From bats and brawls to new links between colonies: the origins of Australian cricket

On the 140th anniversary of the first recognised cricket test match, played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground between Australia and England (and which Australia won by 45 runs), Oxford historian Dr Benjamin Mountford explores the roots of Australian cricket…

This article was first published in August 2015

Australian test cricket team toured England, 1878. (© Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy)
Australian test cricket team toured England, 1878. (© Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy)

By December 1803 they were already at it. Just 15 years after the arrival of the First Fleet at Botany Bay, and just 16 years after the first match had been played at Lord's in London, cricket had made its way to New South Wales.

On 8 January 1804 the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Telegraph reported:

The late intense weather has been very favourable to the amateurs of cricket who have scarce lost a day for the past month. The frequent immoderate heats might have been considered inimical to the amusement, but were productive of very opposite consequences.

Cricket was the first team game to be successfully exported from England to Australia. In the distant penal colony of New South Wales, it was encouraged by colonial governors as a worthy entertainment. Importantly, it provided the new arrivals with a vital link to the world they had left behind. Thousands of miles from home, on a patch of land set aside for recreation (which after 1810 would be known as ‘Hyde Park’), Sydney's first cricketers set about recreating that most English of games in the “immoderate heat[s]” of the Australian sun.

During its infancy, Australian cricket developed some distinctive characteristics, owing in part to the distance between the colony and England – the first cricket clubs struggled to import copies of the latest rules and equipment. As such, they made use of local timbers and leather and were late to adopt certain English innovations, such as the use of overarm bowling and the coin toss [to determine which team bats first]. Matches were well supported by both the respectable and incorrigible classes of Australian society.

In the 19th century, cricket developed into one of the essential features of the Australian cultural landscape. By 1826 Sydney was home to a number of cricket clubs including the Currency, the Military and the Australian. During the 1820s, 30s and 40s, white colonisers took the game with them as they spread across Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland. The Melbourne Cricket Club, Australia’s most prestigious, was formed in 1838.

In the 1850s, the gold rushes that swept the Australian colonies brought a new influx of men with experience in English cricket. Having tried their luck with the pick and pan, many fared better with the bat and ball. In later years, keen cricketers could be found in all corners of the island continent. According to the pre-eminent historian of Australian cricket, the late Jack Pollard, at one stage seven men who had earned their blues playing for Oxford and Cambridge could be found working as sugar planters in Queensland.

In the southern summer of 1850–1, the first intercolonial match took place between Victoria and Tasmania, marking the start of first-class cricket in Australia. In the years that followed, these matches developed into great social occasions. Brass bands performed during breaks in play and champagne flowed freely. Although well-attended by the upper echelons of colonial society, the matches could also be feisty affairs. Disputes on the field regularly spilled over into wars in the press, and occasionally into brawls in the crowd.

For the players, meanwhile, the match might come at the end of a gruelling journey. Visiting teams regularly endured rough voyages on small coastal craft to reach neighbouring colonies, followed by bruising coach rides along poor roads if they proceeded to regional areas. Unsurprisingly, it seems many players made the most of local hospitality when they finally reached their destination – adding a sore head to the list of aches and pains they had developed en-route!

The first English teams to tour Australia began arriving in the 1860s. English teams had already toured successfully to Canada and the United States when, in 1861, the Melbourne restaurateurs Spiers and Pond sought to promote their businesses by organising a visit to the antipodes. Having left home in October, on Christmas Eve the English team (pictured below) arrived at Melbourne and was greeted by a large and enthusiastic crowd and cheered through the streets. The tour was a resounding success, with an estimated 15,000 people watching as the English 11 took on a team of 18 (recognising their handicap) from Melbourne.


First England Team that toured Australia in 1861. (© Lordprice Collection/Alamy)

Subsequent tours by English teams, including two teams featuring the great Victorian hero WG Grace, played an important role in stimulating Australian interest in cricket and in uniting the colonies in sporting endeavour against England. By the 1880s most Australian towns boasted a local pitch, and cricket was increasingly being recognised as a national game.

Traffic the other way began in 1868, when an all-Aboriginal team from Australia toured England. The tour took place despite the resistance of the authorities, who feared the players might be exploited and would suffer in the English climate. After arriving in England the team was subjected to an intense schedule, playing 47 matches across six counties between May and October.

Their performances impressed and attracted widespread attention, ten years before the first white Australian team played on British soil. The all-rounder Unaarrimin (known as Johnny Mullagh) won particular praise for his abilities, while Yellanach (Johnny Cuzens) put fear into English batsmen with the pace of his bowling. The Times reflected after their first appearance at the Oval: “No truer test of the interest taken by the public in the performance of this team from the antipodes can be afforded than that of 7,000 persons congregated”.

That interest was in part due to the Victorian fascination with ‘exotic’ races, which had been stimulated by the recent publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. “Many and confused”, The Times continued, “were the ideas generally entertained about these aboriginals, both as regards their cricketing acquirements and their physical confirmation”. Between sessions the Australian players displayed a range of skills with the spear and the boomerang for their curious English audiences. Having seen the players in the field, the bohemian and naturalist William Tegetmeier, a correspondent of Darwin’s, studied and photographed some of them and established a small display of their weapons.

Although the players earnt the respect of many British observers, their visit to the heart of the empire provided regular reminders of the strength of its racial prejudice. At the same time, however, the tour reflected the often complex relationship between sport, race and empire that has fascinated generations of historians. At York, for instance, the Aboriginal players were banned from the lunch tent, while at Lord’s they won plaudits for their performance against a team that included a viscount, an earl, a lieutenant-colonial and a captain.

It was some 10 years later, in the northern summer of 1878, that the first white Australian team toured England (pictured at the top of the article). At Sydney a crowd of less than a dozen turned out to see them off as they began the long journey to Liverpool via the United States. When the team arrived at Nottingham for their first match, locals were confused – they had apparently expected the players to be black. After a disappointing first performance, the Australians turned things around against the Marylebone Cricket Club at Lord’s. As word spread across London that the colonists had dismissed the mighty MCC for a paltry 33, crowds poured in for the second innings, which proved a whitewash. In less than four hours the Australians had dispatched the elite of British cricket, in the game’s spiritual home. Reflecting on the loss and the poor performance of even the great WG Grace, Punch parodied Lord Byron:

The Australians came down like a wolf on the fold,
The Marlyebone cracks for a trifle were bowled;
Our Grace before dinner was very soon done,
And Grace after dinner did not get a run.

English cricketer WG Grace, date unknown. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

The Australian victory at Lord’s marked an important turning point. For the first time it convinced many in England of the viability of international cricket, and of the game’s imperial resonance. In Australia the 1878 tour and those that followed did much to foster national sentiment, as the colonists came together to take on ‘Old England’. When the team returned to Sydney (and later visited Melbourne and Adelaide), they received a rapturous welcome and were conveyed through the streets of the city amid much cheering and celebration.

It was again in London, this time at the Oval, that the ‘Ashes’ was born. Having been beaten soundly in the first innings (England needing only 85 from their second innings to win), an Australian team led by ‘the demon’ bowler, Fred Spofforth, managed a remarkable comeback. During the last half hour of play the English batsmen fell in quick succession, several spectators fainted from shock, and one poor onlooker died of a heart attack. Five days later, the Sporting Times published a mock obituary, which began the legend of the Ashes:

In Affectionate Remembrance
of
ENGLISH CRICKET
which died at The Oval
on
29 August, 1882
Deeply lamented by a large circle of
Sorrowing Friends and Acquaintances
R.I.P.
N.B. – The body will be cremated and the
Ashes taken to Australia. 

From its humble beginnings in Sydney’s Hyde Park, Australian cricket has been intricately bound up with the making of Australian history. Moreover, it has remained an essential element of the evolving relationship between Britain and Australia.

Dr Benjamin Mountford is the Michael Brock fellow in modern British history at Corpus Christi College Oxford, and an honorary senior research fellow at Federation University Australia. His first book, on the coming together of the British and Chinese Empires in colonial Australia, will be published through Oxford University Press in 2016.

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