to look at it is you've got to create a space where people can value something," he says. "The only way you value something is you need to be knowledgeable about what that is. You do your research, or you've been brought up and told something, or you have a hands-on experience and put it into your life and it becomes something to value.

"Once you value something then you want to look after it and you also want to show that to other people, you're proud of it. We've seen enough stories of where people leave their chosen sport, not so much because they've lost their love of the game, they just haven't felt welcome in the space. That's the challenge for cricket from the junior to the elite level, and it is important that there are familiar things within that."

This is not to say that Mohamed, Cassidy and Hagen haven't experienced moments of the connection they are striving for. One in particular stands out. "When we went over to England to do the 150th anniversary and follow the footsteps of that tour [in 2018], there was a moment at Lord's where the Australian one-day side was there, Justin Langer was the coach and our women's and men's teams went to look at Lord's. Justin wanted to bring the two teams together, which was a great thing for our players.

"Justin made an effort to get the two teams together in the change rooms, and he got up and spoke and I felt it was a very special moment. Justin said these words, 'not very often you get three national teams in the one room'. So, he classed our women's and men's Indigenous sides as equal to the Australian one-day team. I just think that was a really good moment to say here we are, we've all got the green and gold on, and we're all representing the same country, and really showing the value of all that.

"Seeing some of the Australian one-day players seeing the Aboriginal teams' shirts and saying 'we should have some of those designs on our uniforms', it was a really good moment. That's what we're talking about, and that's what cricket should be able to do."

Among the decisions made at the most recent CA Board meeting was to formally expand NATSICAC's advisory role to the whole of the organisation, not just community cricket. In many ways, change is afoot.