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.