Paul Stewart’s phone rang in the stands at the MCG where 40,000 Victorians were losing their heads as debutant Scott Boland was in the midst of a dreamy spell of 6 for 7 that shot out England in the third Test. An already emotional Stewart would choke up in happiness as he recognised the call had come up from a pub in the small town of Harrow, halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide, home of Johnny Mullagh, the most popular Aboriginal player who starred in Australia’s first ever tour of England in 1868.
Stewart had once taken Boland, the fourth aboriginal man to don the baggy green, to Harrow, the spiritual cricket home of aboriginal cricketers. “Laughter, tears, and joy flowed in the call,” Stewart would tell The Indian Express. “Their Scotty, our Scotty, was doing us proud. I couldn’t have visualised this day even in a dream.”
An emotional Belinda Duarte, the first Indigenous member of MCG Trust and a descendant of Dick-a-Dick, a team-mate of Mullagh on that historic tour, would hand over the Mullagh medal to the man of the match Boland. “Some would even say the old people have had something to do with this,” she said. “We carry our old people everywhere. There were so many indicators today that they were by his side.”
The significance of the moment wasn’t lost on Stewart. “For Scotty to receive the Mullagh medal was so heartwarming. A dream story.” Stewart is a proud Taungurung man who worked with Cricket Australia as their indigenous cricket expert when he ran into Boland a few years back. In his mid 20’s, Boland discovered that his maternal grandfather was adopted and was actually an aboriginal.
“I am not sure whether his grandfather was removed from his family but it’s not uncommon to find out late in lives about aboriginal heritage. That’s been our lot,” Stewart says. “Growing up as an aboriginal in 60s was very tough time. We didn’t have voting rights. Babies were taken away from aboriginal women.”
Facing the past
Every country has its dark guilt and this was Australia’s. From the early 19th century till 1970 Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families as part of the Australian government plan to assimilate them into dominant non-indigenous population. The establishment had ill-treated the indigenous population so much so that in 2008 the government, under the prime ministership of Kevin Rudd, issued a formal apology to the “stolen generations”.
There is a famous Aboriginal heartache of a song called ‘The Brown Skinned Baby’ by Bob Randall. The lyrics went “In a native camp I’ll never forget, a young black mother, her cheeks all wet, ‘My brown skin baby, they take him away ‘. Between her sobs I heard her say, police been taking my baby away. From white man was that baby I had. Why he let them take baby away …The child grew up and had to go from the mission home that he loved so much. To find his mother, he tried in vain. Upon this earth they never met again.”
A few years back Boland’s uncle would delve into family roots and discover the aboriginal blood. By then, Boland and his brother Nick had begun playing professional cricket and both would get very interested in playing for an Aboriginal team. Enter Paul Stewart.
“We used to run an annual cricket tournament when I saw him first with his brother Nick. To be part of that you have to be indigenous and that’s when we got talking. More than just qualifying, Scott wanted to know more about the aboriginal history and culture.”
As part of the education, he started visiting the historical places sacred to aboriginals in Western Districts. Waterholes, communities, and eventually he found his way to Harrow, where Johnny Mullagh museum is now the pride of the town.
“We would initially talk about how perhaps, it was the decision of the grandfather not to tell anyone about his heritage. Because of so many challenges that we face. I remember telling Scott, ‘Mate, you are really lucky because so many other families are not so lucky’. That stuck with him and he wanted to learn more and how he can help the other more disadvantaged kids. He would talk about how to embrace the culture,” Stewart says. “We would go to the Western districts, talk to the aboriginal families there, and be welcomed by them.”
In 2018, the Boland brothers made it to the Australian Aboriginal team that toured England to commemorate the first-ever tour. Each player was given a name to ‘carry’ on the tour, name of a player from the original 1868 tour.
Scott was given the name Gulligan from the player from the original team Yellanach aka Johnny Cuzens. His brother Nick represented Gronggarrong (Mosquito).
“Mosquito and Cuzens were brothers just like the Bolands. During our visit to Harrow before going on tour – Nick got to meet Aunty Fiona Clarke (Descendent of Mosquito) who designed the walkabout wickets artwork logo which was used in out touring uniforms,” Stewart says. “Scott also had the opportunity to meet Aunty Vicki and Ashley Couzens (descendent of J Cuzens)”
“This is a true wow factor that I will carry into this tour and for the rest of my life,” Stewart remembers an emotional Scott Boland telling him when he met with the descendants of the original team. They had a quiet personal dinner at Harrow with the descendants. “That experience was the most touching moment for him. I remember him saying, “It’s so amazing that I have the privilege of carrying their names and I got to meet their descendants”.
Boland has been winning awards for his performances in domestic cricket, even made it to the national squad but without getting an opportunity. Finally, after all those years, at the age of 32, he got his chance to live his dream in front of a home crowd that went deliriously mad at the performance of their local hero.
Stewart’s young sons were there too, right in front of the Southern stand, soaking up the moment. Even as he mentions them, a son pipes up in the background on the phone, reliving the chants from the day: ‘Scotty! Scotty!’
The Story of Eddie Gilbert, the man who knocked out Bradman
Boland’s dreamy story is a long cry from the days of Eddie Gilbert, the Aboriginal fast bowler from the 1930’s who was famous for dismissing Don Bradman for a duck. “It’s alright to be a hero on the field, but a black man can be lonely when he is not accepted after the game,” said Gilbert.
It’s fascinating to see society through cricket through the story of Gilbert. “If Gilbert wanted to go off the settlement he needed permission. Sometimes, he had to apply for permission to travel in the same car as a white cricketer,” Ken Edwards, the author of ‘The true story of an Aboriginal cricketing legend’, said in a radio interview.
In a game in 1931, Bradman lasted five deliveries against Gilbert. He was thrown off balance once, his bat flew out of his hands off another delivery and he finally nicked a bouncer behind. “I think just for that one over, that was probably the fastest that I’d ever seen a cricket ball delivered. It was tremendous,” Bradman would later say.
It was also the beginning of the end. Five New South Wales players, who weren’t identified, complained that Gilbert is a “chucker”. Edwards believes one of the players was Bradman himself. Few weeks later when playing in Melbourne, he was repeatedly called for chucking.
Gilbert faced off against Bradman twice more after that fateful day – Bradman hit a double hundred at Adelaide and Gilbert removed him cheaply in the last encounter – but he suffered a loss of form and injuries. In 1936, the Queensland association ended his career abruptly and sent him back to settlement. They even demanded him to return the cricket clothing and charged him the amount for sending him back.
Gilbert couldn’t adjust to the life in settlement and slowly started getting into fights and troubles. He was sent to Brisbane hospital for examination, diagnosed as suffering from a mental condition and put into a mental hospital where he stayed till his death in 1978. They said he was suffering from mental conditions that come from tertiary syphilis but an autopsy conducted after his death revealed he didn’t have that condition at all.
That was back in the day. How is it now for the Aboriginals in 2021? “Our life expectancy is not where non-aboriginal people have. There are tough living conditions out there still,” Stewart says. “We never got into wealth or inheritance. The Aboriginals have to make their own future. We look after each other. There are tough communities out there who are struggling with poor housing, health, and education. Still there is lot of work to be done. That’s the challenge. It’s nice to see Scott get into it. To see someone like him up there at MCG winning games for Australia, it’s been a dream. It’s a great hopeful message for the entire community. We are all so proud.”