It may surprise you to learn that the first cricket team from Australia to tour England was made up entirely of Aboriginal players.
This happened in 1868, and is a surprising story from start to finish. An English cricket team had toured Australia earlier, in 1861-62, and this had led to the formation of a number of cricket clubs across the country.
On stations out in the country, it then became common for Aboriginal stockmen to play against the white fellas on the farm. On the Pine Hill station in Victoria, the Aboriginal players showed great skill at the new game. So a team from there was sent to play a match at the Melbourne Cricket Club on Boxing Day 1867.
The team then toured New South Wales, under the management of a (white) bloke who turned out to be a conman and who scarpered with the money and left them stranded in Sydney.
Another entrepreneur stepped in and arranged things to get the team back to Victoria and then to tour England. Charles Lawrence, an English cricketer who had stayed on in Australia would be their coach. The team had to be smuggled aboard a ship, the Parramatta, to escape the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, which controlled the movement of black people in the country.
Three months later they arrived in England. They played 47 two-day cricket matches against English teams, winning 14, drawing 19, and losing 14. It was a hectic schedule, with 100 days of cricket played in 150 days abroad.
The first match, at London against Surrey attracted 20,000 spectators. The players were given Anglicised names to allow the easier naming of them by the locals. So Bullchanach became Harry Bullocky. Others were Boninbarngeet (Tiger), Unaarrimin (Johhny Mullagh, the star of the team), Brimbunyah (Tommy Red Cap), Grougarrong (Jimmy Mosquito), Zellanach (Johnny Cuzens), Jungunjinanuke (Dick-a-Dick. He didn’t like this name), Lytejerbillijun (Jim Crow), Arrahmunjarrimun (Peter), Ballrinjarrimin (Sundown), Bripumyarrimin (King Cole), Murrumgunarriman (Twopenny) and Pripumuarraman (Charley Dumas).
The Aboriginal players also entertained the crowds with exhibitions of athletic prowess at the end of each match: distance throwing of cricket balls, a 100 yards backwards sprint, boomerang and spear-throwing demonstrations.
But it wasn’t all fun. The health of the Aboriginal men suffered. Two were sent home with serious illnesses, and Bripumyarrimin (King Cole) died from tuberculosis while on tour.
The newspapers of England reacted in various ways to the tour. The Times called a match against aristocracy “a travestie upon cricketing at Lords,” while the Sheffield Telegraph said the tour was “the event of the century.” The Reynolds News said this marked “a new epoch in the history of cricket.” Not quite. It would be another 120 years before another Aboriginal team toured England, and 130 years before a player of Aboriginal descent would be selected to play for Australia (Jason Gillespie).
The ‘First Eleven’ returned to Australia “without fanfare,” writes Jan Stadling in the book More Than a Game, and “the men resumed their status as non-citizens. To add insult upon injury, the players were not paid, nor did they receive the bonuses that had been promised.” Yes, this is all true.
What are we to make of this? That the tales of history can be as unexpected as those of the present; for history is made of moments that once were present tense, and have now become recorded. So, history can become as unpredictable and surprising as it likes to be. History is as vital and as oddball at the stuff that surrounds us now. History is today, but just a bit later.