Until 1996, no known Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander cricketer had represented Australia at men’s test level, but Ballardong/Whadjuk Noongar man Seb Websdale has inherited a cricketing tradition that goes back over 140 years.
Websdale, 25, is a member of Western Australia’s Indigenous XI cricket team, and captain of local team, the Shoalwater Sealions.
A bowling all-rounder, he started playing at age 10 and just four years later was in the Indigenous A-Grade country team.
“It was a big shock to the system—I didn’t know they were going to be that much faster,” he said.
“You don’t get many chances at that level.”
Websdale has played club cricket around Warnbro and Rockingham, and last year went on his first four with the WA Indigenous XI, to Alice Springs.
“It was a good experience, to get to see a lot of very talented Indigenous cricketers—a lot of my team mates were better than me,” he said.
Websdale was inspired to start playing cricket by both his parents. His father, a Ballardong Noongar man, played first grade for Bayswater and his mother, a Whadjuk Noongar woman, played competitive indoor and outdoor cricket.
He only learned that the first Australian cricket team to tour England was an Indigenous side when he was 17 or 18-years-old.
“Growing up I never heard anything about Aboriginal cricket players, apart from my parents, and the late Keren Ugle Snr, who was a great player. His three sons are very talented players.”
Ugle Snr played first grade cricket until he retired at age 54.
“The fact the first team from Australia to tour England was an Indigenous side—it is a pretty proud moment for my heritage. It’s a big deal.”
That 1868 tour was no small affair, with the Indigenous team playing almost 50 matches: winning 14, losing 14 and drawing 19, much to the surprise of the English public.
One of the players, Jardwadjali man Unaarrimin, also known as Johnny Mullagh, astonished spectators and opponents, scoring almost 1,700 runs and taking 245 wickets.
English fast bowler George Tarrant said he’d “never bowled to a better batsman”, and the local press described Unaarrimin as “the W.G. Grace of Aboriginal batsmen” and “the premier batsman of Victoria”.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Bundjalung man Jack Marsh represented NSW, and Albert Henry, believed to be of the Jagera or Jukambe nations, represented Queensland.
In March, 1902, they became the first two Aboriginal players to play against one another in a first-class cricket match. They both rose to the occasion, with Marsh taking 2/64 and 3/67, and Henry 2/59 and 1/38 in a hard-fought draw.
Both were fast bowlers of great skill, but the highest praise for Indigenous cricketers came for Queensland quick Eddie Gilbert, who Don Bradman and Alan McGilvray described as the fastest bowler they’d ever seen.
Gilbert, who represented his state from 1930 to 1936, was one of just three players to ever dismiss Bradman for a duck in first-class cricket.
Some rivals muttered about his action, but despite being called in one match for “jerking the wrist”, the straightness of his arm was never in doubt.
Gilbert was overlooked for national selection, in part due to racist prejudice as well as being from Queensland at a time when NSW and Victoria were heavily favoured by selectors.
It was 60 years after the end of Gilbert’s state cricket career that Gamilaraay man, Jason Gillespie—also a fast bowler—became the first Indigenous player in Australia’s men’s test team.
In 1958 Faith Coulthard Thomas, an Adnyamathanha woman from South Australia, was not only the first Aboriginal woman to play cricket for Australia, but the first Aboriginal woman to officially represent the country in any sport.
A fast bowler of prodigious talent, Thomas was also a high-level hockey player and a nurse. She retired from cricket early to focus on nursing and her family.
It would be another 61 years until another Aboriginal woman represented Australia in test cricket, when Muruwari woman Ashleigh Gardner was picked to play against England in 2019.
Websdale said Indigenous role models in state, national and international cricket were “100 per cent” vital for inspiring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth to take up the game.
By Giovanni Torre