Five years ago this week, Scott Boland played cricket in England for the only time in his career to date.
While he was already a capped international in the limited-overs formats, Boland did not represent Australia, but the Aboriginal XI. The tour was to mark 150 years since they became the first Australian sporting team to play overseas.
Boland played at the Oval on that tour, and he is overlooking the ground, reflecting with Telegraph Sport on his extraordinary journey to another game there: Wednesday’s World Test Championship final against India. With Josh Hazlewood ruled out with an Achilles injury, Boland appears likely to play, then have a key role in the Ashes.
For all that has happened since, it was that Aboriginal XI tour that Boland reflects on as “the most enjoyable and proudest cricket tour I’ve ever been on”. He is one of just two indigenous men to have played Test cricket (the other being Jason Gillespie), and one of only a handful to have played in any international format.
The great writer Gideon Haigh argues in the documentary, The Test, that Australia has a “shameful” record that has “fallen well short of where it should be” in terms of promoting the game among Aboriginal communities.
Boland is shifting the dial, though. He was joined on that 2018 tour by his brother Nick, having learnt of their grandfather’s heritage in the Gulidjan tribe near Colac in Victoria shortly after he died.
“There were only two or three professionals on that trip,” he remembers. “A lot of guys hadn’t experienced playing on big grounds like the Oval and Trent Bridge, so that was amazing. From the cultural side it was amazing for us all to learn so much about our heritage.
“Covid hurt our programme but we are back up and running, and a team has gone to Vanuatu to play there. It’s hard to be involved while I am so busy, but I do what I can, and will continue for as long as I can.”
Boland’s motivation is to create a simpler pathway for Aboriginal kids to make it in the game. As a child, his indigenous sporting heroes were Australian Rules footballers, notably Nicky Winmar from his club St Kilda.
“It’s nice to be considered a role model for Aboriginal kids,” he says. “There haven’t been many. A lot of guys growing up would follow AFL and rugby league in Australia, because there are so many indigenous guys playing those sports. I want young boys and girls to know that cricket can be for them.”
It might just be a coincidence, but the Aboriginal XI tour brought a major uptick in Boland’s form. Since then, he has 178 first-class wickets at 20.4 (including 28 in Tests, at 13.4), compared to an average of 28 before.
Such form demanded Test selection and brought a remarkable, inspirational debut. It came on his home ground, the MCG, and brought second innings figures of 4-1-7-6, and a host of records as Australia blew England away in securing the Ashes. The renowned Australian broadcaster Gerard Whateley called it “cricket’s Cathy Freeman moment”, with a nod back to the sprinter at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Boland’s Aboriginal heritage was at the heart of it all. During the “Welcome To Country” that precedes the national anthems, Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin, an indigenous elder, congratulated him personally and he later became just the second recipient of the Mullagh Medal. That is presented to the man of the match in the Boxing Day Test and is named after Johnny Mullagh, captain of the Aboriginal XI on the 1868 tour. As part of his research into his heritage, Boland and his brother had visited Mullagh’s house in Harrow, Victoria.
‘Build the man a statue’
Boland – humble, shy and very softly spoken – simply says “I wouldn’t change my debut game for anything”. The commentator Mark Howard got a bit more carried away. “Build the man a statue,” he screamed, as the Melbourne crowd – which Boland had been a part of on so many occasions for cricket and AFL – crowned a new cult figure with a cacophonous reaction.
“I thought the moment had gone,” he says. “I was 32, still hopeful, and still thought my skills were good enough if I got an opportunity, but was thinking it wouldn’t come. I put a few good games together, and there was the odd injury or two, and I was ready to go. It’s gone so well.
“I remember on the night of day two, when Mitchell Starc was on a hat-trick. It was the loudest crowd I’d played in front of, one of the loudest I’ve ever heard. It’s where I’ve played all my cricket, so I just felt comfortable. Personally, having such great support from friends and family, but also my hometown crowd was amazing. It will probably be a bit different here.”
He is right. The sold-out Oval will overwhelmingly be supporting India, while English crowds love winding Australians up. England’s players will be respectful, though, after he picked up 18 wickets – including Joe Root four times and Jonny Bairstow three – in three matches 18 months ago.
“To know I’ve bowled against these guys and performed pretty well, I can take a bit of confidence out of that,” he says. “They are coming pretty hard at every bowler at the moment, so we expect that. It will be a different challenge to last time in Australia. If they keep playing the same way, we will come up with different strategies to try to take them down. It’s been really exciting to watch, but hopefully it doesn’t work this summer.”
Boland seems the dream bowler for English conditions, but he has played just two first-class matches outside Australia, and never bowled with a Dukes ball. The 2018 tour used a white Kookaburra. Training recently at Melbourne’s Junction Oval on a pitch meant to mimic England, he has used the Dukes, and expects that his perfect length will be just a touch shorter in England.
He has also been picking the brains of Pat Cummins, but decided not to pursue early conversations over a fact-finding county stint, as, aged 34, he tries to take care of his body, so that, inspired by James Anderson, he can play for years to come.
For all that, Boland knows he is likely to have just one shot at an Ashes tour, and is desperate to make an impression.
“We are all thinking and talking about the Ashes,” he says. “But we know there’s a massive game before that.”