In 1868, a team of 13 Aboriginal cricketers from the Western District of Victoria set sail for England to become Australia’s first ever cricket touring party.
Cricket was introduced to Aboriginal people by colonists whilst they lived and worked on the regional cattle stations. Playing cricket was one way Aboriginal people and colonists would come together. Over time many Aboriginal people came to enjoy playing cricket and became highly skilled in the game.
The Aboriginal team playing against Melbourne Cricket Club at the MCG, early 1867 (National Library of Australia)
This led English man and former first-class cricketer Charles Lawrence to organise a touring party of 13 Aboriginal cricketers to visit England. At the time, the Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines in Victoria were against the tour so Charles had to smuggle the players from Victoria to Sydney where on the 8th of February 1868, they boarded a ship for England.
Charles Lawrence organised the trip as a private money-making venture (sadly, the Aboriginal players never saw a cent) and to exploit the Aboriginal players.
Aboriginal cricket team in England 1868.
The gruelling 6-month tour had the team playing 47 two-day games of which 14 were won, 14 lost and 19 drawn. Aside from playing cricket, the players were forced to entertain crowds as a side-show with demonstrations of boomerang and spear throwing. Though the team was able to eventually win the respect of the English cricket world, they experienced much sickness, death and racism during the tour. In one instance during a game played at Apsley, all-rounder Uncle Johnny ‘Unaarrimin’ Mullagh (of the Jardwadjali Nation) was forbidden from eating with the rest of the white players and told instead to have his meal in the kitchen. Uncle Unaarrimin refused and instead sat outside the hotel in protest.
After the tour ended, very little was heard about the players. Most returned to their lives in Victoria. Very few continued to play cricket afterwards partly because of the restrictive government controls placed on the lives of Aboriginal people.
The tour is also not classed as an official ‘Australian’ tour or a ‘First Class’ match. These were considered merely exhibition matches. One important outcome from the tour was that it laid the foundations for the future of Test Cricket matches and tours between Australia and England.
The Imparja cup is an annual event that celebrates cricket and culture. Source: NT Cricket.
There are initiatives around Australia that look to rekindle Aboriginal participation in cricket.
In Victoria, the ‘Noogal Toengorrt Tani Cricket Program’ aims to provide opportunities for Aboriginal people to participate in cricket. Through training clinics, grants and development squads, opportunities are given for players to participate in the Imparja Cup – Australia’s National Indigenous Cricket Tournament.
Noogal Toengorrt Tani - Victorian Indigenous Cricket Anthem
The ‘Imparja Cup’ is a week-long carnival held annually in Alice Springs. What began in 1994 as a local two-team affair between Alice Springs and Tenant Creek has since grown into a competition with over 40 teams and 400 players spanning 8 different divisions for both women and men. The Imparja Cup is an inclusive celebration of cricket catering for Aboriginal talent at its highest level to children who are only just learning to play.
Beyond cricket, the Imparja Cup is an opportunity to celebrate culture with activities and experiences to broaden cultural identification for the players involved.
Aunty Faith Thomas (Adnyamathanha) and Jason Gillespie (Kamilaroi); the first Aboriginal woman and man to represent Australia in Test cricket. Image Source: Adelaide now.
Below are five people who have and continue to make important contributions to cricket in Australia.
Uncle Johnny ‘Unaarrimin’ Mullagh
Image Source: Harrow Discovery Centre.
Uncle Unnarrimin is from the Jardwadjali Nation in North West Victoria. Born in 1841 on the Mullagh Station about 16km north of Harrow, Victoria, Uncle Unnarrimin learned to play cricket on the nearby Pine Hills agricultural.
Showcasing incredible ability both with bat and ball, Uncle Unnarrimin was selected to play in the 1868 tour of England where he played very well. Over the course of 45 games on the tour, he took 245 wickets, he scored a total of 1,698 runs at an average of 23.45 and his highest individual score for an innings was 94.
Very little of his cricketing contributions were heard after this tour. In 1879, he represented Victoria against a touring side from England where he scored 38 in the second innings. Following this, he continued to play at a very local level. Uncle Unnarrimin entered the Dreaming in 1891 where was laid to rest at the Harrow Cemetery. To honour his memory and contributions to cricket, every Victorian March Labour Day weekend, a team of Aboriginal cricketers and a team drawn from the local association squads come to Harrow to play for the ‘Johnny Mullagh Memorial Cup’.
Uncle Eddie Gilbert
Uncle Eddie Gilbert’s cricketing light shone during a dark and difficult period for Aboriginal people in Australia. It is believed that Uncle Eddie was born around 1905/06 at the Durundur Aboriginal Reserve near Woodford in south-eastern Queensland.
As an infant, he was stolen from his family and raised at the Barambah Reserve near Murgon. It was around 1917 that Uncle Eddie began to play cricket. Through his involvement in the local leagues, he developed a name for himself with his unique brand of fast bowling where he was able to deliver the ball with exceptional speed.
His success at the local level drew the attention of the Queensland state team where he was selected to play in the Sheffield Shield tournament. At the state level he continued to perform collecting opponent wickets and earning bowling awards.
Uncle Eddie’s most memorable spell of bowling occurred on the 6th of November 1931 against New South Wales. His first ball caught the edge of the opening batsmen, sending him back to the pavilion. This brought the legendary Donald Brandman to the crease who was in hot form after a recent tour of England where he destroyed the English attack. Uncle Eddie’s first ball was delivered at such a pace, it literally knocked Bradman’s bat out of his hands. His second ball was delivered with such aggression that it floored Bradman and put him on his back and Uncle Eddie’s third delivery caught the edge of Bradman’s bat dismissing him for a score of zero. It was later quoted by Donald Bradman that Uncle Eddie’s spell of bowling that day, was the fastest he’d ever faced in his career.
Racist policies of the time and questions over the legitimacy of his action limited Uncle Eddie’s opportunities to progress further with his career. He retired from first class cricket in 1936 having taken 87 wickets at an average of 29.21. (meaning for every 29.21 runs scored against his bowling, he would take a wicket).
Aunty Faith Thomas
Image Source: Society 19.
Aunty Faith Thomas is from the Adnyamathanha Nation. Born in 1933 in the Nepabunna Aboriginal Mission in South Australia, she was removed to the Colebrook Aboriginal Children’s Mission where she grew up.
It was here she had her earliest experiences of playing cricket by hitting the round stones she’d find by the local creek with discarded pieces of wood. It was during this time she developed the strength in her wrists to become a premier fast bowler, to which she later in life attributed to, ‘Chuckin’ rocks at gallahs’.
Aunty Faith went on to study nursing and in 1954 became one of the first of six Aboriginal women to become fully qualified in South Australia. It was during this time her love for the game of cricket grew where in 1958, she was selected to open the bowling in the Ashes Test (played against England) at Melbourne. In doing so, she became the first Aboriginal woman to represent Australia across any sport.
Upon her retirement from cricket, Aunty Faith returned to nursing and continued to advocate for young Aboriginal athletes and their opportunities in sport.
Image Source: Caught at point.
Jason Gillespie is from the Kamilaroi Nation and is the first Aboriginal man to play cricket for Australia. Born in 1975, he was a fast bowler known for his focus, aggression and physical stamina.
During his 71 test match career, Jason took 259 wickets at an average of 26.13. His best bowling figures were 7 wickets for 37 runs against England at Headingly and his highest score with the bat was 201 not out against Bangladesh. Jason Gillespie was a key ingredient to the formidable bowling attack that allowed Australia to dominate world cricket during the early 2000s.
Since retiring from test cricket in 2006, Jason Gillespie has undertaken a number of coaching roles from; developing Cricket in Zimbabwe at a grassroots level, working as a bowling coach in India for the IPL team ‘Kings XI’ in Punjab, winning two County Championships in 2014 and 2015 with Yorkshire and leading the Adelaide Strikers to their first Big Bash title in 2018.
Jason Gillespie continues to dedicate himself to the game he loves so dearly.
Image Source: Cricket Australia.
Asheigh Gardner is from the Muruwari Nation. Born in 1997, Gardner is known for her entertaining brand of play, her explosive hitting with the bat and her off-spin bowling. At 18 years of age, she captained an Indigenous woman’s squad on a tour of India and at age 21, she scored at the time, the highest score in WBBL belting an unbeaten 114 runs from only 52 deliveries.
Still in the early stages of her career, Ashleigh has represented Australia in 50-over and 20-over internationals, and in 2019, she was selected to play in her first Test match which she did so against England. Ashleigh has all the talent and promise to have a great cricketing career ahead of her.
Sources & Further Reading
- The State Library of New South Wales, The first Indigenous cricket tour of England in 1868
- Harrow Discovery Centre
- BBC News, Aboriginal cricket: The first Australian tour of England, 1868
- Indepedent Australia, 1868 Indigenous XI and the colonising game of cricket
- ABC News, First XI: Is this the single most important cricket team in Australian history?
- The Women's Game, Faith Thomas: First Indigenous Australian to play test cricket
- NITV, 5 Indigenous women who didn't get the credit
- Indigenous.gov.au, Imparja Cup
- Cricket.com.au, Indigenous cricketers to honour 1868 XI
- NITV, Ten of the best Indigenous cricketers to play the game
- NITV, Tracing the history of Australia's first International Indigenous cricket team from 1868
- Topend Sports, Jason Gillespie
- Sportskeeda, Jason Gillespie
- ABC News, Women's Ashes: Ashleigh Gardner's debut a pivotal moment in difficult history of Indigenous cricketers
- ESPN Cricinfo, Eddie Gilbert
- Australian Dictionary of Biography, Gilbert, Edward
- Cricket Victoria, Noogal Toengorrt Tani