Plans to field an All-Indigenous Prime Minister’s XI for the annual match at Manuka Oval in Canberra were dropped by Cricket Australia after the re-election of the current Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2019.
The idea to rejuvenate the traditional concept of the PM’s XI fixture by making it an All-Indigenous team versus an overseas touring team was first raised by CA as part of the same reconciliation movement to redress Australian cricket’s poor history of racial inclusion that saw it drop any reference to “Australia Day” for Big Bash League matches to be played on January 26.
It was floated prior to the 2019 federal election, widely expected to be won by the Labor Opposition led by Bill Shorten, but shelved after it is believed to have been given a less than enthusiastic response in the months after the Liberal/National Coalition was returned to government in defiance of opinion polls.
Amid a gradual growth in the number of Aboriginal cricketers in Australian domestic ranks, CA’s high-performance wing is understood to have welcomed the idea on the basis that the chosen XI would be more than strong enough to hold their own against the touring Sri Lankan team.
However, ESPNcricinfo understands that the pushback was couched as a new government indicating it “wasn’t quite ready” for such a move, forcing CA and ACT Cricket into a series of changes to their plans.
Early in the second Morrison government, the Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt gave a National Press Club address outlining a blueprint for a referendum on Aboriginal recognition in the Australian Constitution, a move that drew criticism from some of the more conservative elements of the government.
Aboriginal players who had toured England in 2018, as part of a tour to commemorate the 1868 journey by the first ever team to represent Australia on foreign soil in any sport, had been informally told of the plans and even reached the stage where diary space in their summer schedules was cleared for training and playing time in Canberra.
A source close to the players described their reaction as “irate” when informed of the plan being dropped, ostensibly because it was felt that the government was “already sufficiently active” in the Indigenous sphere.
A compromise of sorts was reached by having the PM’s XI co-captained by the Aboriginal allrounder Dan Christian alongside Peter Siddle, and coached by Jason Gillespie, who became Australia’s first male Aboriginal Test cricketer when he made his debut in 1996, after Aunty Faith Thomas became the first Aboriginal Test cricketer in 1958.
Morrison subsequently used the match as a photo opportunity, running drinks to the PM’s XI while clad in a team cap and sharing high fives with the players, while also doing a stint in the commentary box.
Nevertheless, the episode underlined a difference of opinion on inclusiveness between Morrison and CA that has been further heightened by the Prime Minister’s publicly stated opposition to CA’s stance on January 26, which was reached after consultation with its Indigenous Advisory Council, co-chaired by Mel Jones and Justin Mohamed.
“I think a bit more focus on cricket, and a little less focus on politics would be my message to Cricket Australia,” Morrison told radio 4R0 on Thursday. “I think that’s pretty ordinary – that’s what they’re putting on their press releases – that would be my view.”
In December 2019, CA released their second Reconciliation Action Plan with the stated aim of finding more common ground between Indigenous communities and the sport. As of last season, just 69,000 of the reported 1.7 million Australians playing cricket are from Indigenous backgrounds. To help grow that number, the report included 104 areas for action, including the aim for all cricket clubs in Australia to commit to an annual reconciliation statement each year.
CA has subsequently discussed plans to hold an annual match between an All-Indigenous XI and a touring team separate to the Manuka fixture, however both this idea and the PM’s XI game itself were put on hiatus for the 2020-21 season due to Covid-19.
The Indigenous leader Mick Dodson, a former Australian of the year and co-author of a 2010 independent report on cricket’s Indigenous past, For The Love Of The Game, that helped drive CA’s current approach, said the governing body had already driven great change, with more to come.
“They’ve taken Aboriginal participation in official cricket around the country from 8,500 [in 2013/14] to almost 70,000,” Dodson told the ABC’s PM program. “That’s over 800% increase. They’ve done a terrific job. No other sport in Australia could claim that. It’s not just Indigenous Australians, it’s people from diverse and different cultural backgrounds, they’ve done a terrific job.
“Adam Cassidy [Cricket Australia’s diversity and inclusion manager] and the Cricket Australia team should be very, very proud of what they’ve achieved in such a short time. Because they’re inclusive and have an inclusive and diverse policy, you get figures like that.”
The Prime Minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig