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ABORIGINAL BOWLER HONOURED AT LAST
Indigenous Sports Queensland
 

 

ABORIGINAL BOWLER HONOURED AT LAST

Eddie Gilbert featured in an article in the Independant Newspaper in London on 30 September 2008. The article was written by Sydney based journalist Kathy Marks

ABORIGINAL BOWLER HONOURED AT LAST

Eddie Gilbert was the fastest bowler of his era - so fast that he knocked the bat out of Don Bradman's hands before dismissing him for a duck. But while Bradman is a household name around the world, few people have heard of Gilbert, even in his native Australia.

Bradman was a white Australian; Gilbert was an Aboriginal man who lived on a government-run mission and had to be chaperoned by white officials when travelling to matches. Denied a place on the national team, he was forced out of first-class cricket amid allegations of cheating, and died in a mental institution. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

Now, 30 years after his death, Gilbert's extraordinary talents are finally receiving a belated nod of recognition. A life-size bronze statue will be unveiled next month at the Queensland Cricket Academy in Brisbane.

While Gilbert's family are delighted, the memorial has been dogged by controversy. The statue was commissioned not by the Queensland government, or cricketing authorities, but by Indigenous Sport Queensland, an organisation that assists and promotes Aboriginal athletes.

It was hoped that the statue would find a home at the Brisbane Cricket Ground, the scene of Gilbert's notorious encounter with Bradman in 1931. But the idea was vetoed, prompting local media to suggest that, decades on, Gilbert is still not accepted by the cricketing establishment.

Wayne Coolwell, president of Indigenous Sport Queensland, said today that he did not believe the decision was racially motivated. But Mr Coolwell, an Aboriginal former sports broadcaster, is shocked that Gilbert has yet to achieve the recognition he deserves.

“Here's an Aboriginal fellow who played for Queensland, and was widely admired, and he's still not being recognised 70 years later,” Mr Coolwell said. “He was an amazing natural athlete, but the majority of people, particularly outside Queensland, wouldn't know much about him.”

Gilbert developed a unique style of fast bowling, based on a whip-like wrist action, and stories about his prowess abounded. His blistering deliveries were said to raise smoke on a concrete pitch; one of his balls reportedly crashed through a picket fence and killed a small dog. Another struck a box of matches in the wicket-keeper's pocket and set them alight.

While such tales are probably apocryphal, Gilbert was a cricketer of remarkable ability - yet he was never selected to represent Australia. Few doubt that racism was to blame. This was an era when the movements of Aboriginal Queenslanders were controlled by white superintendents, whose permission had to be sought to move around, work, or even spend money. Gilbert, a quietly-spoken man, was not permitted to stay in the same hotels as his team-mates.

While he was mobbed by fans, he was regarded as a curiosity. He once said: “It's all right to be a hero on the field, but a black man can be lonely when he is not accepted after the game.”

Gilbert's career was, moreover, punctuated by slurs on his sporting conduct. His catapult-style action was questioned from his first appearance for Queensland in 1930, with critics claiming he threw the ball rather than bowled it. Slow motion film of his arm action revealed nothing improper, but the accusations persisted - particularly after he humiliated Bradman.

On that memorable day, in the space of one over, Gilbert relieved Bradman of his bat, knocked him to the ground, and then dismissed the world's greatest batsman for no score. Bradman said it was the fastest bowling he had ever faced.

In subsequent matches, though, Gilbert was repeatedly “no-balled” by the umpire, and in 1936 he was forced to retire in disgrace. He became an alcoholic and spent his last 30 years in a psychiatric hospital. His name and his exploits were forgotten. Only last year was a headstone put up at his grave.

The statue will be unveiled by his son, Eddie Barney, a former professional boxer. “It will be a reminder of this great man, and of the fact that his memory lives on through his son,” Mr Coolwell said.