Exactly 150 years ago this week, a team of cricketers was preparing in Sydney for the first sports tour by Australians, and for the first cricket tour to England.
Before they set sail on February 8, the Duke of Edinburgh attended their practice on a couple of days, although when Queen Victoria's second son watched cricket, he was normally not amused.
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These pioneers were Aboriginal Australians. Five years earlier, they had never seen cricket, let alone played it. Yet they took to the sport with such natural dexterity that when they played MCC at Lord's, they led on first innings and might have won if two of their players had not been injured.
Working as sheepshearers in western Victoria, they were taught cricket by the farmers' sons, who had been sent to school in Melbourne and had seen the first English cricketers to tour Australia in 1861-62, along with their revolutionary techniques, such as over-arm bowling.
Four white promoters pooled their resources, assembled an Aboriginal team and decided to take them to England. It was a business speculation, just like the first white Australian cricket tour of England 10 years later. The difference was that the 1878 Australians put up the money themselves and made handsome profits. The promoters of the indigenous tour made a modest profit of £2,355, for themselves, and while the players do not seem to have been treated unkindly – they were allowed to keep prize money – they were financially exploited, as they played 47 matches all over England, from May until October, with an enormous amount of travelling.
It is amazing that from such a small pool, a cricket team was assembled at all, let alone one that could soon tour England with a decent record: 14 won, 14 lost and 19 drawn. One or two players never got the hang of it and were sent home mid-tour, probably because of alcohol, so the remaining players had to play every game. One promoter, Charles Lawrence, had played for Surrey and stayed on in Australia after that inaugural tour.
He captained the side, and was one of three all-rounders who carried it. Another was Cuzens – the players, denied their own names, were given English ones – who did the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets. After their game in Bootle, a reporter wrote: "He is by far the least in size and by far the greatest in energy. He is remarkably fast, with a very high delivery. We have never seen an English cricketer whose bowling we should less like to face."
But their star player was Unaarrimin, alias Johnny Mullagh. He scored 1,698 runs and took 245 wickets, while Lawrence scored 1,156 runs and took 250 wickets, so was at least the equal of one of the finest English cricketers. He top-scored with 75 in the two-day game against MCC – having first played cricket three years before. The same reporter in Bootle said: "Mullagh is a most finished bat. He is tall, well built, and plays with great judgment."
After a game, the players exhibited other skills by throwing spears, boomerangs and cricket balls, by running 100 yards forwards and backwards, or competing with local champions at hurdling and the high jump. Their star athlete was Jumgumjenanuke, who had already made a name for himself as Dick-a-Dick by tracking down three children who had been lost in the bush for nine days. He was also brilliant at standing 20 yards away from a group of people who would then throw cricket balls at him as hard as they liked while he defended himself with a shield and a nulla-nulla club. Only twice on the whole tour was he hit.
Such athleticism. Such cricket potential. And such a waste. After they sailed home, Mullagh played once for Victoria and was briefly employed by the Melbourne Cricket Club, while another was given one game for New South Wales. But that was the end to this mid-Victorian fun. "Protection Boards" corralled indigenous people into reserves – and not their ancestral land, which was too fertile for farmers to resist.
Not until 1958 was an indigenous Australian selected to represent their country – Faith Thomas, against England. Jason Gillespie's debut in 1996 was the next time an indigenous Australian was selected to represent the nation. And now Cricket Australia, having done nothing for more than a hundred years, cannot do enough. It has a National Indigenous Squad, including Scott Boland, who has played 17 white-ball games for Australia, and D'Arcy Short, who hit 97 off 63 balls for the Hobart Hurricanes in the Big Bash on New Year's Day.
This summer, they will commemorate the tour of 150 years ago. Surrey say they will give them a game at the Oval, where the 1868 Aboriginals played their first and last matches. The England and Wales Cricket Board is considering hosting a game for them at the London Stadium to see if it can work for the 2019 World Cup. It would be appropriate because one of the original players, King Cole, died of tuberculosis mid-tour and is buried in Victoria Park.
The fastest century in the Women's Big Bash was made last month by the indigenous 20-year-old Ashleigh Gardner. The talent, at long last, is not being wasted.
The Telegraph, London