Sunday, 13 September 2015

Blacks in Whites


With ‘Racism in Sport’ being discussed to death in the media of late, I was kind of hoping that we’d move past the constant AFL bashing, and eventually, someone would notice or mention the blatant racism of Cricket Australia.  While we have the AFL almost setting the example to be followed when it comes to inclusion and recognising talent from all walks of life, we continue to have the least diverse representation of our population in our cricket team.  A lack of blacks in whites if you like, which has gone almost completely unnoticed.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Aboriginal people aren’t interested in cricket, or lack the skills or motivation necessary to play.  You might even believe that we all prefer to play AFL or NRL, considering how saturated most teams are with Aboriginal talent.  The reality is that we’re just like other Aussies, we’re capable of playing and loving a wide variety of sports.  The problem is, not all of those sports tend to love us back.

I was only a young fella, about seven years of age or so, when I started to play cricket. I fell in love with the game pretty quickly, and for many of my childhood years, a big chunk of my life revolved around games, practice, and our local club – Johnson Park Cricket Club.  It was like a family, and we were made to feel very much a part of it.  Mum and Dad (or Mr & Mrs C as they were known at the club) were regular fixtures, and while Mum would keep scores, Dad would throw himself into coaching and working with us all.  During the season, Saturday mornings revolved around our games and twice a week, training.  Not only was there my older brother Clintin and myself, but another brother – Johnno – all played for the same club.  Although Johnno was a year older than Clint, he played in my team, a decision that seemed to work best as Johnno is profoundly deaf, and I was the only one of the players who knew all the hand signals and could partner with him at first.

Johnson Park didn’t care if you were black, or deaf, or deaf and black.  They just liked helping kids learn to love cricket and play it as well as they could.  They were encouraging, and supportive, but they were just a local club.  Outside the safety of our small, family oriented club, was the competitive world of ‘Cricket’.  Representative teams where selectors watched you play, in the chance you might get to play for your State, and if you’re really special, maybe even make the Australian team.  For many years, we stayed happy in our little bubble, playing in our local competition and venturing no further, but all the while entertaining bigger dreams – like the fantasy of one day playing for our country.  

Unfortunately, an invitation for my brother Clint to join a competitive team and start moving up the cricket ladder would end up being the start down a road that would show us the ugly side of Australian Cricket, rather than the first steps towards realising a dream. 

Clint was a freakishly talented sportsman who could excel at any game he applied himself to, and cricket was no exception.  When he was invited to play District Cricket for Ringwood, we were exposed for the first time to selection matches, and the notion that people would watch the game and choose the most talented players, based on the skills they could show.  I was sure that my brother would impress the socks off any selector, but after moving up to a place where he could be picked, it seemed that it was taking a long time for his abilities to be noticed. 

For a long time, we expected that good news would come imminently.  The day when a letter might arrive in the post with an invitation for him to join a training camp, a new club – anything really, seemed just around the corner.  The offers and invitations never did come though, and if not for one fateful afternoon, we’d probably have kept wondering and waiting for a lot longer. 

Clint was 16, still playing for Ringwood District, when they held a special round robin of matches.  It was designed to be attended by as many selectors as possible, hoping to catch the next big up-and-coming talent or find the next Don Bradman so they could be snapped up early.  There was no doubting that Clint was having an absolute blinder that particular day, and we watched on as he took wicket after wicket, then moved on to bat impressively and even have a successful turn as keeper.  It came then as no big surprise when, after the last game, I looked over to see one of the selectors pulling Dad aside to speak to him at great length.

A few minutes later, he returned to where we were packing up our things and readying ourselves to go home.  He wasn’t smiling and celebrating, but instead, he looked dumbfounded.  On the car ride home, at the first moment of silence, Mum asked Dad what the selector had told him, and he didn’t hold back.  “He said he was good, but he’s not getting a place.  They have quotas, and they have to pick kids that will fit in well with the private schools, and he won’t fit in with them.  He didn’t say why exactly, just that he should try out for the Aboriginal team instead.  I told him ‘my son wants to play for Australia’ and he just told me flat out ‘that will never happen’ and I just walked away before I punched him or did something really stupid”.

That was the last weekend we played cricket.  At ages 16 and 13, both Clint and I put down our bat and ball and went home.  I explained to my teammates and my friends that my ankles were in bad shape, and this was the reason I would no longer play, but the truth was that watching my brother get shot down had sucked all the love for the game out of me.  I just didn’t want to play anymore, it felt like a giant waste of my time because I would always be a blackfella in whites – something the wider world of cricket seemed not to want.  I still loved the club, and the people there, but they were just a small cog in a much bigger wheel, with no ability to change the status quo.  I felt badly at first that not only was I lying to them by faking an injury, but by leaving the team I would also be letting them down.  That guilt was quickly forgotten though in the weeks and months that would follow as I watched the effect that the rejection had upon my brother.  I saw his horrific descent first-hand, as the one element of society who would accept him with open arms and saw his skin as a sign of strength, and not weakness, became his new circle of friends and what seemed to him the only prospects for a better life and respect. 

Within a year, Clint had left home in a memorable blaze of police lights and sirens, and as a completely different person. 

I eventually stopped wondering ‘what if?’, a few years later.  I started watching the cricket again and began to just enjoy it for the great game that it is, rather than focussing anger or rage at one of the things that I greatly considered to have contributed to my brother turning his back on the world. Eventually, I got to the point where I could forget the past, and months would go by before I would remember I’d even played cricket myself, let alone my brother.  This was achieved because I had reached the point of apathy and adulthood at about the same time, not to mention the more important fact – I’d also added a third ‘A’ word to my daily life by now – alcohol.  It dulled all the pain they couldn’t provide a prescription for if you went to the doctor, and the world always seemed a better place once I had a few under my belt. 

Almost a decade after hanging up the pads and forgetting the past, I was working as a car detailer for South Melbourne BMW - at their new site shortly after the Burnley Tunnel was built - finishing off the interior of a car that had come in for repairs a few days earlier, when the Manager walked in with Shane Warne.  The car I was working on just happened to belong to his then-wife, and he had come to pick it up.  I quickened my pace - not only were we told that the clients aren’t expected to wait for us, but celebrity clients get what they want when they want it - but instead of being asked how much longer it was going to take, my boss interrupted me only to ask me to come over to where he was standing, Shane Warne still by his side.

I had a pretty good boss, and I assumed he wanted me to get to ‘meet’ someone famous, so I walked over and rather than the introduction I expected, it was Shane Warne who spoke first, eagerly asking “Do you remember me?”.  I was always getting mistaken for my older brother, and this time was no exception.  Clint had played in the same division as Shane Warne back in his district cricket days, and most of those who played with him or against him ended up remembering him for one reason or another. When I told Shane that it was actually my older brother he had played against, he immediately began to recount a story of playing against him and almost having his head taken off with a ball when he was batting.  It was clear that Clint had skills that had left an impression on him, as he then turned to me to ask the big question, “Geez, what happened to him?”. 

It was asked with high expectations, not low ones.  The tone not of disdain, but one of great anticipation.  I’m sure I could have told him some wonderful stories, except they’d have been lies.  Instead, I told him as much of the truth as my sense of shame would allow me.  In the end, just four words, “Oh, he’s down home.” It pretty much ended the conversation right then and there.  I didn’t want to elaborate, or fill in gaps, and to his credit, he didn’t push further.  Maybe he put two and two together and realised that I wouldn’t be standing in front of him wearing overalls and cleaning his car if my brother was a rich and famous sportsman.  I know the thought crossed my mind more than once as I stood there, and from the look on his face after a few minutes of silence, perhaps it had now crossed his.

I went back and finished the car, before returning home on public transport to my rented two bedroom flat that I shared with a dysfunctional couple with drug issues. I drank a lot that night, wanting the greyness of no memories rather than the anger I felt.  I wanted to black out my reality, and I especially wanted to stop wondering what could have been.  A man who’d managed to achieve everything my brother and I never would, walked into my life and for the first time in years I was forced to confront that.  I just didn’t want to.

If conditions were the same, and we were allowed a ‘do-over’ in life, I’d never have bothered to pick up a bat or a ball.  Like a girlfriend you wished you never met, avoiding the drama completely is preferable in my book.  I’ve seen nothing change in my lifetime, and I doubt I’ll live long enough to ever see the elusive image I once dreamed of as a young kid - a blackfella in whites on an Australian team.  We’ve had just two men play at the level of Test cricket who claim Aboriginal ancestry, but unless I told you who they were, you probably wouldn’t be able to pick it (and before you guess ‘Andrew Symonds’ – don’t, he is not Aboriginal).   

 There was a time when I wanted to play for Australia, and although I have no doubt that if my brother had taken the selectors advice and tried out for the ‘Aboriginal Cricket Team’ (or whatever PC name they call it these days), he’d have been picked in a heartbeat - it is more complex than that.  Clint was not just the best blackfella cricketer, he was a great cricketer, full stop.  He could have held his own against anyone in Australia in his prime, but his potential and talent were discarded and unwanted.  Being told he’d never get the chance to prove his ability at the highest level, not because he wasn’t skilled enough, but for something he had no control over, makes me wonder how many promising young dark-skinned kids have been passed over in the years since. 

 

29 comments:

  1. I am really sad at reading this. There are lots of false calls of racism around, but this is just so blatant.

    I'm not into sport in any form really but it's easy to see that cricket is still dominated by white men and it shouldn't be, and the old racism is still there.

    I'm sorry that happened and obviously continues to happen. I guess somebody needs to call out Cricket Australia and say it's not good enough.

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    1. Truly brilliant writing - you are so easy to read and you share a really worthwhile story here - more power to you and please don't stop sharing your thoughts.
      thank you

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  2. Looks like cricket has a long, sorry history of what your brother experienced. I only know of one test cricketer who identified as Aboriginal - Jason Gillespie. I'm intrigued as to who the other is? http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/indigenous-cricketers

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    1. I didn't know about Gillespie, I knew about Dan Christian though.

      Love your blog by the way. Sorry to hear about the way your brother was treated, this has no place in sport.

      Apologies if there are two very similar comments from me, I posted one but it seems to be gone!

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  3. Dallas,

    I was saddened reading this, I honestly thought Australia had moved past this. It was disgusting that you had to lie to your team mates, I am sure they would have rallied around you and your brother, and although it probably wouldn't have changed the result then, hopefully it would make them aware of the talent they are missing out on.

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  4. I've known a few people to give up on their dreams after selectors ignored them at trials. Mate called Leon Whitehead killed it on selection day for Parra Eels back in the 90s, but he was ignored. Devastating, coz anyone who watched the match would have said, 'the kid is a shoe in'.

    His dream shatterers didn't exclude him coz they didn't think he would fit in though. Your brother's is a sad story Dallas. I hope he can find a way to get involved in sport of some kind (albeit in a coaching/training type role) again.

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  5. I've gotta say, I love reading your blog as I have learnt a lot from it. Thanks for sharing your experiences and your thoughts. I think your posts are very well written and have great value.

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  6. What can I say? I don't often check your blog because I assume you have a life outside blogging (unlike many bloggers), and your posts are fairly infrequent.

    But when I do check up on you, you can be relied upon to hit me between the eyes with an insight or an experience that enriches me, while often saddening me.

    Thank you. This was a sad one that also made me angry. Unlike you, I hate cricket and always have :-), but like you I hope things change, and soon.

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  7. Another interesting and well written story. It was particularly sad because of the chain of events the non-selection triggered. I'm not equating you situation in any way, but I coached some great junior and A grade afl players over a couple of decades. There were some players which should have been automatic selections for state teams. They always made the training squads, particularly since our club were often leading the comp. But they got cut. There always seemed to be more players from the clubs the state coach and assistant coach were drawn from. A different type of descrimination, but devastating enough to make some players drop out. However it was a different matter at WAFL colts and reserves level. They had impartial selectors who went to the 17's matches and just picked the best.

    I'm under the impression private schools look hard for indigenous players in all sports for full or partial scholarships nowadays. So hopefully things have changed.

    Don't worry Dallas, I doubt anyone who knows their cricket would have thought Symonds was Australian Indigenous. I would also expect anyone who watched Gillespie play, knew he embraced his indigenous heritage as does Dan Christian.

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  8. Another interesting and well written story. It was particularly sad because of the chain of events the non-selection triggered. I'm not equating you situation in any way, but I coached some great junior and A grade afl players over a couple of decades. There were some players which should have been automatic selections for state teams. They always made the training squads, particularly since our club were often leading the comp. But they got cut. There always seemed to be more players from the clubs the state coach and assistant coach were drawn from. A different type of descrimination, but devastating enough to make some players drop out. However it was a different matter at WAFL colts and reserves level. They had impartial selectors who went to the 17's matches and just picked the best.

    I'm under the impression private schools look hard for indigenous players in all sports for full or partial scholarships nowadays. So hopefully things have changed.

    Don't worry Dallas, I doubt anyone who knows their cricket would have thought Symonds was Australian Indigenous. I would also expect anyone who watched Gillespie play, knew he embraced his indigenous heritage as does Dan Christian.

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  9. Love reading how you write, very honest emotional and truthful.
    I have not tried to encourage my child to play any sport - from the time to when your brother was treated unfairly to now - I don't believe it has improved. I myself have walked away from sport because of the malicious actions of certain Individuals.
    It is a shame with the athletic ability a lot of kids have that they are not seen for their ability over what they look like.

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  10. This is a really sad story. It seems racism only gets brought up these days if someone in power benefits in some way....

    On another note, I found this the other day: http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/the-white-man-in-that-photo/ It seems racism has been prevalent in more than just cricket.

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  11. Appalling! How wonderful to have had your brother with Warne, we might have won more in those days! I hope Cricket Australia respond to this blog.....are they bashing down your door for interviews and comments? LOL they should be !. Makes one angry and terribly terribly sad for a lost potential pathway and joy due to racism.Clear racism.Thankyou for writing your blog and challenging us all to have hard thinks about things taken and prevent it happening now! I do hope.

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  12. Still not a lot of "Blacks in Whites". If the selectors are still doing this (and it appears they are) then they need to be removed for utterly failing the sport. Their job is to find the best up and coming cricketers. Period. If they let their prejudices get in the way, sack em.

    BTW, your Dad's a better man than I am. I would have decked the bastard.

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  13. Don't forget that the very first Australian team in 186, but the have, pardon the pun, whitewashed them out of existence since they aren't considered a representative team.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Aboriginal_cricket_team_in_England_in_1868

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  14. Man I am so sorry. As a young kid with all that talent and enthusiasm, cricket was your brother's life. To be brutally kicked aside by this selector because he deemed he would not fit in socially with the 'private school' boys is so wrong. Moments like that do change the path of a young boy's life. And the damage did not stop with him but passed onto his loving little brother. I just get angry reading it so I don't possibly know the anger you and your brother must feel having to live with it. How does that selector sleep at night?

    Ever thought about you and your brother writing to Cricket Australia, every cricket commentator and every cricketer playing or who has played for Australia with this story and just ask them 'What makes you think that this is not happening today?'

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  15. The Australian newspaper needs to approach you to publish this. The Australian community and more particularly Cricket Australia need to read this.

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  16. Like Tom Cruise saud in the film A Few Good Men, "You don't need a uniform to have honour". I'd say the same to you Dallas, you don't need the whites. You're far more accomplished than they will ever be.

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  17. You were robbed.
    Your brother was robbed.
    We were robbed of enjoying talented Aboriginal cricketers.
    Shame on Cricket Australia.

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  18. Johnson Park cricket club is still going my son played there throughout his junior playing days , a great club and everyone is considered family . But I am saddened on reading your story of your brother as the same fait has been has applied to many youngsters at the hands of arrogant out of touch selectors , it is a real pity that your family was lost to the game and club , entering that ultra competitive premier cricket scene once getting there is even harder to get noticed , I hope your brother is now in a better place .
    The Indigenous cricket team these days is called the Imparja Cup series and it is a shame that he never got that chance of getting picked up by a premier team as that could have been his pathway to the big time , although that should not have to be the case as talent should be the only thing that is noticed .

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  19. Like Tom Cruise saud in the film A Few Good Men, "You don't need a uniform to have honour". I'd say the same to you Dallas, you don't need the whites. You're far more accomplished than they will ever be.

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  20. Sad sad story. It's not only black kids, its also white kids too, who don't fit into the 'private schools' model. Its a closed shop above suburban club level. A non private school kid might get into a District team but he'll get only an occasional game or none at all. But good old mum gets to supply morning tea to the team week after week (specific menu items too, not just cut up oranges). I've seen a lot of great talent wasted because the kids went to the wrong schools. Its cricket's loss and explains a bit of why our Australian team sucks sometimes and is increasingly composed of wussy whingers.

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  21. Dallas, I'm sorry you gave up a sport you loved. Maybe letting go was not the best thing to do as the loss of something you value can be terrible. Your brother was just one of many boys overlooked because of their origins in those days and it seems nothing has changed. Such a pity for them and for the sport.

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  22. Beautifully written as usual, and a poignant story.

    Not many people will have the sensation of meeting a famous peer, but many children of all colour and description have that sensation of being 'passed over' in a selection arrangement.
    My husband has long complained, with some bitterness, about the private school selection criteria for Rugby Union representation. He still loves the game, but the frustrating sensation of being 'passed over', essentially for being poor and poorly connected, is an experience that many white boys know only too well.
    For me it was ballet. I didn't go to a well recognised dance school, I was in a regional area and my family wasn't really bothered either way. I can still remember when it dawned on me at age 14 - no body cared and I wasn't going to get my shot.
    Alas, we all grow up whether we succeed or not at our childhood goals. Persistence is an important part of the equation - Matthew Hayden is a shining example of this.
    Thank you for writing this.

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