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Queensland Cricket and the return of Eddie Gilbert | Queensland Cricket



Queensland Cricket and the return of Eddie Gilbert | Queensland Cricket

The vastness of Far North Queensland doesn’t tend to hit you until you hear stories like this. Trish Spry lives in Mareeba, a tropical town at the confluence of three waterways, about an hour west of Cairns. Spry is Queensland Cricket’s (QC) community cricket manager for the Far North, and her hometown is, loosely, pretty central for the region.

“But it’s crazy,” she explains to, “because if I started at the bottom of my region, and drove non-stop, all the way to the top, it’s 22 hours.”

Which is the equivalent of covering an expanse stretching from Townsville to Sydney. And when Spry drives west from Mareeba, the scale of the geography is just as daunting: 10 hours to Burketown; another 11 out to Cloncurry.

“I’ve worked with QC for five years and I’ve only managed to get out to Karumba and Normanton once,” she says. “It’s a logistical nightmare; a full day’s drive for communities that are small, but really wanting (cricket activities). So it’s about ‘how do we get it there?’ and ‘how do we support it?’ We’ve got to invest that time and effort, and then hopefully it becomes self-sustaining.”

It is into this gargantuan space that QC is aiming one of this administration’s most ambitious projects: a relaunch of the Eddie Gilbert Program with a view to introducing – or reintroducing – cricket to young children in the state’s many remote Indigenous communities.

* * *

When Spry was on Thursday Island last month as part of the Cape York tour that officially relaunched the Eddie Gilbert Program, she noticed a photo on the wall of the motel she was staying in.

“It was of a Thursday Island women’s cricket team from 1933,” she says. “So they were playing – the women were playing – way back then. Now there’s nothing there.

“But, it shows it’s achievable.”

The 1930s was Eddie Gilbert’s era. In November 1931, while playing for Queensland against New South Wales in a Sheffield Shield match, the diminutive quick – known best for both his Aboriginality and his lightning pace – famously delivered a sizzling four-ball spell to a 23-year-old Don Bradman, which roughed up and then dismissed the iconic batter. In the years and decades that followed, Bradman maintained Gilbert was the fastest bowler he faced.

Though cricket was effectively forced upon him after he was taken from his mother as a four-year-old to live in an Aboriginal settlement in Cherbourg, the name Eddie Gilbert still serves as a reminder of the lost connection between the sport and Australia’s Indigenous people.

The two-week Cape York tour was the most recent step in QC’s attempts to reestablish some foundational elements of cricket in such far-flung communities. Across the middle of June, under blue skies and a still-hot tropical sun, Spry and her QC colleagues – Gavern Lovett, Trent Keep and Bo Saunders – visited Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, the mining town of Weipa on the western coast of the Cape York peninsula, and Bamaga, home to a little over 1,000 people and just 40km from the tip of Cape York.

“The trip was amazing,” says Spry. “We’ve been working on Weipa for quite a few years, getting a (Woolworths Cricket) Blast program up and running there and integrating them into trying to develop a stage one junior competition for those kids who age out of Blast – because they’re so far away from everything else up there, once they hit that age, they need somewhere else to play.

“We’ve got enough kids at the moment that we’re able to play a two-team junior program, which is more about giving them time on task – getting them out in the middle and having a bat, and wearing pads and helmets and all those sorts of things.”

In Weipa, the challenge among a mining-based community is consistency of participants, while the demographic of those involved in the slowly-building club system is, Spry estimates, around 20 per cent Indigenous, which is in line with the town’s population breakdown.

The aim of the Eddie Gilbert Program is to not only serve these regional centres but to attract involvement from outlying Indigenous communities as well. Of course, this presents its own logistical challenges (transport, for one, to and from such localities). But through schools, sport and recreation groups and councils, Spry is hopeful that even very small remote communities will soon have access to basic cricket equipment.

“Cricket is extremely foreign to a lot of these kids,” she says of an area of Queensland that is, in many ways, NRL heartland (one QC staffer on the trip recounted the local kids on Thursday Island proudly claiming ownership of Queensland State of Origin stars Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Xavier Coates).

“They tend to hold the bat with one hand, so that’s something we’ve been trying to get around, because they can hit it really, really well. And bowling is a really unknown, unnatural action. The kids can throw incredibly – they can knock down a single stump from 20-30 metres, no trouble – but getting them to bowl is tough.

“It’s taken a few years but we can see there are kids learning, and following through on what we’ve taught. We do this little, ‘Get on your skateboard, pop a wheelie, paint a rainbow’ thing, which is about trying to get that arm up and over and keep it straight. Once you’ve been there a couple of times, they remind me about that, they’ll say, ‘Miss, you’ve got to paint a rainbow’.

“So Weipa is doing really well, but for us now it’s about, ‘how do we get the Eddie Gilbert Program into these outlying communities on a regular basis?’ And that comes down to having someone on the ground.

“Each of these communities has got a different level of resources. Some have none at all. So it might just be about providing them with a Blast kit. We’re looking at stickering up some stumps with an Eddie Gilbert (logo) to make it more about the program, and creating an opportunity for these communities to play the game after we go; at times it can feel like we’re part of the circus – they come and have a great time, and then we go, take all the things with us, and they can’t continue. That’s one of the hurdles we need to overcome.

“It’s having the time to be there on the ground, to make these relationships work and have those connections happening. Every time we do go there, we get more ingrained in the community. So that repeat effect is having an impact, and it’s actually creating a culture of cricket that wasn’t there for a long time.”

* * *

A proud Githabul and Kooma man from northern NSW, Kieren Gibbs is also QC’s First Nations Project Officer and as such, a key figure in the relaunched Eddie Gilbert Program. Gibbs hails has a long history in Indigenous sport and recreation as well as with QC pathways, both as a former player and in administration.

“I’m very lucky,” he smiles. “I love cricket, I grew up on it and I’m passionate about it, and I’m even more passionate about creating opportunities for our mob. So bringing the two together is unreal – just a dream job for me.”

Just over a year ago, QC released its first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) – an overarching body of work that is essentially a blueprint for growing cricket within the state’s Indigenous population.

One aspect of the RAP centred upon a revisiting of the Eddie Gilbert Program, which had gone into mothballs after launching originally in 1998 in Woorabinda in Central Queensland, and understanding how it could most effectively tie in with the contemporary QC landscape.

“(Former QC employee) Nev Paulsen had been in the Indigenous and multicultural role at that point and he did some great work with the Eddie Gilbert program,” Gibbs says. “It evolved from an introductory program into basically a talent ID program then. He went on the road, all over Queensland, popped up in different places and ran clinics, simple coaching drills, and invited Indigenous people to come.

“But then when Nev finished up at QC, there wasn’t real succession plan as to who would lead it next.

“The Eddie Gilbert Program became a label that we attached to Indigenous talent identification sessions, but more recently, these programs have become business as usual for our 12 Coaching and Talent Specialists, who oversee the spread of talent across all of our cricket regions.

“So, we’ve looked at revisiting the Eddie Gilbert Program as an introductory level of cricket, aligning it with the Cricket Blast age group, and getting those 5-12-year-old Indigenous boys and girls playing cricket as much as possible.

“It’s pretty versatile what we can do in that space, from gala days to pop-up events. Whatever we decide to do in each region – depending on what fits in that region – will be (under the banner of) the Eddie Gilbert Program.

“Queensland’s a big state. We’ve only got so much money to travel to so many regions. We can’t go to everyone, so at the moment we’re identifying where our biggest Indigenous populations are and making sure we service them.

“For us it’s about working strategically to make sure we deliver the Eddie Gilbert Program as best we can and making it most effective for our staff and its participants. Fortunately, the Queensland Cricket Foundation is supporting this initiative and the funding it raises will go directly towards helping us roll it out.”

* * *

The relaunch of the Eddie Gilbert Program is being overseen by John Butterworth, QC’s Head of Operations, Growth & Engagement for Community Cricket. The bold project is, at its heart, about engagement with Indigenous communities.

“That’s where we want to focus,” says Butterworth. “We want to remove the barrier of registration for a lot of these communities, and through the Queensland Cricket Foundation, we’ve also invested in shirts and bats to give out to participants.

“Ideally we want the Eddie Gilbert Program to act as a precursor to joining a Woolworths Cricket Blast program or a club.”

Butterworth and his team are targeting 6-8 programs per year, as well as one or two regional tours or outreach initiatives such as the Cape York tour that was held last month.

“Those other programs,” he explains, “would be connected to other First Nations events like our community carnivals, such as the Western Rivers Cup in Toowoomba, or state development events such as the Michael Mainhardt T20 Indigenous Challenge.”

From the headquarters of Allan Border Field in Brisbane, where just last year the ground’s northern end was renamed the Eddie Gilbert End, it shapes as a logistically complex project, but one that QC seems committed to carrying out.

The sheer magnitude of the task is perhaps best illustrated by this anecdote from Spry. Her time on Thursday Island last month happened to coincide with a council meeting of representatives from the 17 inhabited islands that make up the Torres Strait archipelago.

“I was doing my washing in the laundry where we were staying,” she says, “and one of the councillors asked me, ‘What are you guys doing here?’ I said to him, ‘It’s cricket – we’re here for four days to run some free holiday programs for the community’.

“And he said to me, ‘I live on Stephens Island – how do I get you on my island?'”

Australia’s second northernmost inhabited island, Stephens Island (Indigenous name: Ugar) is roughly 160km north-east of the tip of Cape York.

Spry’s reply perfectly summed up the challenge ahead for QC.

“I’m not really sure,” she said, “but let’s work on it.”

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