Cricket & Australian Identity

By National Portrait Gallery

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audiences are warned that the following exhibit may contain images and voices of people who have died.

Reflecting Australia’s obsession with sport, the National Portrait Gallery has many diverse portraits of Australian sportspeople. Let’s take a closer look at some of the great cricketing greats from our collection and their stories that have shaped our national identity.

Victor Trumper (1905) by George Beldam and Sun Electric Engraving Company (engraver)National Portrait Gallery


Cricket is often considered the Australian national sport because of its popularity in terms of participants and spectators in each state of the country. Australia had a cricket team before it was a nation and it has been claimed that the office of the captain of Australian cricket team is considered only second in importance to that of Prime Minister’s office. The first recorded cricket match in Australia took place in Sydney in December 1803. Famous players from the so called Golden Age of Cricket, such as Victor Trumper and Donald Bradman are still idolised. 

Australian Aboriginal Cricketers (1867) by Patrick DawsonNational Portrait Gallery

In 1868 the Aboriginal cricket team was the first Australian sporting team to tour internationally.

The team consisted of thirteen Aboriginal stockmen, who worked on the cattle stations in the Western District of Victoria. Most of them had only been playing cricket for a few years and had received coaching for less than two years.

The team played a punishing schedule of 47 matches against intermediate-level English teams between May and October 1868. They were on the field for 99 of 126 possible days. They surprised their opponents with their sporting prowess, winning 14, losing 14 and drawing 19 of their 47 matches.

For the tour the Jardwadjali, Gunditjmara and Wotjobaluk men were coached and captained by an ex all-England cricketer, Charles Lawrence.

Besides playing cricket, the team competed in various sports and put on displays of boomerang and spear throwing.

One of the most popular attractions was Jungunjinanuke’s (‘Dick a Dick’) dodging. For a shilling anyone could take a cricket ball, walk ten paces and hurl it at him. Using only a narrow (15cm) shield and an L shaped club, Jungunjinanuke would dodge and deflect up to ten balls at once.

Unaarrimin, a Wotjobaluk man also known as Johnny Mullagh, was the standout player and all round star of the tour. He played 45 matches, scored 1698 runs; bowled 1877 overs, 831 of which were maidens; and took 245 wickets.

On their return to Australia, most of the cricketers returned to station life. In 1869 the introduction of the Aboriginal Protection Act in Victoria, made it nearly impossible for Indigenous cricket players to continue playing competitive cricket.

Unaarrimin, however, became a professional at the Melbourne Cricket Club, but returned to his home in Harrow in Victoria after six games. He later played for Victoria against a touring English team in 1879.

Patrick Dawson photographed each individual at his photographic studio in the Victorian town of Warrnambool in the months before the teams departure for England.

Five of the Aboriginal team members posed with cricket bats or stumps but most with weapons such as boomerangs, spears, clubs and shields.

Dawson assembled the individual portraits into a composite, which he also issued as a cased-ambrotype for a small-scale souvenir.

Australia v England (1887) by Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples, George Barrable and Goupil & Cie (engraver)National Portrait Gallery

This is a print of 'The Ideal Cricket Match', an imagined representation which resulted in the creation of the Ashes cricket series. The Ashes began with England’s defeat by Australia in a match at The Oval in August 1882, the first time the English side had been beaten at home.

This led to the mock obituary in the Sporting Times:
'In affectionate remembrance of English Cricket which died at the Oval on 29 August 1882. Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. RIP. NB. The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.'

There are small portraits of the 11 players from each team. However, these particular 22 players never faced each other in this combination.

A number of prominent people are depicted amongst the spectators. The Prince and Princess of Wales are standing somewhat close to the boundary.

In the foreground, facing the viewer is Lille Langtry, the famous actress and mistress of the Prince of Wales.

The Demon Bowler" Frederick Robert Spofforth (image plate from Vanity Fair) (1878) by Sir Leslie WardNational Portrait Gallery

Frederick Spofforth was a member of the Australian cricket team whose defeat of England at The Oval in 1882 brought about ‘The Ashes’ Test series.

This victory was largely credited to Spofforth. England had walked out to chase 85 for victory, then he went on to take 7 wickets for 44 to bowl them out for 77.

He had earned the nickname ‘The Demon Bowler’ in 1878 when, as a member of the touring Australian side, he took 10 wickets for 20 runs in a match against the Marylebone Cricket Club.

Spofforth was described at the time by a journalist as having '… a long face, somewhat sardonic; piercing eyes; a hooked nose; and his hair, parted in the middle, giving the impression of horns. He would have looked the part of the stage-demon.'

George Giffen, a fellow teammate later wrote of Spofforth: 'I verily believe he has frightened more batsmen out than many bowlers have fairly and squarely beaten.'

He was immensely tall, sinewy and had long thin arms. He stood at 6’3″ (191cm) and seldom weighed over 11 stone (76 kg).

He is considered Australia’s first fast bowler, and is also credited with having taken the first ever Test bowling hat-trick.

This caricature of Spofforth as ‘The Demon Bowler’ by Spy for Vanity Fair became one of the most famous cricket cartoons ever.

Sir Donald Bradman (1990) by Bill LeakNational Portrait Gallery

Sir Donald Bradman is regularly hailed as the greatest player the game has ever known. He dominated the sport from 1930 until his retirement in 1948, setting a raft of new records, many of which have yet to be beaten.

During the height of Bradman’s popularity, he was also arguably the most famous of all Australians. His career coincided with the rise of broadcast radio, cinema and wire photographs as forms of mass communication. Very few of those who revered Bradman ever saw him bat in person. Yet in the 1930s and 1940s they were able to partake of his records and thereby share in the glory.

Bradman is also considered to be one of Australia’s great captains. As the Test skipper from 1936 until 1948 he won all four contested series.

'A good captain must be a fighter; confident but not arrogant, firm but not obstinate; able to take criticism without letting it unduly disturb him, for he is sure to get it - and unfairly, too.'

The snap shot of Don Bradman at the heyday of his cricketing career shows off his elegance and effectiveness as a batsman. It is casually taped on to the wall, which seems to allude to how Bradman conducted his life.

'I set great store in certain qualities which I believe to be essential in addition to skill. They are that the person conducts his or her life with dignity, with integrity, courage, and perhaps most of all, with modesty.'

The artist Bill Leak commented, ‘in a country where religion has largely been replaced by sport, it was easy to see my responsibility as capturing the likeness of the Almighty.’

20th Australian XI Tour in Great Britain (The Invincibles) 1948 - Team Portrait (1948) by an unknown artistNational Portrait Gallery

The Australian cricket team in England in 1948, also known as 'The Greats of ’48' was captained by Bradman.

The team is famous for being the first to play an entire tour of England without losing a match. This feat earned them the nickname of 'The Invincibles'. That is 34 matches without a loss, with 25 wins and 9 draws.

Perhaps the most remembered incident of the long tour was Bradman’s second-ball duck in his final Test innings, which fixed his average at 99.94.

If he had scored four more runs, he would have averaged 100 per innings. Regardless, his record still stands today.

Shane Warne (2006) by Robin SellickNational Portrait Gallery

Shane Warne is famous for bringing back the lost art of leg spin, a mesmerising method of slow bowling which is extremely difficult to perform with accuracy or consistency.

Gideon Haigh, the Australian journalist, said of Warne upon his retirement: 'It was said of Augustus that he found Rome brick and left it marble: the same is true of Warne and spin bowling.'

He was the first bowler to ever take 700 test wickets and still stands at number 2 on the all-time test wicket taking list, with 708 wickets from 143 matches.

It wasn’t just Warne’s ability to take wickets, which made him formidable on the pitch, but his ability to intimidate and frustrate batsmen.

Shane Warne once said, 'part of the art of bowling spin is to make the batsman think that something special is happening even when it isn’t.'

Warne was also a useful batsman lower down the order. He holds the record for most Test runs scored without making a century.

Robin Sellick has presented Shane Warne in his backyard tennis court, without any of the usual trappings of cricket, except the green background that could be reminiscent of the lawn of an oval.

The saturated colours and red lighting add to the ambiguity of the setting and perhaps symbolise Shane Warne’s colourful personality on and off the field.

Credits: Story

This exhibit was written by:
- Annette Twyman, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Sally Adair, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Sally Dawson, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Kirstin Gunether, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Emily Casey, Program Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery
- Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery
- Johanna McMahon, Art History intern, Australian National University.

This exhibit was edited and produced by Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery.

We would like to acknowledge the generous support from all artists and organisations for letting us include these works.

Thank you to Robin Sellick for enabling us to investigate Australia's sporting culture through the inclusion of his photographic portraits.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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