How racism destroyed a great cricketer

Issue 

Eddie Gilbert: The True Story of an Aboriginal Cricketing Legend
By Mike Colman and Ken Edwards
ABC Books, 2002
280 pages, $29.95 (pb)

REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

Only one bowler has ever knocked the bat out of the hands of Don Bradman, cricket's greatest batter: Eddie Gilbert. Only 15 bowlers have ever dismissed Bradman without a run to his name. Eddie Gilbert was one of them. Yet, whilst Bradman played test cricket for Australia for two decades, Gilbert was never selected to play at the sport's highest level.

Gilbert was an Aboriginal Australian, which had a lot to do with this injustice. Gilbert's life, ably retold in Colman and Edward's biography of the great fast bowler, was one of talent denied by the racist society of 1930s Australia.

Gilbert's parents were Kanju people from Cooktown in north Queensland, who had been moved to the government-run Barambah Aboriginal settlement in the south-east of the state. It was here that Gilbert was born, lived and died under the restrictive Aborigines Protection Act. This law controlled where and how all Aborigines in Queensland could live and confined them to reserves and settlements (to "smooth the dying pillow" of a "race doomed to extinction" as an 1874 royal commission put it).

The settlements' Aborigines were "out of sight, out of mind". They were used as agricultural labour on white-owned rural properties for little or no wages. Young Aborigines were removed from their parents' traditional cultural influence and schooled in dormitories, Christianised in chapels and integrated into white society through sports, especially the "gentleman's" game of cricket.

The Barambah Aboriginal men, however, took to cricket with gusto as a way of demonstrating that they were not inferior to their white government controllers and employers. It was symbolic revenge for "working sun-up to sun-down for tea and flour and rations". With black pride invested in success against the local white cricket teams, and with the Barambah superintendent keen to display successful Aboriginal cricketers as proof of the "civilising" settlement program, a star Aboriginal cricketer could expect some measure of escape from exploited labour and confinement.

Gilbert, with his exceptionally long arms, powerful shoulders and supple wrists from years of boomerang throwing, developed a catapult style of bowling which gave him frightening pace off a very short run. It was an unorthodox style that would later give his enemies scope to blight his cricketing career as a "chucker" (a thrower of the ball).

On the concrete wickets of the district cricket competition, Gilbert's sheer pace was near-unplayable and in 1930 he was selected to play for the Queensland state team. Racist prejudice could be temporarily put aside for individual Aborigines who were successful and who, like Gilbert, were obedient, polite and could be presented as "a white man in a black skin".

Gilbert continued to confound classier batters on turf wickets and in the first match of the 1931 season, Gilbert met Bradman. Fresh from a test tour of England — in which he scored one century, two double-centuries and one triple-century — and with his last score against Queensland a monumental 452 not out, the Queenslander awaited a hammering. Until, that is, Gilbert bowled five famous balls at Bradman, including the ones that sat him on his backside, knocked the bat out of his hand and dismissed him for a duck. Bradman later admitted those five balls were the fastest he had ever faced.

Bradman turned the tables against Gilbert in 1935 with a 233-run flogging but this was on a batter- friendly Adelaide pitch which had humiliated all quality fast bowlers. On a more sporting Brisbane pitch in 1936, Gilbert again humbled Bradman, dismissing him for 31 runs (only four of which had been scored off Gilbert's bowling). Bradman had dropped himself down the batting order to avoid Gilbert, who was at his most menacing in his early overs.

Success on the cricket pitch opened doors to Gilbert that were denied to other Aborigines. In Adelaide, Gilbert once joined his team-mates at a cinema. Arriving late, Gilbert was denied entry by the usher until the manager confirmed his identity and Gilbert was admitted.

For some in the cricket establishment, however, Gilbert was too successful. State parochialism nearly ended his career when a Victorian umpire no-balled Gilbert 13 times in three overs for "throwing the ball", forcing his captain to take him off. Bradman was later to write that he thought Gilbert was a "chucker".

There were many racists prepared to sacrifice Australia's sporting success to racial prejudice by passing over the sensational Gilbert for selection in the test team; the "chucking" allegations were grist to their mill. Part of the racist stereotype of Aborigines was that they were lazy and cheated — no-one could possibly be as fast as Gilbert off four or five paces so he must be bowling illegally, they "reasoned". The "chucker" albatross has ended the test careers of white cricketers and it certainly hampered Gilbert.

Racism was muted but ever-present during Gilbert's temporary admission to white society. Most of his team mates rose above it and accepted Gilbert as an equal. But some did not. One Queensland player refused to ever speak to Gilbert, one batter deliberately tried to run him out in his first game and some refused to share train sleeping compartments, taxis, hotel rooms or dining tables with him.

Economic exploitation was also a feature of racist Australia and Gilbert suffered financial stress in playing for Queensland. The Barambah settlement wage, "calculated to provide for him in the native fashion", was so vanishingly small, that it drove Gilbert into debt to buy the necessary cricket clothes and equipment. Half his playing allowance was deducted by his "protectors".

After three cases of leprosy in Barambah (now called Cherbourg), Gilbert's invitation to play in a "Country Week" carnival was withdrawn, a racist decision which would never have applied to white cricketers and which the Queensland Commissioner of Public Health called a "ridiculous" decision.

With uncomplaining good humour, Gilbert publicly laughed off the open and disguised discrimination but he deeply felt the rejection and bigotry as he later reflected: "It's all right to be a hero on the field, but a black man can be lonely when he is not accepted after the game".

By 1936, an injury-affected Gilbert had played his last game for Queensland. After a haul of 87 wickets in 23 games over 10 years, there was now to be little good in his life.

Gilbert remained poor (his bank account had five pounds in it when he died) and he was seriously afflicted by alcohol addiction, gambling and personal relationships. Back from first-class cricket's brief, and heavily qualified, reprieve, as an Aboriginal Australian Gilbert was plunged back into a world of social control and no prospects.

In 1950, Gilbert entered Brisbane Mental Hospital suffering from personality disorders. Brutal electric shock treatment, and penicillin, failed to address his condition, Alzheimer's. The one-time devastating human catapult, symbol of pride for Aboriginal people and a living refutation to the myth of white superiority, died in 1978.

Usually just a footnote in Australian cricket history (the Aboriginal bowler who dismissed Bradman for a duck), Gilbert's life is much more than that. It is a social history. Australia still has a long way to go to address its racist past and present, not only on the cricket field (where only nine Indigenous men have played first-class cricket and only one — Jason Gillespie — test cricket) but in economic, social and cultural life, too. Eddie Gilbert's story can only be a spur to changing that.

From Green Left Weekly, November 6, 2002.
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