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The forgotten tour of 1988: A story that simply needs to be told

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The first Australian sporting side to play outside of the country, in 1868, was an Indigenous cricket team. Let that sink in.

For well over a century, the history of First Nations sport has gone seemingly unacknowledged, and it didn’t stop with that first tour. Hidden within the more recent history of cricket, in 1988, is a legendary Indigenous side that travelled halfway around the world, playing 16 games in about as many days. The 1988 Australian Aboriginal team was almost erased from the history books. But it’s time that ends.

The indigenous cricket team and the forgotten tour of 1988

During the 1980s, the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) were hoping to identify its first Indigenous cricketer. Up until that point, no one of indigenous heritage, or that had been acknowledged, donned the baggy green. 1988 also marked the bicentenary of the colonisation of Australia, which played some role in the board’s search for an Indigenous cricketer.

To this end, current Prime Minister Bob Hawke, in partnership with the ACB, announced that an Australian Aboriginal cricket team would tour England through May and June that year. Not only did it mark 200 years of modern Australia, but also 120 years since that very first Indigenous team travelled to England.

17 Indigenous men were selected for the tour; an enormous source of pride for the men and a chance to represent their family and culture overseas, and also an opportunity to further their cricketing careers. In the minds of those embarking on this journey, calling this a chance of a lifetime was an understatement.

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In then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s statement, when announcing the team over live radio, he stated, ‘The tour could well be the beginning of many illustrious careers.’

“I am sure we all support the Aboriginal Cricket Association’s goal of having an Aboriginal cricketer playing for Australia within the next five years,” he said.

For a majority of the players, the 1988 tour was their first time overseas. The thought of playing on some of the most famous grounds in the world seemed merely an oasis for much of their early lives.

For team members Sean Appoo and Michael Mainhardt, who grew up in country Queensland, their earliest memories of playing cricket were on dusty, broken roads after school with hand-made gear.

“I think I had played like five or six seasons before I got my first cricket bat,” Appoo admitted.

“We were pretty poor, so we lived in council housing for a while. It had a picket fence when we first moved in and after a couple of summers we had pulled all the palings off and used them as our bats.”

Similarly, Mainhardt and his brothers used a piece of wood 50 millimetres wide, which needed incredible concentration to hit the ball, something he believes made them much better batsmen.

“We used to think ‘well if we can hit a ball with this kind of stuff imagine what we can do once we’re using a proper cricket bat,” Mainhardt said.

This desire to play cricket, no matter what equipment was available, was the driving force behind these ambitious individuals ending up as key members of the indigenous cricket team; and into the unlikeliest of scenarios, traveling to the other side of the world. But before heading to the UK, their first match was in Sydney against the Prime Minister’s XI.

The game at Manly Oval drew in a crowd of around 4,000 spectators to witness the Indigenous side take on some of their childhood heroes, headlined by former Australian captain Ian Chappell and one of Australia’s top five leading wicket takers of all-time Dennis Lillie.

indigenous cricket team of 1988, bob hawke
Former PM Bob Hawke played against the 1988 indigenous cricket team.

According to a facebook page run by a member of the touring side, the team didn’t quite know how to react to the applause they received going out to field; these indigenous Australians were, sadly, far more used to the racism and discrimination they’re subjected to all too often.

John McGuire, the captain of the side, dealt with years of prejudice in Western Australia, preventing him from ever representing his state. McGuire was such a prolific run-scorer, he totalled over 10,000 first-grade runs and is only player, to this day, to score over 7,000 runs in Perth grade cricket and not play for WA.

Not only did the tour offer a platform for the players to build from but also a space to share their stories and learn different parts of their culture unencumbered by non-Indigenous Australians.

The team was accompanied to England by five cultural dancers from Arnhem Land who performed during the intervals of their games for the first half of the tour. Every night, the performers put their mattresses up against the walls of their hotel room and slept on the floor; the concept of mattresses was completely foreign.

“I didn’t find that out (the performers sleeping on the floor) until a couple nights into the tour. I think they did it because they felt safer that way. We would actually help them move stuff around and get them set up,” Appoo said.

For the first three weeks of the tour, the Australian indigenous cricket team were playing day-in, day-out, having 16 games in 21 days against strong county sides, local cricket clubs and even a charity celebrity team, which included Australian music royalty Jimmy Barnes.

His almost god-like status back home led to the team deliberately avoiding getting him out — dodging catches, over-running his sky-high shots and even calling a no ball on their own teammate after clean bowling the Cold Chisel frontman.

But this wasn’t the only royalty the 17 men got to meet on the tour.

The significance of the tour led to an opportunity to meet the late Queen Elizabeth II. For some, the Queen wasn’t of great importance to their lives but the excitement of a once in a lifetime opportunity changed everyone’s mindset pretty quickly. Even Mainhardt can remember the energy of the team arriving at Buckingham Palace.

“We drove through the gate and by all the tourists standing outside. They’re all taking pictures of our bus while all the boys on the bus were taking pictures of them,” Mainhardt shared.

“Once we got inside we had to wait about 40 minutes to meet her. We set up in a semicircle kind of thing and greeted Her Majesty on by one when she got to our room.”

Arguably the experience of the tour, the trip to Buckingham Palace was one of many incredible experiences away from the cricket pitch.

The team were given backstage access to an INXS concert at Wembley Arena, had a party thrown in their honour at the Australian Embassy and even asked to come into the West Indies locker room after a day’s play at Lords.

“For me growing up, I idolised the 70’s and 80’s West Indies team more than the Australian sides of the time. Being able to shake Viv Richard’s hand was crazy. His hands are about the size of a baseball mitt,” Appoo said.

Mixed in with the off-field events were occasions where the 1988 outfit were playing on historic grounds; Old Trafford, The Oval and even Lords. Just surreal moments for these modest players.

There was, unfortunately, a dampened end to the great tour; the match at Lords was rained out only an hour in. They did, however, field first and stand in the proclaimed birthplace of the sport they love most — more than enough.

Following the tour, the team returned to their hometowns. Little effort was made to organise any further functions for the side in the years following the tour. And so began the disappearance of the tour’s legacy.

Now thirty-five years on and counting, the only times Australia’s indigenous cricket team of 1988 reunite are at the odd reunion, organised by the players themselves. Three members of the touring squad have since sadly passed away.

For Sean Appoo, the lack of recognition of the tour is labeled ‘disappointing’. Something that, for all 17 players had brought them immense pride, becoming largely forgotten and almost erased from history; deeply disheartening.

The once in a lifetime stories and moments shared between the team have almost washed away, with these memories slowly dissolving into the often forgotten and ignored history of Indigenous Australians and their achievements in times of adversity or challenge.

Since 1988, Cricket Australia has sent two indigenous cricket teams over to England, in 2009 and 2018. There have been accounts from members of the newer sides that little was done to share the stories of ‘the forgotten tour’ of 1988.

The 1988 Australian Aboriginal cricket team hope it will not take another 120 years for their stories to be properly shared.

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