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The first Aboriginal cricket team with Thomas Wills in 1867 (Image by Greg de Moore via Wikimedia Commons).

Despite the feats of the 1868 Indigenous cricket team, race is still a solid block in the sport today, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

IT IS ONE OF the more difficult juggling acts for the sporting convert to consider.

Along with disease and some variant of that abused word "civilisation", sport followed those colonists and invaders who sought portions of the earth in the enterprise of conquest.

Given its sheer reach, the British Empire was better than most at spreading such phenomena as association football and cricket.

With race every bit as much feature as the white flannels, willow bat and leather ball, it would take the magical prose of CLR James’ Beyond the Boundary to render the game glorious beyond race, a matter of achievement and conduct that remains unsurpassed. The work was executed with such skill that it influenced John Arlott, doyen of cricket commentators, to consider it 'the finest book written about the game of cricket'.

In 1868, the game of settlement and invasion returned in the visage of an all-Aboriginal cricket team. It was a curious business, given that the first Australian team to tour England in any official capacity was distinctly lacking in the white Caucasian department. It had all the tense contradictions of empire, colonisation and subalterns — converts to a game who could, at points, better anything the Mother Conquering Country could muster.

The idea had been hatched in 1866 as a show pony enterprise and descriptions of the efforts on the part of the “educators” – in this case, Charles Lawrence and Thomas Wills – were decidedly paternalistic.

'These two,' wrote Arthur H. Gregory in Lismore’s Northern Star in 1928,

'educated the blacks in cricket and in manners and it must have been a tremendous task to take them from their rude state and make them fit to move in English society and to play the game against English amateur elevens.'

Cricket, it seemed, had been bestowed as a civilisational favour, a form of deliverance from such a "rude state".

The tour of England comprised men of the Jardwadjali, Gunditjmara and Wotjobaluk, having mastered their craft on the farms of western Victoria to Sydney. A heavy schedule awaited the team of 13 members: 47 games, which saw the pioneering team spend 99 of 126 days on the field. An impressive record was amassed: 14 victories, 14 losses, with the rest drawn. Of the players who left Australian shores, Bripumyarramin, known as King Cole, succumbed to tuberculosis and pneumonia.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke, a notable cricket tragic, paid tribute to the 1868 side in a speech in December 1987, announcing the team names for a commemorative tour of England to take place the following year. The achievements of one of the tour players, Johnny Mullagh of Victoria, warranted special mention: 'He scored 1,670 runs at 23.85, including 75 against the MCC at Lords, and took 245 wickets at 10.16'.

1868, unnecessarily enshrouded by sporting amnesia, was a year of enthralling Indigenous cricket. In Melbourne, a February match featuring an Aboriginal team against an 11 from the Melbourne Cricket Club drew some 10,000 spectators.

In the now crude language of the time, tinged with distance and praise, The Argus noted how the

 '... blackfellows on entering the field were greeted with a cheer by the eleven, and the applause was taken up by the spectators on all sides.'

In Australian cricket, the neglect of the strength of Indigenous Australians and their prowess has proven profound, limping behind the AFL and NRL with ponderous, even lazy, indifference.  There have been spectacular punctuations in the dreary record. The inimitable Faith Thomas made her appearance in 1958, becoming the first Indigenous woman to bowl for her country; Jason Gillespie came much later in 1996. 

Thomas exudes the magic of the adaptability and versatility typical for a certain breed of cricketer who cuts teeth on the barest of resources. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, desert tracks do little to prevent games from flourishing on barren, dusty ground. For Thomas, it was 'chuckin’ rocks at galahs', something which kept her in the sharpest of nicks, off what was the shortest of runs for the most blistering of deliveries.

Australian cricket is otherwise undeservedly scanty on the Indigenous presence. Cricket writers and followers pay ceremonial respect to one Australian demon fast bowler who proved so quick he shook the great Donald BradmanEddie Gilbert’s speed had the streak of legend. A Sheffield Shield match at the Gabba in 1931 saw him dismiss Wendell Bill and Bradman for golden ducks in one over. The achievement was all the more impressive given that Bradman was fresh from an Ashes tour that had yielded him test runs at a brutal average of 139.

Gilbert’s talent was evenly matched by prejudice, supplying an all too familiar template. Queensland’s captain showed a distinct reluctance to tour with the team once Gilbert was included. As his teammates found hotel lodgings while touring, Gilbert would be in a tent.

As Cricket Australia chief executive, James Sutherland, admitted to this drought of attention, taking the modest step of encouraging a new crop of athletes to build on measures started in 1994 with the establishment of the Imparja Cup. At the time of writing, male and female teams commemorating the 1868 remarkables are making their presence felt on English soil, doing their bit to dust off a good bit of history and to remember King Cole, buried at Victoria Park, East London.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Binoy on Twitter @bkampmark and email him at bkampmark@gmail.com.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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