By Russell Jackson/theguardian.com
I always say that I hold two records,” says Faith Thomas, laughing. “I think I’m still the fastest woman bowler ever. And I think I also might have been the biggest flash in the pan ever.”
She’s being very modest. Not only was Thomas (nee Coulthard), the first Aboriginal woman to represent Australia on a cricket field when she opened the bowling in the Melbourne Test of the 1958 Ashes series, she was the first Aboriginal woman picked in any national sporting team.
On Boxing Day this year, the 83-year-old will be at the Melbourne Cricket Ground as a guest of Cricket Australia as the game commemorates the 150th anniversary of the country’s first Indigenous team, part of a concerted effort by the organisation to inspire a new generation of players like Faith Thomas.
There was no nonsense in Thomas’s approach to bowling. “I used to like bowling yorkers,” she recalls. “The first place I played (representative cricket) was at the Gabba and it was the English captain Mary Duggan facing. I put the stump over the wicket-keeper’s head!”
To get to a game like that one in Brisbane, Thomas would travel by train for three days, arriving with no time for practice runs. She attributes the speed and deadly accuracy of bowling to her childhood days at the Colebrook mission in Quorn in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges.
But how, exactly, were those lethal deliveries honed? “Chuckin’ rocks at galahs!” Thomas says, laughing. “Kids these days have got toys, we had nothing. We lived near a creek. There were plenty of rocks and plenty of galahs in those trees.”
To say her rise was meteoric is an understatement. Thomas’s six-step run-up billed her as a spinner to the uninitiated, a mistake batsmen only made once. “You didn’t need to take a run-up to knock a galah out of the sky,” she says. “You just picked up a rock and let it fly.”
Her greater achievement in life, she says, was finishing her studies in midwifery and general practice nursing, when she and five contemporaries became the first Aboriginal nurses in South Australia and Thomas the state’s first Aboriginal public servant, the start of a long and varied career in health and community services.
After a year’s training to become a midwife she delivered so many children that parents took to giving them her name. “There were a lot of Faiths running around the joint,” she says. “I’d feel really good about them all being named after me.”
It was at work that Thomas got the idea in her head of playing cricket at all, when a nursing colleague griped that she was going to miss training.
Thomas was intrigued. “I said, ‘Hey, women play cricket?’ She told me to come out with her the next Saturday.” Three club games later she was playing for South Australia, then soon after for her country.
Thomas is a storyteller par excellence. That her run-up stretched beyond just a few paces was down to the former Australian Test captain Victor Richardson, who suggested it at a game in Adelaide.
She chuckles joyously remembering the time years later she couldn’t recall the name of “Victor Whatsisface” at an event in her home state. “Whatisface? That’s my grandfather you’re talking about,” fired back Ian Chappell.
She says the male greats of her time weren’t always so supportive of the women’s game. She can’t remember all that much of her own historic involvement, but a mention of the 1958 series against England and Australia’s star player Betty Wilson prompts a series of poignant memories.
“I’ve never seen anyone bat like Betty Wilson,” Thomas says. “I can remember I was 12th man at Adelaide Oval. All the blokes were very much against women playing cricket. Don Bradman came out and he sat there and you could tell by his body language that he was out to poo-poo women’s cricket. The body language said it all.
“He came out and Betty was batting, and she would bat all day. She was absolutely fantastic. Everything went for four and God knows what. She literally danced around the wicket.
“Well, old Bradman was that tickled pink he was clapping. Then when Betty got out he left. Betty showed him that women could do it. He changed his mind.”
Thomas recalls barely anything about her own Test debut.
“I just got out there and bowled the ball,” she says, adding that her contemporaries played for sheer joy of it, a concept now lost at the top level of the game. “We got out there and we played for the fun of it. With all the money around now they have to play to win.”
Like all female Test stars of her generation, it wasn’t until years later that she was presented her baggy green cap — No. 48, being as auspicious a number as any in Australian cricket.
Yet her Test cricket career was just one week of a long and fascinating life, dedicated mostly to helping others in the community, her patients and her mob. Throughout it all, sport loomed large. “Sport was always part of the healing process with me,” she says, “and it worked.”
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