They were the first team to represent Australia overseas in any sport, a squad of Aboriginal cricketers who visited England in 1868, nine years before the first Ashes series established cricket's oldest rivalry. Now a team of young indigenous players are retracing their steps, with a tour that will honour the trailblazers and play at many of the same venues.
A squad of 14 players arrived at Heathrow yesterday after a journey decidedly less gruelling than the three-month voyage their predecessors suffered. And they are unlikely to copy the 19th-century cricketers who entertained their hosts with displays of boomerang and spear-throwing; such things are frowned upon nowadays.
Over the next month, the 2009 tourists – some of whom had never travelled further than Alice Springs , venue of an annual cricket carnival, the Imparja Cup – will play a series of Twenty20 and 50-over games before a two-day match against Combined Universities in London.
Their visit will coincide with that of the Australian team, hoping to defend their ownership of the Ashes at a series beginning on 8 July in Cardiff. Matthew Hayden, a former Test batsman who helped coach the Aboriginal players before they left Australia, says some are talented enough to make the national side one day.
The arrival of the 1868 squad, led by star all-rounder Johnny Mullagh, was eagerly anticipated in the UK. "They are the first Australian natives who have visited this country on such a novel expedition, but it must not be inferred that they are savages," warned Sporting Life. Mullagh, whose traditional name was Unaarrimin, and his men overcame cold conditions and the death of a team member from tuberculosis to win 14 matches, lose 14 and draw 19 during a punishing 126-day schedule. Mullagh himself notched up 1,698 runs and 245 wickets.
But despite the team's performance, cricket has, largely, failed to take off within Aboriginal communities. By contrast, indigenous people are well represented in rugby league and Australian Rules Football. Cricket Australia, the national sporting body, hopes this tour will help to change that. Dan Christian, captain of the 2009 squad and a member of the South Australian state team, said: "It's only a matter of time before indigenous people make their mark in first-class cricket, particularly with the popularity of Twenty20." Christian, whose father, Clem, is from the Wiradjuri tribe of New South Wales, added: "It's a great opportunity for me and the rest of the touring team to raise awareness of the sport among the indigenous community."
He added: "It's hard to imagine what it was like to tour 141 years ago. Three months on a boat, for a start, would have been hard enough."
Since the first Test match in 1877, Jason Gillespie has been the only indigenous player to represent Australia, although Eddie Gilbert, who briefly played for Queensland in the 1930s, was so talented that he once knocked the bat out of the legendary Don Bradman's hands before dismissing him for a duck. Gilbert, the fastest bowler of his era, lived on a government-run mission and had to be chaperoned by white officials when travelling to matches.
The 1868 tourists were, for the most part, warmly received in England, but also met with some scepticism and derision. Among the venues they played was Hambledon, the Hampshire village that is known as the "Cradle of Cricket", with a club dating back to 1750 and a historic ground next to the famous Bat and Ball Inn.
The manager of the modern squad, Michael McGregor, who is Cricket Australia's indigenous officer, said the England tour was aimed at encouraging the best Aboriginal players to gravitate to first-class cricket. "If they want to get serious, the pathway is there," he said.
How the game changed: Cricket then and now
*After decades of fierce debate dating back to the 1820s, over-arm bowling had been allowed for two years.
*The Australian Aboriginal cricket team were the first organised group of Australian cricketers to travel abroad. Previously only three teams had travelled overseas – all English.
*Harry Jupp was England's leading run scorer of the season, with 965 at 24.74. James Southerton was the leading wicket-taker, with 150 at 13.86.
*The formation of the first women's cricket team, the White Heather Club, was still 19 years away.
*The fastest bowlers in the world regularly hit speeds of 90mph. Pakistan's Shoaib Akhtar once clocked more than 100mph.
*Cricket is now played by more than 100 countries, from the Netherlands to Namibia. England alone will be playing 25 more games before the end of the year.
*Stephen Moore scored the most runs in the domestic game last year, with 1,451 at 55.80; James Tomlinson took the most wickets, with 67 at 24.76.
*England's women are at the top of a thriving world game, and won the World Twenty20 final against New Zealand yesterday.Reuse content