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What a yearly cricket match taught me about Australia Day

The rest of the nation could learn a lot from our humble neighbourhood cricket game, Adam Lucius writes.

OPINION

Every year, for more than two decades, a bunch of us sporting has-beens gathered on Australia Day for a game of cricket, a few beers and a sausage sanga dripping with barbie sauce.

It all started on the same day Australia lost to the once mighty West Indies by one run after Craig McDermott gloved Courtney Walsh through to the keeper, prompting Australian skipper Allan Border to slam a ball through the dressing-room floor in frustration.

We missed all that excitement as our own game was being played at a suburban park in Sydney, with the intensity level down several notches on AB's game in Adelaide.

Man hits ball with a cricket bat.
The friendly match included people from all backgrounds and walks of life. Source: Supplied

Back in 1993, Australia Day wasn't really the huge deal it has become.

In fact, it wasn't until a year later, in 1994, that January 26 officially became a public holiday in all Australian states and territories.

The local council put on a thong-throwing contest and sausage sizzle and there were ceremonies giving a passing nod to our Indigenous and colonial past, and that was about the size of it.

It certainly wasn't the day of controversy, anger and division that it is in 2024.

Our first cricket match was cobbled together because we wanted something to do on Australia Day and playing cricket and drinking beer with mates was the most Australian thing we could think of.

Looking back at photos of those games as our little tradition grew over 21 years, the thing that strikes you is the diverse range of people who played in it.

A group of men relax and enjoy some drinks with some women and children in the background.
The days always ended with a few friendly beers. Source: Supplied
Men embrace (left) man in white bowls a cricket ball (right).
There was plenty of white zinc cream, but not a southern cross tattoo in sight. Source: Supplied

We had blokes from Indigenous and Jewish backgrounds, alongside Italians, Croatians, Lebanese, Latvians, Hungarians, Poms, Canadians, West Indians and Aussies. One year we even let a Kiwi play.

If you discount the male streaker who tried to out-sprint an imaginary security guard after jumping out of a taxi, there was little in the way of drama.

To me, those days epitomised the best of what Australia has to offer. There was nothing jingoistic about it. Dabs of white zinc cream – not southern cross tattoos – was the ink of choice.

A group of men with cricket gear.
The community cricket game crew gathered to play on Australia Day. Source: Supplied

And anyone attempting to start up the tedious Aussie, Aussie, Aussie Oi, Oi, Oi chant would have had their head dunked in an Esky.

Our bloodlines may have told contrasting stories, but it was inclusive and egalitarian. If you could swing a bat, bowl a few overs of junk or carry a six-pack, you were in.

Not everyone shared the same political bent – and there was some lively chat at post-match debriefs - but coming together once a year was our way of celebrating the best country in the world.

'Gotcha-fests' solve nothing

The debate on when to mark our national day is complex and nuanced and won’t be resolved by simplistic solutions.

Neither will the annual "gotcha-fest" - where unwilling Australia Day participants (this year it's Woollies and Cricket Australia copping it in the neck) get a public flogging – enhance the discussion.

A group photo of men with cricket gear from the 1990s.
The friends gathered for a friendly game every Australia Day for more than two decades. Source: Supplied

And a social cricket match isn't, of course, the antidote to the pain and suffering many feel on January 26.

But if we can somehow harness the goodwill of days like that and celebrate our diversity while respecting those with an alternate view, we could make some tangible progress in the Australia Day discussion.

Because, at the moment, we're just bowling bouncers at each other with no runs being scored.

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