Scott Boland is applauded off the pitch
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
What was the most significant event in the Boxing Day Test? On a simple cricketing level the answer is obvious: Australia emphatically retaining the Ashes. But on a broader level, this was usurped by something altogether greater.
As a mere cricketing story, Scott Boland’s tale is a remarkable one. In his youth, Boland was nicknamed ‘the barrel’ and weighed over 100kgs. He then morphed into a fine Sheffield Shield bowler. Still, aged 32, Boland had assumed that his Test debut would never come. Then he was handed the baggy green on his home ground, revelled in the MCG’s famous Bay 13 area chanting his name and took 6-7 to seal the Ashes.
The real importance of Boland, though, transcends his transformation from journeyman domestic cricketer to devastating, Ashes-winning bowler.
Until Boxing Day, the Australian men’s side had played Test cricket for 145 years, and only selected a solitary cricketer of Indigenous heritage: Jason Gillespie, who made his debut in 1997, though his ancestry in the Kamilaroi tribe, in New South Wales, only became common knowledge several years later. There have only been two female Aboriginal Test cricketers.
In 1868, a squad made up exclusively of Indigenous Australians embarked on the first ever cricket tour of Britain by an Australian side. Off the pitch, the trip was marred by tragedy: one player died from tuberculosis. On the field, the side won as many games as they lost, and the matches were well-received.
The trip could have been the catalyst for Aboriginal cricket to flourish. But the year after the tour, the Aboriginal Protection Act gave the Australian authorities complete control over the residence, employment and marriage of the country’s Indigenous population. It even allowed the government to authorise the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents.
In the years ahead, Australian cricket’s exclusion of Indigenous players mirrored their wider treatment in the country. Jack Marsh, a fast bowler born into the Bundjalung people in New South Wales, was regarded as the fastest bowler in Australia. In 1902, he was dropped from a New South Wales match with England after England refused to play against him. Marsh took 34 wickets at an average of 21 for New South Wales, yet would play just six matches.
A generation later, Donald Bradman said that the fastest spell he ever received was from Eddie Gilbert, who famously dismissed Bradman for a duck in a Sheffield Shield Game in 1931. Gilvert was so quick that another delivery even knocked Bradman’s bat out of his hands.
Gilbert had been removed from his home in Queensland aged three: a member of the Stolen Generation who were forcibly taken from their homes under the Australian government’s Aboriginal policy. The forcible removal of Aboriginal children by the Australian federal and state government did not cease until 1970.
Throughout his career, Gilbert required written permission to travel from his Aboriginal settlement each time he played for Queensland. When he played for Queensland, Gilbert was not allowed to sleep in the same room as his teammates and instead told to pack a tent and sleep on the practice pitch. He would never play for Australia. In the 59 years after Gilbert’s last first-class match, in 1936, only two other known Indigenous cricketers played men’s first-class cricket.
For Indigenous cricketers in the recreational game, racism was a fact of playing the sport. John McGuire, who played for two decades in grade cricket in Western Australia from the 1970s until the 1990s, later told me that he received racial abuse in “just about every game” of his career. “There wouldn’t have been many games where I didn’t receive racial vilification,” McGuire recalled. “They called me ‘n****r’ or ‘black c**n’.”
McGuire was the 24th batsman from his state to score 7,000 runs in grade cricket. The first 23 were all selected for Western Australia, but he never was. “Cricket has this unfortunate trait where cultural bias sits there,” McGuire told me. “Unconscious bias won’t allow them to select an Aboriginal person.”
Such stories are not the stuff of ancient history. In 2015, an Indigenous player in grade cricketer told researchers that in his local club’s locker-room fine system – where players are fined for mistakes like dropping catches after each game – he was routinely fined because he was Indigenous. One current Australian professional men’s player with Aboriginal ancestry told me that he was racially abused in grassroots cricket when he was growing up. He said that he would have received more abuse had he been darker-skinned.
Cricket Australia long showed little inclination to help Indigenous cricketers, even while Indigenous players have become ubiquitous in Australian Rules Football. But there have been signs of change in recent years: in 2015, Cricket Australia commissioned an independent report, For the Love of the Game, to document the obstacles that Indigenous people have faced in the game. Every Australian state and territory association now has a staff member specifically responsible for driving Indigenous participation programs. Playing numbers among Indigenous people have risen significantly in recent years. In 2018, to mark the 150th anniversary of the 1868 tour, Cricket Australia sent national Indigenous men’s and women’s squads to tour Britain.
Boland was among the players on the tour. He was already in his 20s when he learned of his Indigenous heritage: his maternal grandfather, who was adopted, was a member of the Gulidjan people of western Victoria. Since learning that he is one of the estimated 800,000 Australians with Indigenous ancestry, Boland has worked with Cricket Australia’s Indigenous programme and spoken proudly about his heritage.
Last year the Johnny Mullagh Medal, named after the star player on the 1868 tour, was created, and awarded to the Player of the Match in the Boxing Day Test. Boland, the second Aboriginal man to play Test cricket for Australia, is now the second recipient of the Mullagh Medal. He was presented with the award by Belinda Duarte, a Wotjobaluk woman and Trustee of the MCG who is a descendant of another member of the 1868 tour. To Duarte, Boland’s performance holds out the promise that Australian cricket can, finally, be a place that nurtures the talents of its Indigenous population.
"When he was taking the wickets that he was I was extraordinarily emotional," Duarte said. "Because I had many people, many Aboriginal people texting me, willing and wanting not only for his story to be told but the story about our people to be told as a part of cricket.
"Who debuts and just does that? Who does that? Scott Boland does. And our ancestors stand proud with him."
Ashes rout could kickstart new golden era for Australian cricket
By Isabelle Westbury
Pat Cummins has only captained Australia twice – but his side have already won the Ashes
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
The last time an Ashes was won at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the England team were being led in a rendition of their ‘sprinkler’ dance by Graeme Swann. The last time England played here, Alastair Cook racked up the highest Test score by a visiting batsman to the MCG.
This time around, no such revelry, and records of an altogether different nature. For the day was all Australia’s. In a series which Joe Root previously said could define his captaincy, Pat Cummins instead has one which could kickstart a new golden era of Australian cricket.
In the immediate aftermath of routing England, the Ashes lost in fewer days than they spent in isolation to enter Australia, Cummins had to keep pausing his post-match interview owing to the wall of noise which continued to emanate from the many fans still in the stands. The many Australian fans, enjoying the sunshine and stubbornly refusing to depart from the day of cricket they had paid for and expected to see but had only been granted 80 minutes of in all.
Mixed emotions then, because Australia like nothing more than obliterating the English. But to do so this easily, so quickly and with such little fight, as was offered on day three at the MCG, with six wickets falling for just 22 runs, well, even the Aussies were rooting for the Poms at times.
“It’s always the dream,” Cummins said, to wrap up a series so comprehensively and quickly, before conceding that he had never been part of an Australian Test team that had managed to do so this comprehensively and this quickly. “I don’t think so,” admitted Cummins. “Not that I’ve been a part of, no. Everything’s just gone to plan.
“We’ve been relentless when we’ve had to be. The bowlers have bowled in a good area and the batters earned their runs. They’ve earned the right to bat long, they’ve left well and when the opportunities have presented themselves they’ve been really brave and taken the game on as well.
“All round, everyone’s performed, everyone’s contributed. So a great feeling.”
Mitchell Starc (left), Pat Cummins (centre) and Cameron Green are all smiles after crushing England in Melbourne
The contrast between the two sides could not be greater. As the Australian players and their families lounged on the outfield of the MCG on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, job done and a whitewash now their next task at hand, England’s players prepared instead to head back to the nets on Wednesday morning. A morning that should have been the fourth day of a Test and to a place where they have spent more time than the middle itself.
It was not always going to be like this. Australia’s lead-up to the series was arguably more tumultuous, with a captain resigning fewer than two weeks before the first ball, a team having played no Test cricket in almost a year and their last series a humiliating home defeat to a depleted India side.
If England can take anything away from the nadir they have just reached, it is that things in sport, at this level, can turn around surprisingly quickly. Australia have now won a Twenty20 World Cup and the Ashes in the space of 42 days.
More concerning, at least as far as future Ashes prospects go, however, is what England may have done for the next generation of Australian cricketers. There should be some sort of honour, in fact, for services to Australian cricket. Coming into this series, Cameron Green was yet to get his first Test wicket after 44 overs of trying. Since then he has got both Joe Root and Ben Stokes twice.
Australia have, through canny selection, injury and even close Covid contacts, been able to blood a second string of fast bowlers behind their relentless trio of Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood.
Scott Boland, at his home ground, produced the best innings figures by an Australian quick on debut since Bob Massie’s pair of eight-wicket hauls at Lord’s in 1972. And Marcus Harris, arguably the only Australian batsman with a question mark next to his name, scored more runs in his first and only innings of the Boxing Day Test than the entire England team in their second.
“It’s a good sign of the strength of the Australian squad,” said Cummins. “We know whoever steps in will do a great job, we’re in a great place. We were really confident Scott [Boland] would do a great job. But maybe not six for seven!
“Any Ashes series is when you try and make a mark on your Test career. You look at any Ashes series and how you go. I think back to the last [Ashes] series [in Australia] was 4-0, the one before that was 5-0. These go down in Ashes history. We’ve got a chance to cement our identity, our team. It could be the start of the next few years.”
This is a team just starting out. You have been warned.