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The first Australian cricket team

 

In its colonising era, England had a policy of using sport as a kind of imperial glue. By playing and proliferating the sports, conquered citizens were seen to be demonstrating pride in their new British identity.

The imperialistic ethics resulted in the first Australian cricket team to tour England being comprised solely of Aborigines. Ironically, the team performed so well, as did Aborigines in the ranks of Australian cricket competition, that officials perhaps decided that something needed to be done to hobble their success.

The Aboriginal team was selected from western Victoria and coached by the founder of Australian Football, Tom Wills. In 1868, 14 players left for England. Upon arrival in England, The Times described the tourists as, "a travesty upon cricketing at Lords", and, "the conquered natives of a convict colony."

While some sections of English society may have considered them to be a travesty, they were a popular one. So much so, the demands placed upon them were nothing short of horrendous. In a gruelling five month stay, they played 47 games and upon completion of each game, they also gave an exhibition of 'native sports', including boomerang and spear throwing. Admittedly, there were no pre-metasexual Shane Warnes or Greg Ritchies (aka Fat Cat) in the team, but the fact the tour was completed with only one death and two players sent home suffering sever illness must be seen as an incredible feat of endurance. 

The results were also equally impressive. Despite the onerous schedule, having no history in the game and playing in a foreign culture, the team managed 14 wins, 14 losses and 19 draws. One team member Johnny Mullagh - bowled 1877 overs, 831 of them maidens, hit 2489 runs and took 245 wickets at an average of 10. An English fast bowler of the time, George Tarrant, bowled to Mullagh and later said, "I have never bowled to a better batsman."

Off the field, other team members consumed a quantity of alcohol that was not matched until the likes of David Boon and Rod Marsh toured England more than a century later.

On their departure Sporting Life wrote:

'no eleven has in one season ever played so many matches so successfully - never playing less than two matches in each week, and frequently three, bearing an amount of fatigue that now seems incredible.'

Despite these beginnings, few Aborigines have followed in their footsteps. One of the reasons was that The Central Board for Aborigines ruled in 1869 that it would be illegal for any Aborigine to leave the colony of Victoria without the approval of the government minister. This effectively limited the opportunities for Aboriginal players. In other parts of Australia, Aborigines persevered with the sport but continually ran into difficulties with officialdom.

The first Aborigine to suffer from establishment culture was Alec Henry. Alec represented Queensland in 1901 and was initially lauded as "perfectly civilised and in great command of the English language." A great fast bowler, in one pre-season match he took 8-14 which led to predictions that he would have a place in the Australian side against the visiting English. Unfortunately, an umpire judged that he was throwing and his place in the national team never eventuated. His protests fell on deaf ears and when his 'civilised' conduct appeared to falter, he was forcibly relocated from Brisbane on the charge of "defying authority."

Another player who seemed destined for greatness only to be denied for dubious reasons was Jack Marsh. Born in 1874, Marsh was a member of the Bundjalung people of northern NSW and southeast Queensland. Marsh burst onto the scene by leading the national bowling averages in his first season with NSW. Some batsmen, including the English cricket captain of the era, rated him the "world's best bowler." Despite his talent, he was denied international honours when in 1902 the visiting English refused to play against him. Like Henry, he was later no-balled out of the game.

Another player with eyes on national honours was Eddie Gilbert. Although he bowled off only five shuffled paces, he did so at a sizzling speed. In a match between Queensland and the West Indies, Gilbert took 5 for 65 off 19 overs and 2 for 26 in the second innings. He also won national respect when he bowled Sir Donald Bradman for a rare duck in 1931. The Australian public called for him to be selected for a test against South Africa but like his predecessors, an umpire no-balled him for throwing. Unhappy, he protested. Unfortunately, his refusal to heed the umpires decision only resulted in him being admitted to a mental asylum.

Today, few Aborigines play cricket, with sports like rugby union and Australian Football holding greater appeal. Ironically, there are beliefs that Australian football evolved from the Aboriginal sport of Marngrook. Tom Wills, the coach of the first Aboriginal cricket team and founder of Australian Football, played Marngrook as a child. Although he never stated that the rules he proposed came from Marngrook, the culture of the time may have made Australian football less popular if it was acknowledged to have Aboriginal origins. If true, it seems that the long term result of trying to assimilate Aborigines was that colonists became assimilated themselves.