The first overseas team to visit England
During its time as the home of Sussex Cricket in the mid-19th century, Hove’s Royal Brunswick Ground saw many notable matches. When the Gentlemen of Sussex played the Gentlemen of South Wales in 1864, a 16 year old prodigy named William Gilbert Grace, playing for the visitors, scored his first century. Four years later, the same Sussex side played hosts to a team far less experienced than the young W.G. and except for the player manager, this team was comprised of men who five years before hadn’t even seen let alone played cricket. These cricketers were Australian Aboriginals.
The match between England and Australia in 1877 is well known as the first Test Match, and the various tours that English players made down under prior to this are well documented, but this first overseas cricket tour to England or indeed anywhere by Australians is often overlooked. Initially the team of native Australians weren’t entirely welcome. The Times described them as “the conquered natives of a convict colony” and it was wondered how such an inexperienced group would fare. It must have been a daunting and bewildering experience for them, but they acquitted themselves quite well, and while their matches were not classified as first class, they did win 14 of the 47 games played and lost the same number. The team played the Gentlemen of Sussex twice at the Brunswick ground. The Gentlemen won the first of these and the second was drawn. There was also a match held in Eastbourne against the local town side.
Large crowds often watched with over 20,000 turning up for the first match at the Oval. No doubt spectators often came to see the tourists out of curiosity rather than to savor a cricket contest . Their real original Aboriginal names would have been difficult for anyone in England to master and they were given English names such “Johnny Mullagh”, “Bullocky”, and “Twopenny”. In addition to the cricket, spectators were treated to exhibitions of various “indigenous sports” including boomerang and spear throwing. In addition, one player operating under the sobriquet of “Dick A Dick” entertained the crowd by having cricket balls thrown directly at him.
Financially, the tour was a success but while it seems that the indigenous Australians were willing participants it seems unlikely that they profited from this. While one of the team, the leading batsman, Johnny Mullagh, played professional cricket for a short time, the rest soon disappeared into obscurity. Moreover, a change in the law the following year restricted the movement of Aborigines and this made a further tour at that time impractical.
A return visit in 2018
In 2018, an Aborigine team returned to Sussex to commemorate the 1868 tour in a series of Twenty/20 matches, with both a men’s and women’s side. The composition of both teams was a great contrast to the previous one that had visited these shores in 1868. The men’s team was captained by Dan Christian who had played ODI cricket for Australia and the women’s team included Ashleigh Gardener, an Australian international in all formats. The Aborigines were treated seriously in Hove, and Sussex assembled two strong teams. The men’s team was captained by Luke Wright and included such one-day stars as Phil Salt, Chris Jordan and Jofra Archer and Sussex duly won their match. The women’s team was also strong, albeit with some players borrowed from other counties, and they were also successful. The Aborigine men’s team played two matches on this tour against the MCC at Arundel and won both of these.
Things have certainly changed since those matches in Hove back in 1868. The visiting Aborigines in 2018 were clearly much more accomplished cricketers than the team that played at the Royal Brunswick in front of what was a very curious crowd and the Sussex coach that day was none other than Jason Gillespie, who in 1996 had become the first player of Aboriginal descent to play Test cricket for Australia.
By Peter McQuade, May 2023