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.