Paul Stewart - Former Indigenous Cricket Specialist with Cricket Australia
I am a proud Taungurung man and our traditional boundaries lie within Central Victoria. My relationship with cricket started through friends by playing backyard cricket, as most Australians do. Growing up, my idol was the great West Indian, Clive Lloyd. I had an obvious affinity to Lloyd since he was the only cricketer really that wore spectacles and I wore spectacles as well. I was a huge fan of the West Indies cricket team when I was young, but I did keep a keen eye on the Australian cricket team. I played cricket at both the junior and senior levels.
In 1994, the Imparja Cup started and is now held annually in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. The Imparja Cup brings the best Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cricketers, both male and female from across the nation. Cricket Victoria and other state representative bodies had an Aboriginal Advisory committee which sent state teams to participate in the Imparja Cup. I played in the tournament for a couple of years and volunteered with Cricket Victoria as part of their Aboriginal advisory council for about 7-8 years. This blossomed into an amazing opportunity where Cricket Australia gave me the responsibility of managing the Indigenous programs Australia-wide. This also meant that I was part of the administration and organization of the Imparja Cup, which has now transformed into the National Indigenous Cricket Championships (NICC). Community teams come from as far as Robertson River, which is approximately 16 hours from Alice Springs. There are over 30-40 community teams that come together for this tournament.
The history of Aboriginal cricket goes way back to mid-1800s. It was back in 1868 when the first Australian team comprising of thirteen Aboriginal men from the western district of Victoria. The men were traditionally Jardwadjali, Gunditjmara and Wotjobaluk and coached by an ex-English cricketer in Charles Lawrence. Therefore, Aboriginal people have had a long history when it comes to cricket. The Imparja Cup allows Indigenous cricketers to connect, share their stories of who they are and where they come from and unites communities with a spiritual thread that runs deep through the game of cricket.
One of my greatest highlights in cricket that I was fortunate to experience, was visiting the great Johnny Mullagh’s Waterhole – the place where Johnny lived. I was joined by other descendants of the Aboriginal cricket team, including some household names in Aunty Fiona Clarke, Belinda Duarte, the Cousins family and Charles Lawrence’s family. We took some of the players who toured England in 2018 to the waterhole. It was quiet and peaceful. If you know Harrow it can get really cold and we visited it in winter. But during our visit, the sun was shining, and the waterhole was full. It was a surreal moment to be able to pause and reflect that the great Johnny Mullagh lived here over 150 years ago. Here was a man who lived about 4 hours away from Melbourne and several thousands of kilometres away from England, leading a group of Aboriginal warriors through oppression and discrimination. It was incredible just to connect back to history and reflect on what our descendants and people achieved back then. I was really privileged to be at Johnny's waterhole.
The 2018 tour to England to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first Australian tour, was my last hurrah. I can say that I declared from Trent Bridge. I was part of an amazing setup. It was such a wonderful opportunity to be part of the tour that included the best Aboriginal cricketers both male and female. There were so many memorable moments. From Arundel Castle to Hove, the home of Sussex where we took on a full-strength squad coached by one of the favourite sons of Aboriginal cricket, Jason Gillespie. Dizzy rolled out the likes of Jofra Archer, Chris Jordan, Phil Salt and Luke Wright. But we were very competitive. Dizzy has been a massive supporter of the Indigenous program. He is always the first one to put his hand up. He has done some great work supporting our communities. Ironically, he has coached a lot of games against the Aboriginal boys, including the PNG team and then Sussex. He is one of the greatest advocates and special heroes for Aboriginal cricket.
The players got to play at The Oval, followed by the county ground at Derbyshire and then finishing off at Trent Bridge. These moments are experienced by very few and therefore was a special opportunity for these players. I remember sitting on the balcony at Trent Bridge speaking to Brock Larance and I asked him, “How did you find the tour?” And his reply was, “Well, I hit a six in every test venue.” We also shared a beautiful moment with the Australian cricket team whereby the Australian men’s coach, Justin Langer, got us in the Lords Cricket Ground change rooms. The three Australia teams at the home of cricket singing the Australian team song led by Brad Haddin and Nathan Lyon. This was a moment that no doubt we will all cherish.
It is commonly known that there are other sports other than cricket such as the Australian Football League and Rugby League that have brought more Aboriginal people to the game. You can say that cricket is coming of the long run and playing catch up when it comes to Indigenous participation and involvement. We just hope the run-up is not as long as Michael Holding’s. In fairness though, Cricket Australia has really invested in Indigenous involvement and consistently driving participation. On my last count, there were more than 70 male and female cricketers playing Premier Cricket. Currently, we are starting to see some serious Aboriginal talent rise to State and International level with the likes of Ash Gardner and Darcy Short making their mark in the international arena. We have had Dan Christian, Scott Boland, Brendon Doggett and Josh Lalor, who have been consistently playing some outstanding cricket. I feel that the media has a bigger role to play when it comes to the exposure of our Aboriginal cricketers to the general public just like Bruce McAvaney endorses Cyril Rioli. Dan Christian, Ash Gardner and Darcy Short are equally as exciting in the Big Bash League as Rioli is in the AFL. The challenge for cricket lies in attracting new participants to the game, especially when you have other competitive and popular sports. Cricket is seen as a long and drawn-out game. However, the introduction of T20 cricket has been extremely successful in getting increasing numbers in participation and viewership. This includes Aboriginal involvement as well. This is because T20 cricket is short, fast and exciting and that's what our mob are. Most people are challenged when it comes to “time” these days and this is why the T20 format is so much more favourable than the traditional formats of the game.
Currently, Indigenous cricket is in the best position it has ever been with the current talent pool, particularly at the top end. We need to take care of and spread the word about our talented stars so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders can see what they can be – like Dan Christian or like Ash Gardner. But I also think that the sport of cricket has an incredible opportunity to get Aboriginal people through the talent pathway. We need to provide Aboriginal children with the opportunity to be exposed to the pathway particularly at an early age. If we can get them exposed to the cricket pathways and behaviours early, then things become easier and natural. They can improve and then push through to the under 17 or under 19 levels and to further honours. One classic example is the young Brock Larance, who currently lives in Dubbo and is part of the under-age Australia team. For a kid from Dubbo, the question we need to ask is - how do we support him? A kid who will likely move to Sydney and then be able to push through the ranks. It is our responsibility to break down those barriers and make it easy for a cricketer like him to adjust. I still keep in touch with the boys and girls and get text messages from some of them to let me know how they are going. Recently Scott Boland messaged me telling me that he hit the biggest six of his life. So now I am just keeping an eye from a distance, but I am extremely proud of what all of my brothers and sisters are achieving as cricketers and individuals. I still have a small role with Cricket Victoria, being on the Aboriginal Advisory Council. This is where I started many years ago. I am also coaching at the Thomastown Cricket Club, a club where I started my cricketing journey. This is a true circle of life.