And why is there a cricket centre named after him in a tiny town called Harrow in the West Wimmera region of Victoria?
Some cleverly positioned tourism teasers that I spied during a simple loo stop in Edenhope a few weeks ago, on my way to meet a friend in South Australia, made quite an impression. (never underestimate the value of the back of the toilet cubicle door!)
Of course, these were questions I would need to explore.
I continued on to the Coonawarra Wine Region that day as planned; but after an enjoyable day of wine tasting following that, I just couldn’t resist the lure – especially as my friend had some work she needed to get done that day.
In an act that tells the extent of my new-found fascination with all things cricket, I made a 210km round trip to visit the Johnny Mullagh Cricket Centre, as I knew I wouldn’t have time to make the detour on my way home.
To be fair, it wasn’t the first I’d learned of the story the centre tells – that of the first organised group of cricketers from Australia to tour England in 1868 – as I’d read about it a few weeks back. But until then I hadn’t twigged quite how close I now live to the seat of this historic tale.
Apart from the coach/manager, the cricketers on that historic tour were all from the south-west of Victoria; and all Aboriginal.
This tour, and the identity of the players, was quite an extraordinary discovery for me in itself. I hadn’t consciously thought of it until that time, but I realised that I wasn’t aware of any elite cricket players with Aboriginal ancestry. I’ve since learned that there have been some, but really they are far and few between – especially by comparison with AFL. It’s a curious situation.
The “first eleven”, as the team are sometimes called, was led by coach and manager Charles Lawrence, a former Surrey professional cricketer.
During the four month tour, playing 99 days out of a possible 124, the team played 47 games in total across England – winning 14, losing 14 and drawing 19. This was an extraordinarily gruelling schedule, and the results were equally impressive, given that many of the teams they played were professionals.
Johnny Mullagh’s stats for the tour are even more extraordinary – he scored 1,698 runs (just under one-fifth of all runs scored by the team) and took 245 wickets (he apparently bowled for over one third of the time played).
There were so many surprises and points of interest for me in discovering the details of the story, including:
- The introduction of cricket to Aboriginal people had started on stations in the Wimmera district during the 1860’s, after Aboriginal stockmen and domestic help replaced the earlier workers who had headed east chasing gold. The athletic ability of the Aboriginal people was initially recognised by their startling accuracy when returning balls that had been hit beyond the boundaries in early settler games.
- After a Boxing Day match at the MCG in 1866 that attracted a crowd of 8,000 to see a newly formed team of the most capable Aboriginal cricketers from that region, a tour to New South Wales was undertaken. However the entrepreneur backer of that tour Captain Gurnell, embezzled funds raised for the enterprise and left the team stranded in Sydney.
- Victoria’s Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines (VCBPA) objected to and forbade the proposed 1868 tour of England taking place, because “judging from the past … after the Aborigines have ceased to be a source of profit they will be cast adrift and left helpless and destitute – unable to return to their own country.” Protective indeed! How times have changed.
- This resulted in the tour starting by stealth – the entire team went on a ‘fishing trip’ from Queenscliff, then boarded a steamship waiting off Port Phillip Heads to travel to Sydney, out of the jurisdiction of the VCBPA and then on to England.
- The team charmed the other passengers on the long journey by ship to England, spending much time with the women and children on board playing games, drawing, or making needles and other tools for women’s handiwork.
- It is thought a good part of the initial fascination with the team on their arrival in England in May 1868 was sparked by the recent publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species – the first match at The Oval attracted 20,000 spectators!
- Many of the matches were followed by demonstrations of Aboriginal skills such as boomerang and spear throwing, plus competitions of various kinds – not uncommon for the time apparently.
- One of the team, Dick-a-Dick, impressed with his ability to ward off cricket balls thrown at him by up to six men using only a narrow shield.
- In one cricket ball throwing competition, the Aboriginal players were narrowly beaten by a young emerging English all-rounder – none other than W.G. Grace who at 20years old threw an impressive 118 yards.
- Not at Lords though! That venerable old seat of cricket forbade any games / demonstrations beyond the main act of the game itself.
The Johnny Mullagh Cricket Centre in Harrow tells the fascinating full story of the team and the tour of England, as well as providing lots of interactive features of general interest about the game of cricket. This includes a display demonstrating the correct hold for different styles of bowling and balls you can practise with, and a mirror so you can check your cricket bat swinging action alongside nearby guides to a range of cricket drives. They also currently house an impressive private collection of Bradman memorabilia.
It’s a fabulous centre, originally funded by a generous donation from a private donor that was matched by state and federal funding – and entry is by donation. It also includes some general historical info of relevance to the local area. The town itself is pretty charming – beautifully set in a deep valley (mobile blackspot!) and with some lovely old historic buildings lining the main street. It’s well worth the detour from the Western Highway at Edenhope or from the Glenelg Highway at Coleraine, and in my opinion the centre thoroughly deserves a decent donation from each visitor.