One of the most significant events in the
formative years of cricket in Australia occurred in 1866 when a team of
indigenous cricketers – coached by Tom Wills, who was also a founder of
Australian Rules Football – took on the Melbourne Cricket Club.
Celebrating 1866 (2016)Cricket Australia
Perhaps the first formal major sporting connection to unify Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with the white settlers occurred over two days of play, from 26 to 27th December in 1866.
This history-making match emphasises the importance of the sport within the fabric of Australian society.
The 150th anniversary of the match was commemorated during the MCG's Boxing Day Test match of 2016 between Australia and Pakistan, with artwork on the Australian players’ shirts and match-day stumps.
Wills & Aboriginal Cricket Team 1866 (1866)Cricket Australia
The match was one that truly captured the public’s imagination, with an almost unheard-of-crowd of more than 10,000 spectators attending the first day of play.
The significance of the match should not be underestimated.
1860s Australia was rife with racism, with the indigenous population regarded poorly by the white settlers, many holding the view that, as a race, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders would soon die out.
This match acted as step in the right direction towards unity and equality.
1868 Player - Johnny Mullah (1868) by Cricket AustraliaCricket Australia
It was working on sheep and cattle properties throughout the country that led many of the indigenous population to develop an understanding and love of the game. Many displayed a natural talent for it, with matches taking place between sides connected to those properties they worked.
Johnny Mullagh was just one such indigenous cricketer that would go on to find fame – albeit posthumously – for his abilities.
Known as Unaarrimin but named Mullagh after the station where he worked, about - 16 kilometres north of Harrow in Victoria - the natural cricketer would go on to join the Melbourne Cricket Club as a professional.
The Australian Aboriginal Flag flying during the King Cole ceremony (2018) by Cricket AustraliaCricket Australia
The first record of the idea of a match between the Melbourne Cricket Club and an indigenous side comes in the MCC’s own book of minutes in May 1866.
Roland Newbury - the club’s pavilion keeper - requested the use of the ground for two days “for the purpose of a match with the native black eleven”, being the people from Victoria’s Western District.
The motive for the match was undoubtedly financial, and that such a match was proposed was a firm indicator that news of the prowess of indigenous players had spread to Melbourne. To stage such a match, a team would need to be organised.
And the man for the job was Tom Wills.
Portrait of Thomas Wentworth Wills by William Handcock 1870 (1870) by William HandcockMelbourne Cricket Club
At that time, Wills was regarded as a star of the game. As a founding father of Australian Rules Football, it wouldn’t be dramatic to declare him as sporting royalty during this era.
Thus, on the one hand, he seemed the perfect fit to coach the indigenous team. Wills spent his childhood growing up with indigenous communities and could speak their language.
On the other hand, it was at the hands of Aboriginal peoples that his father Horatio – along with 18 others – was murdered in the worst massacre in the history of white settlers by Aboriginal peoples in Australia.
A devastated Tom Wills by Wills Family ArchivesBradman Museum & International Cricket Hall of Fame
In 1866, Wills was earning income from cricket and, for him, there was undoubtedly a financial motive in taking on the responsibility of putting together the side to face the MCC.
However, it was also a remarkably selfless act. He turned his back on what was regarded as the biggest single match of any season, between Victoria and New South Wales to develop an indigenous team.
Wills went west to find, recruit and train players for the match, travelling to Edenhope and Harrow to gather those who worked as station hands.
Those he called upon were mostly Jardwadjali and Djab Wurrung peoples and they trained together at Lake Wallace, about 390 kilometres west of Melbourne.
"Tom was a sportsman down to his bootlaces and he saw Aboriginals as equals in sport, something very few others at the time did. He saw a man as a sportsman, not by his race."
Biographer, Greg De Moore
Watercolour, Aboriginal cricket team 1866 (2001) by Robert IngpenMelbourne Cricket Club
Wills was delighted with the players he had at his disposal and was happy to boast of their prowess but, as the match got closer, his confidence caused the MCC to recruit players from outside the club to bolster its own ranks, something that would help it secure victory but also a tactic that earned it few plaudits from the general public.
That public sentiment was also affected by the MCC’s decision to refuse Wills’ request for the indigenous side to field first on account of the huge crowd in attendance.
The concern was that his players, who had never performed in front of such a gathering, would be put off, but the MCC declined Wills’ request.
When that refusal became public knowledge, it increased the sentiment in favour of the indigenous side.
Aboriginal Flag - MCG (2016-12-26) by Cricket AustraliaCricket Australia
Records of the details of the match itself are scarce, although a report in the Argus newspaper stated that several fours were scored that might otherwise not have been given as boundaries but for the fact that the crowds were so numerous that they spilled onto the field, thus restricting the size of the playing area.
The MCC won the match by nine wickets but it was the indigenous side that took the plaudits.
Thanks to the match, De Moore believed public perceptions among settlers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders underwent a perceptible change for the better.
Commemorating King Cole (2018-07-23) by Cricket AustraliaCricket Australia
It is impossible to view the 1866 match in isolation, for its popularity was such that the indigenous side undertook a tour of Sydney early in 1867.
The team stayed at the Manly Hotel of Charles Lawrence, owned by a member of the English side that toured Australia in 1861/62 and liked it so much that he decided to stay.
It was Lawrence who then took a side of indigenous cricketers to England in 1868. This marks the first England tour from an Australian side; one that took place nine years prior to what would become recognised as the first Test match between Australia and England.
That tour featured 47 matches over six months; a remarkable number given the tour party included only 13 players. One team member – King Cole – died of tuberculosis, while two others, Sundown and Jim Crow, had to return home in August due to ill health.
1868 Indigenous Cricket Team (1868) by Cricket AustraliaCricket Australia
By the following year – 1869 - the Central Board for Aborigines in Australia ruled it was illegal to remove any indigenous peoples from Victoria without Governmental approval, so ending the prospect of any future tours.
But for that short period of time between 1866 and 1868, those indigenous cricketers became true trailblazers of the game, with their legacy a beacon of hope for equality, long before recognised international matches were the norm.