Cheers for a new cricket hero with an Indigenous heritage

Australia’s comprehensive victory in the third Test and the Ashes series carries a strong message for cricket’s future about the importance of diversity. Australia beat England in Melbourne by an innings and 14 runs, but the highlight was the debut in the baggy green cap of Scott Boland, 32, who took an incredible six wickets for seven runs in just four overs.

While the English opposition is not the strongest, this is an immense personal achievement for Boland, who toiled for a decade in the lower ranks of cricket before he was given a chance to shine. It has cheered up cricket fans who, like everyone else, are dealing with the emotional burden of the Omicron outbreak.

Boland’s performance has a wider cultural and even political significance because he is one of very few top-flight cricketers who have Indigenous heritage. He discovered five years ago that his mother’s side of the family was part of the Gulidjan people from western Victoria – the same region that produced the 1868 “First XI” of Aboriginal cricketers who toured England.

In recent years Cricket Australia has somewhat belatedly tried to broaden its appeal from its traditional white and even specifically Anglo-Saxon male heartland. It is, however, well behind competing sports such as the major football codes, which all have many star players and active recruitment programs among non-white groups.

In 2020, Cricket Australia launched an outreach program, Cricket Connecting Country, to bring to the surface issues of systemic racism which had been swept under the carpet.

The truth-telling process has not always been easy. A year ago Usman Khawaja, the first Pakistan-born and Muslim Test player for Australia, called on the organisation to make an effort to better reflect multicultural Australia. West Indian cricket great Michael Holding criticised the Australian team in August for choosing not to “take a knee” during an England cricket tour as a sign of its solidarity with the fight against racism.

Promoting diversity is not just a matter of social justice but also makes sense for commercial and sporting reasons. It is necessary if the sport is to reverse the historic decline in the number of registered cricket players.

Cricket Australia claims player numbers grew slightly for the first time in a decade last year partly as a result of its increased focus on diversity, including through women’s cricket.

It is also trying to appeal to the 1 million Australians with South Asian roots, who should make a natural market and player recruitment base for the sport. Former Australian captain Greg Chappell has said he thinks this community should eventually supply three or four of the players in a typical Australian Test team.

Cricket is, of course, far from the only sport with a diversity problem. The AFL and NRL are both struggling against lingering racism, but they are clearly more reflective of the broader Australian community than cricket.

As Boland celebrates his demolition of a rather limp English batting line-up, the last thing he should be burdened with is the politics of sport. Since he only recently understood his heritage, it did not play a major role in his career.

He is just an Australian who by dint of persistence found the opportunity to shine.

But Cricket Australia should be delighted that it has another Indigenous hero to join Ash Gardner in the women’s national team, and use it as a point to broaden its appeal.

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