Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gilbert, Edward (Eddie) (1905–1978)

by Raymond Evans

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Edward (Eddie) Gilbert (d.1978), cricketer, was probably born in 1905 or 1906 at Durundur Aboriginal reserve near Woodford in south-eastern Queensland. His birth was not registered and his parents are unknown but came from North Queensland. While still an infant Eddie and his brother were separated from their parents when Durundur was abolished. He was incarcerated in the children's dormitory on Barambah (later Cherbourg) reserve near Murgon, and tribal influences were replaced by an inferior form of primary schooling to grade four. Gilbert was then contracted out by the reserve superintendent as an unskilled labourer in seasonal occupations.

He probably began to play cricket during 1917, under the inspiration of Jack Daylight, when the Barambah Aboriginal cricket club was formed; in 1922 he was a slow to medium-paced bowler. Developing a unique style of fast bowling, he was coached by the new Barambah schoolmaster, Robert Crawford.

By 1929 news of Gilbert's phenomenal success in local matches reached Brisbane and the Queensland Cricketing Association brought him to Woolloongabba for a demonstration. Despite his remarkably short approach run, his 5 ft 7 ins (170 cm) stature and his slight nine stone (57 kg) frame, his muscular physique and a reach some 4 ins (10 cm) beyond the normal powered a whiplike wrist action which released the ball like a stone from a catapult. Chosen in 1930 for Queensland against New South Wales Colts, he captured six wickets. Critics now began to question his bowling style: the Brisbane Courier's 'Long On' first described his action as almost a throw. He was nevertheless picked for the Queensland Sheffield Shield team against South Australia and was named bowler of the match. When Queensland beat New South Wales in November, the Queensland selectors responded to New South Wales complaints by filming his arm action in slow motion; they found no irregularities. In January 1931 Gilbert took 7 West Indian wickets for 91 runs.

Gilbert's most memorable bowling performance occurred against New South Wales on 6 November 1931. His first ball, a bumper, had the opening batsman caught behind. The first of the three following balls to Donald Bradman knocked the bat from his hands, the next made him fall backwards on the pitch, and the third had him caught behind. The Barambah Aborigines listening to the game relayed through Crawford's radio joined the Brisbane crowd of 7000 in cheering themselves hoarse.

Because of assertions by the New South Wales manager and the team that he threw, Gilbert narrowly avoided being dropped from the Queensland team to meet South Africa; he took five wickets in the match. A month later during the match against Victoria in Melbourne, he was repeatedly 'no-balled' for throwing. He was filmed again from four angles by slow-motion cameras.

It was suggested that Gilbert might provide a freak response to the English 'bodyline' tactics in 1932-33 but, suffering from an inflamed shoulder socket, he was barely bowling above medium pace. Moreover, responding to constant criticism, he was attempting to eradicate his 'snappy wrist action' and had lost pace. Suggestions began to be made that he was a spent force. Gilbert did not play in the 1933-34 season but in 1934-35 he topped the Queensland bowling figures with an average of 18.43. During his last season he confronted Bradman again in January 1936 and took his wicket; his bumpers had injured three New South Wales players in an earlier match when he had again been 'no-balled'. A new Marylebone Cricket Club ruling later in the year against 'intimidatory' bowling effectively ended his career. Although he took five Victorian wickets in the first innings of his last match, he was retired in November 1936 on the ground of his 'hopelessly bad' form, and returned to Cherbourg. He had taken 87 wickets in first-class cricket at an average of 29.21.

Controversy still rages over the question of possible racial discrimination relating to Eddie Gilbert's career. There seems little doubt that he was discriminated against as an Aborigine. He was escorted constantly by white bureaucrats and cricket officials and the constant slurs on his bowling style are reminiscent of similar innuendoes against the earlier Aboriginal cricketers Jack Marsh and Albert Henry. Though one of the finest Australian fast bowlers, Gilbert never played for Australia and was regarded by the crowds more as a novelty than as an exceptional sportsman.

Back at Cherbourg, Gilbert resumed the mundane routine of reserve existence, doing menial odd-jobs. He revived interests in music and boxing but played little cricket. Remembered as quiet and courteous, he married Edith Owens of Pialba on 9 March 1937. While working as a hospital orderly Gilbert began to exhibit signs of increasing mental instability. Admitted to Goodna Psychiatric Hospital on 8 December 1949, he remained there until his death on 9 January 1978. Leading sportsmen including Sir Donald Bradman attended his large Cherbourg funeral. His son Eddie Barney became a professional boxer.

Eddie Gilbert was perhaps the only hero detribalized Aboriginals had in the 1930s.

Select Bibliography

  • Cricketer, Nov 1972, p 33, Feb 1978, p 19
  • Aboriginal and Islander Identity, Jan 1978, p 30
  • Brisbane Courier, 27, 29 Oct, 4, 10 Dec 1930, 7, 12, 13, 14, 25 Nov 1931, 24 Jan, 4 Feb 1933, 2, 13 Jan, 13 Nov 1936
  • Southern Burnett Times, 9 Jan 1931
  • Townsville Daily Bulletin, 9 Feb 1933
  • private information.

Citation details

Raymond Evans, 'Gilbert, Edward (Eddie) (1905–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gilbert-edward-eddie-6379/text10897, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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