The First 11

In May just over 150 years ago in a brief period of freedom before the imposition of the Aboriginal Protection Act, a team of Aboriginal cricketers took their chances and set sail to tour England.

They were the first Australian 11.

Men of the Jarwadjali, Gunditmara and Wotjabaluk peoples.

They grew up in their culture – with the toughness of warriors – and learnt the game of cricket as stockmen playing on the dusty grounds of sheep stations in Western Victoria.

81 years to the day after the First Fleet sailed – the team landed and played their first game on a sodden green field, grazed by sheep – about the only familiar sight they were to see in a grueling series of 47 matches over the next 6 months.

They won 14, lost 14 and drew 19.

They penetrated the heartland of English cricket – playing at The Oval and at Lord’s – drawing over 20,000 spectators.

Reduced to a core of only 11 players – the tour was a feat of tenacious endurance against the odds.

They faced not only the English expectation of easy victory – but racism, cold, homesickness, ill-health and constant travel.

Many regarded them as mere curiosities – but their prowess and character built a different understanding from those who knew the game.

A leading English player reckoned “I have never bowled to a better batsman” than Unamarrin – known as Johnny Mullagh. He top scored with 1698 runs.

Yellanach – Johnny Cuzens – was rated a first class fast bowler, averaging 11 runs per wicket.

Bullachnach was described as “a courageous wicket-keeper with a granite frame and would have kept just as boldly unarmed by pads or gloves.”

Like so many Australians who would follow in their path – in sport, the arts or the armed forces – they had first to defeat patronising attitudes before they won respect and set a new recognition of what Australians can do.

In cricket, they were the forerunners.

  • Kristin Hannaford

    May 22, 2019 at 11:04 am Reply

    I’d love to see a feature film of this story. It’d be great!

    • Tom Hearn

      May 28, 2019 at 4:06 pm Reply

      Thanks Kristin me too, I’m sure Ernie would love it! Start writing the script! Tom

  • Lionel John Pink

    May 22, 2019 at 1:28 pm Reply

    I am familiar with this story, so I feel to add that the first 11 defeated so many teams throughout England, that it caused an outcry.. They were then summoned to LORDES a place of pomp and ceremony and were no doubt so overwhelmed by the Aristocratic fanfare that the country boys lost this match.They then returned to Australia. Not long after Australia formed its constitution, classifying all first nations people as flora and fauna and it was only in 1963? that Finally the oldest culture on Earth was allowed equal rights in their own country. So to recap… An all Black Australian team (team manager and masseuse included) played a series of International games in a foreign country (overwhelmingly populated by Caucasians) and it was AFTER this overseas tour that Australia formed its constitution and left all indigenous people out of it. NOT REALLY CRICKET IS IT? The Vessel that took the first 11 to England is moored in Plymouth harbor England. My mothers line arrived here in 1778 on the H.M.S Harriet. I have no indigenous blood in me however my body was born to this country and my spirit belongs here and anyone would know that this just wasn’t right…. When I read about it it was sad… They were INDEED the forerunners as they were the First Australians to REPRESENT us all on foreign soil… Is this why cricket Australia has never supported (as in paid) a first nations team? It is curious is it not considering they were THE FIRST team to represent our country (and our indigenous cultural heritage) overseas…

    • Tom Hearn

      May 28, 2019 at 4:07 pm Reply

      Thanks Lionel, agreed…not really cricket! Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Tom

  • Rob McCammon

    May 22, 2019 at 1:58 pm Reply

    How awful were we as a Nation in those days. However not much has changed, Indigenous soldiers came back from two world wars, only to find that their children had been taken from their families. The English and subsequent Australian political systems have treated the Indigenous people of Australia terribly, and it must stop

    • Tom Hearn

      May 28, 2019 at 4:08 pm Reply

      Thanks Rob, agreed and hopefully with the new Minister for Indigenous Australians things will begin to change! Tom

  • Rosa Christian

    May 23, 2019 at 1:47 pm Reply

    You have every right to be proud and Australia as a nation has every reason to hang its head in shame especially, I fear, following our most recent election. Perhaps it won’t be as bad as I and many fear but given past performance I take leave to doubt it. Please be assured there are many ‘white’ Australians out there who hold you and your culture in the highest regard. Stay as strong and generous as you have in the past and lets see if we can’t march forward into the future as comrades and equals.

    • Tom Hearn

      May 28, 2019 at 4:09 pm Reply

      Thanks so much Rosa!

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