Michael Bailey of Western Australia poses for a photo after taking five wickets against Northern Territory in their Imparja Cup match

Bailey: part English, part Asian and part Indigenous Australian

© Getty Images


Michael Bailey looks to the future

Injustices against Aboriginals in Australia have been immense, and they are still under-represented in the country's cricket, but one of them hopes the past will inspire him

Tristan Lavalette  |  

In physical terms Michael Bailey evokes cricketers of yesteryear. Many of the chiselled hulks dotting Australian cricket today would not look out of place on an Australian Rules football field, but not Bailey. He is relatively short (about 175cm), somewhat rotund, nuggety like David Warner but without those imposing forearms. There is a hint of mystery in his jet-black hair - and especially his "exotic" complexion, its darker shade suggesting it's not only from time in the sun.

It leads to the inevitable probing. What is your ancestry? Bailey, a 22-year-old from Perth, is used to the inquisitors. Most guess incorrectly. South American? Mediterranean? Wrong, try again. Asian? Yeah, partly right. Few punt on Aboriginal.

"Even when I tell people that I am part Indigenous, many don't believe me, " Bailey says.

In his formative years, Bailey believed he was of English and Asian ethnicity. His father was from England, while his mum's family was Asian. His maternal grandmother was from Malacca in Malaysia and her husband, who Bailey believed was his grandfather, from Singapore. But an accidental revelation when Bailey was six altered his life forever.

"Mum hid something from me and I went through her wardrobe. I found photos of her dad, my grandad… and he looked Aboriginal" Michael Bailey

"Mum hid something from me and I went through her wardrobe in an attempt to find it," Bailey recalls. "I found photos of her dad, my grandad… and he looked Aboriginal. I questioned her and she revealed the truth. My grandad was full-blooded Aboriginal but died in the Vietnam War, when my mum was very young. She had wanted to wait until my siblings and I were older to tell us the truth. I probably didn't realise the gravity at the time but I eventually got my head around it."

As this story shows, ethnicity hasn't been a straightforward matter for Aboriginals because of past injustices - notably those associated with the Stolen Generations, a programme where Aboriginals were removed from their families by government agencies and missionaries from the early 1900s until the 1970s. Warren Mundine, the Indigenous Advisory Council chairman, once said, "When I was growing up, Aboriginal people were made to feel ashamed of where they were from, of who their parents were, of their language, their dances, their culture."

Only two acknowledged Aboriginal cricketers have played international cricket for Australia - Jason Gillespie and Dan Christian

Only two acknowledged Aboriginal cricketers have played international cricket for Australia - Jason Gillespie and Dan Christian © Getty Images

In early 2014, Bailey was named the Lord's Taverners Indigenous Cricketer of the Year at Cricket Australia's annual State Cricket Awards. The award recognised Bailey's achievements on the field, and also his efforts in fostering the game in the Aboriginal community. At Gosnells District Cricket Club, he has excelled as a right-hand batsman in the middle order, capable of decimating bowling attacks, and a steady left-arm orthodox bowler.

Last season, Bailey captained Western Australia to victory in the Imparja Cup, a national limited-overs tournament for Indigenous players, held annually in the Northern Territory. Playing the tournament, alongside his twin brother Josh, provided Bailey an opportunity to learn more about his Aboriginal heritage and culture. He knew that his grandfather's family hailed from the Yamaji people of Mullewa, a remote town in WA's midwest region, but those roots were far removed from his own life in the Perth metropolitan area and his cricket tours abroad.

"I want to learn more about my culture, and being part of the Imparja Cup I now understand and have more of a concept of the Aboriginal way of life," Bailey says. "I now even know a few words from my Indigenous language… maybe some of them aren't the best words, but it is nice to pick up the native tongue. I have fully embraced it, and I want to keep learning."

"I'm black. I'm Aboriginal. To be honest, I was probably never going to play for WA" John McGuire

Away from cricket, Bailey has worked for the past three years as a teaching assistant at Clontarf Aboriginal College, a school for Indigenous students in years 7-12, reputed for its Australian Rules football programme. He spends most of his time at work trying to influence the worst-behaved students, and, of course, trying to spruik cricket to the football-adoring.

"Initially some of the students didn't believe I was Aboriginal, but I have a cousin there who vouches for me," he says with a chuckle. "A lot of the students have learning difficulties. They don't even know their times tables and are in high school. Some are from very remote communities and are a long way behind in their literacy and numeracy. I want to be a role model for the students to make sure they make the right choices. It is a tough but very rewarding job. It is amazing to see the kids graduate."

The Bailey twins were introduced to cricket by their cricket-loving father, and the hallways of the Bailey home were busy with matches even before the boys had entered kindergarten. They started at Gosnells District Cricket Club at the age of five.

John McGuire scored over 10,000 runs in district cricket but was never picked for Western Australia

John McGuire scored over 10,000 runs in district cricket but was never picked for Western Australia © John McGuire

Bailey says ethnicity has never affected his cricket prospects or dulled its zeal, bar one "unsavoury" incident on the field. "When I was playing Colts a few years back, someone was accused of saying something to me. The president of that club appeased me and said it didn't happen. It was still distressing and I was fired up.

"I am grateful to have the opportunity to play without prejudice, because I am aware of what has happened to Aboriginal cricketers in the past."

John McGuire's hero as a youngster was Clive Lloyd. A tallish left-hand batsman himself, McGuire was drawn towards the West Indian master. But McGuire's kinship went beyond marvelling at Lloyd's powerful strokes. "My role models were West Indians," says McGuire, who is of the Noongar people from south-west WA. "I remember a game in the season of 1968-69 between West Indies and WA at the WACA. I saw black players and thought, 'If they can do that, I can too.'"

Growing up in the 1950s and '60s in Northam, a small town about 100km north-east of Perth, McGuire did not feel a connection with the Australian or WA cricket teams, which have overlooked Aboriginal representation. Jason Gillespie is still the only acknowledged Aboriginal Test cricketer and Dan Christian the only other acknowledged Aboriginal international cricketer. No Aboriginal has played for WA's state team.

Bailey has benefited from an inclusive approach, earning a spot in the WA development squad and a community rookie contract with Perth Scorchers

McGuire was inspired to play the sport because he knew of Aboriginal cricket's rich but neglected history. He relished hearing stories of his great-grandfather John Burton, who was a star allrounder for New Norcians, an Indigenous team in the late 19th century who were dubbed "The Invincibles" for their dominance of WA cricket. He knew about the Aboriginal team that travelled to England in 1868 and became the nation's first overseas cricket tourists, nine years before the advent of Test cricket.

And he was intrigued and saddened by the fate of Eddie Gilbert, a lightning quick paceman for Queensland in the 1930s. Sir Donald Bradman and Alan McGilvray, the legendary ABC radio broadcaster, both declared Gilbert the fastest bowler they saw in that period. But Gilbert's career was restricted by the racist Aborigines Protection Act, which required him to take written permission to travel from his Aboriginal settlement each time he played. Despite finishing his career with 87 first-class wickets from 23 matches at an average below 30, Gilbert never represented Australia. He spent the final years of his life in a mental hospital in Brisbane battling alcohol addiction and dementia.

Notwithstanding the haunting injustices towards Aboriginal cricketers, McGuire dreamt of representing his state and country. He was a natural sportsman - his father was a local Australian Rules football star - and he developed his precocious batting skills with a piece of carved wood similar to a cricket bat. Eventually he moved to Perth and worked his way up the ranks, represented WA in Under-19s and established himself as a regular at Mount Lawley District Cricket Club.

Bailey (kneeling, extreme left) captained Western Australia to victory in the 2014-15 Imparja Cup

Bailey (kneeling, extreme left) captained Western Australia to victory in the 2014-15 Imparja Cup © Getty Images

McGuire was used to discriminatory barbs on the field but was not deterred by the nasty insults. "My father taught me a big lesson when I was in primary school and getting abused on the football field by kids who told me that I should go back to the reserve. He told me to take those comments as compliments, because when you're playing well that's when you will cop it."

As a reliable opener, McGuire churned the runs consistently for two decades but was never picked for WA. He is one of only three players to have scored more than 10,000 runs in district cricket. It was a strong era for WA's Shield team but it still gnaws.

"I'm black. I'm Aboriginal. To be honest, I was probably never going to play for WA," McGuire says. That realisation was seared into his psyche after a state trial match in the mid-1980s. Opening with Test regular Graeme Wood, McGuire flourished against the hostile bowling of Bruce Reid, Chris Matthews and Ken MacLeay, who all played for Australia. He made a composed half-century before his innings was terminated by the selectors.

Despite finishing his career with 87 first-class wickets from 23 matches, Eddie Gilbert never represented Australia. He spent the final years of his life in a mental hospital battling alcohol addiction and dementia

"We were told before the game that we would be selected to the squad based on our performances," McGuire remembers. "There was a drinks break, and the selectors told me to retire. I thought I had made the squad. But I didn't and wasn't even notified. They nipped my innings in the bud because if I had made a really big score, then they had to pick me."

Now 60 and the chairman of the WA Aboriginal Cricket Council, McGuire believes attitudes are not as discriminatory as before - but for Aboriginal cricket to flourish, more Indigenous players need to emerge into the mainstream consciousness.

"Let's be honest about it, cricket hasn't been a game for all Australians. Aboriginals think cricket is a white fella's sport, because we don't see black players in the team. That is why West Indies were my team. I could identify with them. Programmes can encourage participation, but kids need to know that if they play they can get to the top - whether for their state or country. We need a role model to inspire a generation of Indigenous kids."

Bailey had been keen to organise a meeting with McGuire for some time. The pair had bonded during WA's successful Imparja Cup campaign, where McGuire was the team's batting coach. But most of their interaction was based around ironing Bailey's batting skills. "Michael is blessed with natural talent and has an ability to score quick runs," McGuire felt. "But he needs to continue applying himself and focus on batting for long periods to get to the first-class level."

A statue of Aboriginal fast bowler Eddie Gilbert at Allan Border Field in Brisbane

A statue of Aboriginal fast bowler Eddie Gilbert at Allan Border Field in Brisbane © Getty Images

During the tournament, they chatted plenty about cricket and the art of batting, but Bailey wanted to learn more about McGuire's backstory. He was curious about the injustices that McGuire suffered, which were relatively raw. In the midst of an important tournament, the time wasn't quite right, but the desire to reach out to McGuire never subsided in Bailey.

They renewed acquaintances just before Christmas at Breckler Park, the home of Mount Lawley Club. It was an archetypal pre-Christmas summer's day in Perth, with the temperature nudging 30 degrees and the afternoon sea breeze, the famed Fremantle Doctor, waving its cooling wand. Two generations of WA Aboriginal cricket intersected at that small suburban ground not far from Perth's central business district. Again, it wasn't quite the right environment for a deep discussion - but Bailey's initiation was in itself important. He may be part of a rising new breed and a more inclusive cricket community, but he wanted to connect with the past. "It is great to learn about the players who have gone before and what they had to go through. They paved the way. I want to grab the opportunity I have, because I'm grateful I get to play in this era and not in John's."

McGuire is well aware of his role as the elder statesman of Aboriginal cricket in WA. "Michael has fair skin but he's Aboriginal, and I really hope he gets a fair go. He's the type of player that can make it to first-class cricket and be a role model for Aboriginal cricket. I hope my story, and the injustices of Aboriginal cricketers from the past, inspires him."

The Imparja Cup: a celebration of Australian Indigenous culture

The Imparja Cup: a celebration of Australian Indigenous culture © Getty Images

It has taken many years, but there is acceptance, both within and outside of the cricket fraternity, that the Australian cricket team has never been a mirror to its populace. State associations have incorporated targeted programmes to encourage prospective Indigenous players, while Cricket Australia recently adopted a Reconciliation Action Plan in an effort to "strengthen relationships between the wider Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples".

Bailey has been a beneficiary of this inclusive approach. He has earned himself a spot in the WA development squad, and a community rookie contract - meant for players from rural communities, low socio-economic areas and Indigenous or non-English speaking backgrounds - with Perth Scorchers in the Big Bash League.

"It shows the kids there are plenty of opportunities for them and I would love to see an Aboriginal wearing the baggy green," Bailey says, as a grin starts to emerge. "Hopefully, I'll play for Australia one day."

Tristan Lavalette is a journalist based in Perth and writes on sports for the Guardian and mailerreport