Tom Wills and the 1868 Tour of England

by Sean Gorman

(from Australia: A Cricket Country edited by Christian Ryan)


In early January of 1994 I headed to a small town called Tambellup. Tambellup is located about 350ks south east of Perth deep in the Western Australian Wheatbelt. For two years I had been studying in Perth, initially doing my year 12 again and then in 1993 I commenced a double major in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders studies and Communications. Since leaving school at the end of 1986 I spent a year at the Fremantle Technical College where I got my first class wool classers ticket. Working in shearing teams the money was good and for a young bloke trying to learn about the world and the human condition the shearing shed was a great classroom. By the age of 22 I had seen enough desperadoes, broken men, crazies and chancers to last me a life-time. A friend suggested I take up study. I came to realise that tertiary education was my only real avenue out of the life I was living. Then after 2 years of living in Perth and studying at university I needed a bit of space and time to re-assess things. I also needed money. I was broke and like some figure out of a Steinbeck novel I packed up my meagre possessions into an old ute and headed south.


I arrived at the shearing quarters in Tambellup on a scorchingly still January afternoon. The sky was powder blue and the trees on the horizon shimmered weirdly. The shearing quarters, a basic brick and tile place, would come to be my home for the next 12 months. As I unrolled my swag I recall sighing as I was disappointed in myself for coming back to the sheds. Another reason for my irritation was because I was in a totally different headspace to what I had been in two years ago. I was no longer easily accepting of the day-to-day things I saw, read or heard about Blackfellas. Previously notions of colonisation, removal and dispossession would not have entered my mind. Now, having read extensively on such matters these thoughts ghosted much of my time.


In my time there, Tambellup had a very visible and mobile Noongar community. Blackfellas would amble past the quarters at all hours on their way around town. Many of them did not seem to work even though I would come to realise some did have rouse-about jobs with other shearing contractors in town. From my year at university I knew that the Noongars in this area had basically been rounded up and moved to reserves as part of the government policy in the 1920s. I also knew the Noongars had 6 seasons and not four like settler society. This, just as an idea, fascinated me. But what I would come to realise is that in reality this little town only had two seasons, football in the winter and cricket in the summer.


Tambellup was the home of the Demons football club and boasted some exceptionally talented Noongar footballers. To my knowledge the Noongar boundary runs just south of Dongara on the west coast to just the other side of Esperance on the south. Other well known Noongars to have played elite AFL are the Kicketts, the Krakouers, Polly Farmer, the Materas, Leon Davis and Nicky Winmar. In 1994 the Tambellup League football team had only one whitefella, the ruckman, and the reserves was made up of half Noongar, half whitefella. In 1994 a young Noongar man by the name of Jeff Farmer would play his last season with Tambellup and by-pass the Western Australian Football League and head straight to the AFL to play with Melbourne. He would go onto play well over 200 AFL games. He holds the record for the highest Indigenous goal scorer in the AFL.


What I noticed in Tambellup during the footy season is that the town would come alive. People from across the racial and social divide generally seemed to interact and get along. After home games I would sit there after yet another victory and quietly marvel at scene in front of me. It seemed the districts richest famers and the towns business owners would talk and engage with the youngest and wildest Noongars who played footy for Tambellup.  Maybe it was the post- match beer making me think like this but I genuinely felt at the time, and I still do, that football had a redemptive healing power. It seemed to restore the spirit of people and communities.  I never saw or heard of any problems that arose during footy season by the Noongars and Tambellup won premierships regularly.


By football seasons end the cricket season would slowly usher in the warmer months and the Noongar season of Kambarang, effectively Spring. But something not as readily detectable and a bit innocuous also seemed to trickle in as the feeling around town seemed to change. The positive mood seemed to become unhitched from the social and sporting activities in Tambellup. To me the sense of community that football seemed to foster dried up like the winter pools out in the paddocks. In its place a drier less tolerant mood seemed to replace the winter one as indifference replaced engagement, suspicion replaced friendliness, guarded hostility replaced goodwill. I don’t know if I was the only one to notice it but notice it I did. I reflected back to my youth. I reckon from my childhood and into my teens I played competitive cricket with about 3 Noongars. To my memory not one Noongar played cricket during the summer in Tambellup. It may have been part of the coming and going of the sporting seasons but on reflection it seemed odd. Surely cricket was yet another sporting avenue to alleviate boredom in a country town? Surely it was a chance to catch up with friends and acqaintaces? Surely it was a chance to stay fit? The fact however remained, the Blackfellas were nowhere to be seen.


The 1868 Tour of England


The Aboriginal cricket team pictured with their captain and coach Tom Wills at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, December 1866.

The Aboriginal cricket team pictured with their captain and coach Tom Wills at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, December 1866.

The 1868 Aboriginal cricket tour of England has become popularly established as a uniquely benign transaction in the history of contact between Aboriginal people from the western districts of Victoria and settlers. The trip by boat lasted four months, and the team were in England for the best part of a year. While on tour they played 47 games in total. There were 19 draws, 14 wins and 14 losses. The best of the batsmen and the bowlers were Johnny Mullagh (Unaarrimin) and Johnny Cuzens (Zellanach). To date the 1868 tour has been embraced by two Australian Prime Ministers and celebrated by a commemorative Aboriginal tour. It has been acknowledged in film documentaries, museum displays, poetry, creative fiction, sporting histories, special edition prints and a national advertising campaign for the centenary of Australian federation. Historian David Sampson has shown, that the primitivist displays of Aboriginal weaponry during the 1868 Aboriginal tour of Britain were more appealing to spectators than their cricketing displays. The demonstrations of boomerang and spear throwing excited the English crowds immensely. It was the Wotjabaluk warrior Dick-a-Dicks (Jungunjinanuke) challenge to the crowd to throw cricket balls at him that elicited the most breathless excitement. As the projectiles rained down and whizzed past his head Dick-a-Dick was cool and poised as he moved easily out of the way or deflected the balls with consummate ease with his thin shield. But amid the zeal for commemoration, a sense of a deeper understanding has perhaps gone missing forcing us to question what actually went on. Renowned cricket historian Bernard Whimpress challenges us to go even further by asking “How did they cope?” [i]  Taking Whimpress’s lead what becomes pressing is the total absence of a trace – no diaries, no blogs, no tweets – of any of the players thoughts or feelings while on tour. This forces us to confront the vast aching silences and compels us to imagine just how such an audacious and interesting plan became a reality and write into that silence.


In its broadest sense the tour can be seen as part of the established European practice of bringing exotic races to Britain for sporting, scientific and popular forms of display. What cannot be disputed is that the players in the 1868 tour were effectively indentured labour subjected to discipline, racial expectations and managerial control by entrepreneurs seeking to profit from the novelty of Aborigines in Britain before the doomed race ‘disappeared.’  The tour, and the preparation for it, has been viewed from a range of different perspectives; everything from the mercantile interests of the operators to the post match addresses, traditional performances, final scores, arrests and deaths have been discussed.


What is perhaps not as well understood or considered is what were the motivating factors of the Indigenous men involved. The reason this is suggested is because these aspects are crucial to understanding the men involved but also their agency. It prompts very basic questions; what were the motivations of the Indigenous players involved in the 1868 tour? What were the social conditions and the relationships that enabled it? The burning question is, why would these men leave the shores of their homelands, wives, family and friends and embark on a tour that saw them paid nothing? Why would this group of men trust the 1868 tour managers when many of them would have intimate knowledge of the devastation, disease and deceit that the settler had brought to their lives and way of life?  This chapter is not interested in the actual tour per se`. What it does want to raise is ideas and discussion about what made these men, men of the Western Districts, get on the Parramatta in early February 1868 and head out into a fate that was at best uncertain and quite possibly doomed.


The Aboriginal players in question came from the western districts of Victoria. The towns known as Waracknabeal, Aarat, Moyston, and Horsham were the traditional homelands to the Jardwadjarli and Djab wurung people and the men who would take part in the tour. This area was settled early due to the grasslands that had been maintained through fire-stick farming practices for generations and seen by the squatters as ideal for their livestock thus ensuring the bedrock of their personal fiefdoms. As the competition for land grew bloodshed ensued. Disease also took hold and resistance was broken. The clans from the Western Districts were reduced to a point that their survival was countenanced on their ability to adapt to the new rule of the settler. As the clans became reliant on food and supplies from the station owners a new and strange set of social relations formed. This is what academic Barry Judd might call ‘entanglements’, a series of complex and untidy circumstances where uneven relationships were formed out of mutual need: Blackfellas would have needed the work to get the rations to survive and maintain Country and the Settlers needed the Blackfellas to build their businesses. In this way the two groups would have had to exchange a range of ideas and perspectives to keep their mutually exclusive interests, that were intimately connected to the land, going.


As language, customs and ideas were exchanged the game of cricket was introduced as much to keep the fringe dwellers occupied as it was to redirect their pagan ways. There were several graziers around the region who introduced ‘their’ blacks to the game of cricket. Some time around 1866 Kentish émigré, local grazier and lover of cricket William Hayman could see the potential of cricket as a civilising agent.  It is hard to speculate how Hayman saw the players in his control as people. He did feel compelled to contact and invite Thomas Wentworth Wills, the leading cricketer in the colony to prepare a team for a tour of England. Through a series of events over time Wills would relinquish the role as captain/coach and the English cricketer Charles Lawrence would end up in the role touring England.


Wills in many respects is one of the most complex and intriguing characters in Australian history. The son of a pastoralist, Horatio Wills, Tom was born in Australia in 1836 and grew up on the family farm Lexington, located near present day Ararat. It was here that he learnt the local clans language and was proficient in it. He played their games and hunted alongside the children he grew up with. His affinity with Indigenous people of this region is unquestionable and lasted his entire lifetime. At the age of 14 Tom was sent off to Rugby school to get and education. School was not really Tom’s forte,` but sport, especially cricket, intrigued him. He excelled at all manner of competitive games and pursuits. He played alongside gentry and royalty. He greatly impressed. By the time he returned to Victoria in 1856 Tom Wills quickly set about establishing himself as a cricketer to be reckoned with. It seems he proposed the idea of playing football as a means to keep the Victorians fit over winter to which he and three other gentlemen drew up the rules for the first football match. The plan worked and in 1858 Victoria beat New South Wales for the first time in the inter colonial match by 171 runs on the MCG. Wills was the star with bat and ball and it seemed the only trajectory for him was up.


In 1861 Horatio had decided that Queensland was where he needed to be to expand the Wills family empire, an empire that would be built on wool. However, Tom and Horatio Wills both knew the Queensland Blackfellas were aggressive and were not to be taken lightly given that the frontier there was unregulated. This realisation became all too real for Tom Wills as upon a delayed return from a neighbouring station to get supplies he sees the aftermath of the massacre of his father and 18 other people, including children, who were in the employ of the Wills estate. They had been ambushed and bludgeoned to death by an unidentified Indigenous group. The main reason that this appears to have happened is due to an earlier attack by another settler Jesse Gregson. As payback is a significant aspect of Indigenous aggrievement and jurisprudence Horatio becomes the central and unwitting victim in a bigger frontier tragedy. As Tom Wills surveys the bloody detritus that lays before him the storm clouds in his mind begin to gather.  To this day it is the largest massacre by Indigenous Australians of settlers in Australian history.


Following the massacre Tom struggles with a series of potent emotions; bitterness, guilt, hatred, suspicion, grief. He swears he will realize his fathers agrarian dream while mourning at the freshly turned grave of Horatio.  He tries to settle and come to grips with the incident. Suffering what could only be described as post-traumatic stress, he copes by drinking massively. Drawing on the estates coffers and unable to work in an optimum way Cullin-la-Ringo incurs crippling debts. It all becomes too much for Tom and after two and a half years he gives the farming away. Broken, bewildered and bedraggled he heads south to take up doing what he loves, playing cricket. The year is 1864.  This is a significant shift in Wills life. What could his motivation be for turning his back on his families farming hopes to return to civil society to play games?  Surely he would have known this would look disrespectful, hurtful even? Maybe Wills was seeking some emotional safety, interaction with like-minded others, relief from the banality of the everyday, or sanity from the white noise of grief? Perhaps he craved a cricket match in the way Shane Warne did. Perhaps it was an escape where the world dripped away and the clarity of the contest took hold. Perhaps it was only during the contest Wills could be at one with himself.


By mid 1866 Wills has taken up the coaching position of the Aboriginal IX. It appears it was just the tonic for Wills who, from all reports, had an immediate rapport with the group. Wills knew much of the language and the songs so important to building social capital and friendships within the Aboriginal team. Many of the players would have known of the Wills family and their farm at Lexington. In this respect Tom would have been seen by the players as a trusted, and dare I say it, extended family member. Of this we can be certain.


Initially, Wills would have welcomed being amongst people who knew him (or at least knew of him) which was in stark contrast to the solitude of the frontier and the poisoned chalice that was Cullin-la-Ringo.  Given the troubled state of his mind it seems reasonable to assume that he would take comfort by surrounding himself with people who understood loss and shared a common bond. It is in this period, from the time Wills takes over the coaching of the side, and the time they depart from Australia to England, that provides us with a great deal of interest.



On the outside the preparation of the First IX tour is like any other sporting side then or since. It is travelling to designated grounds and playing regularly to iron out the chinks in their play. As rapport is being built and people are sizing one another up there are many different social gatherings and time spent on the road. One can imagine that the types of activities that went on are not too dissimilar that would go on today. The players and coaches would have been doing everything from playing cards, telling jokes, playing music and singing, eating, drinking and most importantly talking. This cross-cultural exchange is best described by Mulvaney and epitomized in these terms:


On their long wagon trek, members had employed their leisure time in hunting and native dancing. They also showed proficiency at dancing waltzes and polkas, and played whist and ecarte. [ii]


Living in close proximity day after day, month after month preparing for the tour to England one could assume there is a good possibility that Wills and say Mullagh, Cuzens or anyone of the team had several meaningful discussions. Is it really such as stretch to think that they did not talk about what cricket and the tour meant more broadly to settler society and the Blackfellas ability to play it? As Bernard Whimpress in his excellent book Passport to Nowhere discusses, “Since cricket was played by the rulers, some Aborigines quickly came to understand the prestige afforded by playing it… Cricket was initially presented to Aborigines as a path to cilivilization and socialization…They would learn to speak English, become accustomed to wearing clothes, learn to eat like the British, and to all intents and purposes adopt manners of ‘civilisation’. Playing cricket was part of this continuum’.[iii] As Whimpress rightly challenges us this ‘creates a problem of having to imagine the feelings of the Aborigines. The historian cannot be sure whether cricket was a release from work, a symbolic victory, or a corroboree substitute…and as a result it is necessary to work on the basis of probabilities”.[iv] Would it not be probable then, at some point a  discussion would have occurred between Wills and the team, or members of it,  to help them understand the broader social and historical matrix they occupied and the reasons for playing cricket in the first place? To assume that there was not would mean that the team sat in the back of the wagons gagged and silent. One would contend that Wills and the team did have meaningful discussions about the relevance of cricket and this is suggested for two reasons.


Firstly, as a young student at Rugby school Wills understood only too well the social and political currency that sport played in the broader matrix of the public school system in England. To be good at cricket or rugby or athletics gave one serious social capital and agency. Wills was a Dickensian jock. He was the master of all three and the beneficiary of the sporting accolades on many occasions. He was the Head boy, captain of the school XI, the school cross country champion, ‘the school bowler’[v]. He was the athletic benchmark the school pinned its hopes and wagers on. His opinion was respected and his reputation was robust. Striding down the gangplank from the Oneida on his return to the Antipodes Wills set himself a goal of becoming the best cricketer in the colonies. As Victoria had never beaten NSW in the inter-colonial cricket clash Wills set about transforming the ‘useless superabundant flesh’[vi] of the Victorian IX into a hardened team. Within just over a year time Wills achieved his goal.


Secondly, the status, or lack of it, in Mullagh’s and his team mates day to day lives would have weighed heavily on them. How could it not? Being black was a life or death proposition.  What not was to talk about? Who would they talk with other than Wills about these issues? Who else would listen or care? As Bernard Whimpress reminds us:

It is well to remember that at the time Aboriginal heads were being collected in European museums the cricketers must have seemed something like living museum pieces. [vii]


When faced with such a brutal reality the Indigenous men surely would have wanted to pursue an avenue not afforded other natives. Cricket as corroboree substitute? What about as a survival strategy?


To understand Wills is to try and understand his actions. His empathy for the Djab wurrung, and their kin relations the Djarwardjarli, was deep and it is a massive key to understanding him and his motivation. The reason this is suggested is for this basic contention: why does Wills agree to play and coach a team of Blackfellas, live with them on a day-to-day basis for months, if he considered them from the ‘same’ people that murdered his family? In a contemporary context it would be like an American businessman helping a group of Islamic petro-chemical students by funding their degrees two years on from 9/11. Wills knows that these people are not the same, they are as different as the French are to the Germans.


Some people have suggested that the main reason he took up coaching is because he was motivated by money. If money is the primary driver why does he not just stay on at Cullin la Ringo and make a fist of the burgeoning wool empire, an empire he vowed to realize at the grave of Horatio? Why does he not just go ‘Blackbirding’ (slave trading)? It was profitable and no doubt exciting? Many cricket historians acknowledge Wills did not respect money in the same way that his father did and he saw money as a temporary and not a marker of status.


Which brings us back to the motivations of Wills and the team and the imagined discussions over the months of preparing to travel abroad. Discussions that were importantly carried out in a native tongue as Jellicoe joked to one Bendigo reporter referring to Wills “He too much along us. He speak nothing now but blackfellow talk”.[viii]  I am convinced that somewhere in the time they spent in the lead up to the tour Wills, Johnny Mullagh and Cuzens had a conversation. Maybe it was after a hard days play. They are gazing into the flickering fireplace of the hotel where they are staying. It is late and the others have all turned in for the night. They are well into their second bottle of port and smoking pipes when Mullagh asks Wills why cricket is so important to the settler.   Wills takes a sip and squints into the fire. He knows the answer because he has experienced the  spoils and glory. He turns to Mullagh. ‘If you master our game you will be on your way to being part of our society. It is after all the gentlemen’s game. You will be accepted as gentlemen. Crack the code by playing the game. Master it and master your destiny.’ Mullagh and Cuzens nod knowingly. What other incentive or motivation could there be for these dispossessed men preparing for a tour where they will not be paid? A holiday to England? Nice uniforms? Women?


There are many ways into this idea. The first was the standing that cricketers and cricket itself had in the colonies at the time. There was no greater honour than to be selected for either the New South Wales or Victorian matches in the inter-colonial cup. It was tantamount to having a baggy green. Another key is in the famous photograph taken in December of 1866. Tom Wills is flanked by Johnny Mullagh, to his left. Mullagh is the epitome of poise and class. Uniformly, all the others are too. Their hair is combed and they are impeccably dressed. They appear focussed and stoic. A very English trait. By contrast it only seems that Wills is teetering on the shambolic. Greg de Moore captures the moment on the eve of the Boxing day test in 1866:

His [Wills] generally dilapidated appearance gave him the look of a man who had just tumbled from a rubbish bin…To his left stood Unamurrimin, Johnny Mullagh to the spectators. Slim with an aristocratic stance, fine boned and of chocolate complexion, Unamurriman’s reserved expression articulated all that Europeans thought distinguished in portraiture. Surrounding Tom were ten black cricketers – encased in heavy European clothing, vests buttoned with obsessional care from neck to waist, each black face wore the solemnity of a judge. Tom Wills was about to walk on to the Melbourne Cricket Ground with ten black judges.


de Moore continues:

Until now, the team of Aborigines had dwelt only within the imaginings of the people of Melbourne…The moment Tom Wills and his team walked on to the field, the white colonists aligned themselves with Aboriginal cricketers; ten men of a dispossessed race. In a common grievance against what the Melbourne Cricket Club symbolised. [ix]


Dress. Deportment. Demeanour. Symbols. What could it all mean?  If manners maketh the man, and clothes do too, then the players were congnizant in trying to convey the message they were up for the challenge, both on an off the pitch. This is not say there were slippages in behaviour, there were, but overwhelmingly a high standard of decorum was adhered to both on and off the field. Examples of this are in the Boxing Day test in 1866 when Richard Wardill, MCG captain and top scorer was dismissed, “the Aboriginal cricketers gave him three ‘British’ hearty cheers”.[x]    Then in the social settings the team needed to hold their own. An example of this is in early January Wills, William Hayman and the team arrived at the Wills family estate Belle Vue, just outside of Geelong. Despite the lack of notice by Wills to his mother the visit and dinner were civilized affairs.

The manner in which they held their cutlery and addressed other guests at Belle Vue was analysed with the objectivity one might scrutinise a wild animal undergoing domestication. Manner and deportment were the barometer of civilisation, dining at Belle Vue, the team bore the imprint of fine cultivation and won approval.[xi]


It seems wherever they went in the public domain quiet scepticism gave way to  robust support as the team played the social game and cricket with equal aplomb and ‘impeccable manners’ (181). However, manners and using ones knife and fork correctly are one thing. Meeting with and being associated with people of serious standing was an altogether different prospect that surely would have cultivated within the team the possibility of greater autonomy. The motivation is then clear they are aspiring to meet the standards of the day through the codes and conventions of civil society, it games, its language and etiquette to improve their life.


By early 1867 the preperation for the tour had suffered several serious setbacks with Sugar passing away and confidence trickster W.E.B. Gurnett ousted as the ‘Captain’ due to his bouncing cheques. Hayman, the team manager, hastily organised a series of games to be played in Sydney before heading to England. But first they would have to play at the MCG with several of them suffering from everything from hangovers, measles, flu and injury.[xii] Despite this the team were personally introduced to the Victorian Governor after the game and Cuzens presented with a bat by the Governor for his efforts.


By May Wills involvement had finished and Charles Lawrence took over all managerial and prepatory duties of the side. Watty then passed away as did Jellico and a young replacement Paddy. In order to capitalise on raising the profile and coffers to head to England Lawrence drew on his status and skill and requested the MCC arrange a game to coincide with the Duke of Edinburugh’s visit later that year. With Lawrence at the helm team morale picked up and they seem comfortable and stable. They head to Sydney and then in their last game in Australia against a combined Army and Navy side, the Aboriginal IX are victorious. In the crowd of four thousand is the Duke of Edinburugh who witnesses the spectacle. This by any measure is serious kudos that a member of the monarchy would take time out of their day to see what all the fuss was about. Three days later the first Australian cricket team sailed from Sydney to England, ‘a unified team’ (47) a group of men embarking on the trip of a lifetime motivated by a simple need to be recognized and respected.



Imparja Cup[xiii]                                                                              


The Imparja Cup began its life 16 years ago on Australia Day. What started as a small gathering of cricket teams made up of Indigenous players in 1994 has now grown into a media event and a national competition. The tournament began as the brain-child of Alice Springs brothers Shane and Mervyn Franey and Ross Williams from Tennant Creek.  The main reason for the initial game was to promote cricket in the Northern Territory and enjoy the game with family and friends. From initial prizes of petrol vouchers and meat trays the Imparja cup now has corporate backing and is seen by Cricket Australia as the flagship for indigenous involvement in the game. In 2010 the Western Australian side were successful for the first time in winning the prestigious tournament totally dominating the tournament and blowing away New South Wales in the final by 110 runs. For winning Western Australian captain Matt Abrahamson, a Yamatji man who grew up in Noongar country, the Imparja cup is the zenith that all Indigenous cricketers strive for. In many ways Abrahamson could be seen as an ideal candidate for the WA captaincy as he has had a long involvement and is still playing pennant cricket today. A 6 time Imparja competitor who in his first year in 2005 won the joint player of the tournament and was the leading run scorer cricket is a game he and his family loves.

Living with my grandparents, Mum used to watch cricket on the TV.  She was into cricket. My granddad made me a bat out of a plank of wood. That was from the age of three. Cricket for me was natural and from watching the stuff on tv I thought I was all right. I just kept going and that led into a structured format at the age of 10.


For Abrahamson growing up playing cricket posed different challenges that he needed to deal with. These ranged from the cultural, the social and the purely economic. He explains.

We have 5 kids in my family and only one parent working so it was difficult. My bats would not last too long because I was not paying top-dollar for them and there was a stigma attached to using club equipment.


Moving through the grades the challenges became even more personal for Abrahamson meaning the game ceased to be just a game but a contested site where race played a major part.

I played A grade WACA cricket at Gosnells and we were playing another team in the pennant competition.  The other side had a particular player (who was Indian) and his nickname was ‘Boonga.’ If you walked up to an umpire and say ‘I am taking offence at that’ you don’t know how the system is going to respond if you raise it as a concern. So you think ‘I might be best keeping my mouth shut’.


It was obvious that the love of cricket is the main reason Abrahamson has kept going despite many of his friends who gave up for a variety of reasons. Having grown up playing the game cricket seemed to speak to him despite the lack of any discernible role models playing at the highest level.


John McGuire is the most notable player in the grade cricket scene in WA  and it is an alarming statistic that John was one of 22 players to have scored more than 7000 A grade runs at district cricket level but he was the only one not to have played with WA. There is only one difference between John and the rest that is quite obvious. In 2006 the Western Warriors went to Newman as part of their camp with the pre-season squad and to make up number 6 of the boys from the Imparja cup squad went up also. It was a great experience. Justin Langer came up and spoke to a few of us and asked ‘Do you follow the Aussie Test team’? and the response was that they followed other teams like the West Indies, India and Pakistan.  It’s like the Essendon football club, you see in the crowd red and black flags and the Aboriginal flag. You get Aboriginal people watching Aboriginal players. The same thing does not apply in cricket. You have no one you would go and support so you find someone else who you can.


For Abrahamson, who works as the Regional Coordinator for the Attorney Generals office in Perth he sees the challenges that face Indigenous Australians, public policy and government are, in many ways, the same that face cricket. The key for Abrahamson is one of representation and pro-activity from the administrators. In this way the motivation of the players playing needs to be tapped and developed if Indigenous involvement is to take root and grow:

Cricket Australia does not capture ethnicity as a demographic so we cannot even tell what number of Aboriginal players are playing the game.  So all the strategic plans we hear seem a bit pointless if you cant measure it. It’s sheer guess work. If you look at the AFL in general they are quite a long way advanced from cricket in terms of player welfare. Cricket Australia is not within cooee of what football does and it will be interesting to see how Cricket Australia address it. With the Imparja cup not too many people know about it, it’s not a glamorous thing, it gets on Cricket Australia’s website but it is only broadcast on pay tv. Aboriginal kids are keen to play cricket but the talent is wasted and gets sucked into football. Cricket is harder to get into at the top level, fewer teams and fewer players needed means limited chances and the challenges are therefore greater.




It has now been 43 years since the 1967 Referendum. This was a remarkable event for many reasons. The main reason being was the overwhelming support by the Australian people to amend clauses of the Australian Constitution concerning Australia’s Indigenous people. This was done because it was patently obvious that in order for Blackfellas to survive they needed the constitutional protections and rights afforded them as Australian citizens. The 67 referendum then allowed for Indigenous Australians to be counted in the census and for legislation to be enacted through due government process. This does not mean that it has been plain sailing for Indigenous Australians as Aboriginal disempowerment remains a grave concern in contemporary Australia where nearly all of the socio-economic indicators as provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that to be born an Indigenous Australian means one enters a life of hardship, economic uncertainty, disease and early death. As basic health, welfare, housing and education are the inalienable rights of all Australian citizens it is Indigenous Australians who are suffering third world experiences and being left behind in the modern Australia. What Australians need to do is ask one simple question: Why in a rich, progressive and dynamic society does this happen?


In many respects cricket in Australia is the oldest imported bastion from England. It’s language, rituals, customs and myths have all played a part in shaping the Australia we have today. It is because of this that cricket represents something to Indigenous Australians that which they are not a part of. That which is separate from them, removed, distant. If we disagree ask yourself just how many male cricketers of Indigenous heritage have made it to test level in Australian history. One. Jason Gillespie, Kaurna man form South Australia. By comparison if one looks at participation in the AFL or the NRL the percentile is around 12% and rising. In many ways the job Cricket Australia has on its hands to engender support at grass roots level is massive. Then once that seed has been planted in the minds of children the development, guidance and maintenance of young Indigenous cricketers is a delicate one. To turn on the TV for a Boxing day Test or any one of crickets short game varieties and see a landscape that is homogenous is very possibly a deterrant. Yet there are as Abrahamson says ‘glimpses of promise’ and these have taken the form of Dan Christian from South Australia, Josh Lalor from NSW and with Michael Bailey and Dane Ugle the ones to watch from Western Australia. Abrahamson says to keep an eye on the names, Jay Collard, Lewis Upton, Julien Feehan and Alistair Bivens. This bodes well if the talent can be harnassed and given the opportunity to develop as the stories of Eddie Gilbert, Jack Marsh and John Mcguire to name a few still whisper from the fringe. Cricket Australia needs to understand Indigenous Australians social and cultural sensibilites, Indigenous History and sport history. The questions we ask of history will determine what answers we recieve. Similarly the question cricket administrators ask of their game will determine the types of replies they get. It seems anachronistic that Australia’s oldest organized colonial sport has no Indigenous players playing. How to address this is the challenge, and a mighty challenge it is.


Cricket Australia, needs to do this so as to ensure that the fostering of talent leads to meaningful outcomes, outcomes that will be mutually beneficial, long lasting and real. This can only come through discussion, which leads to rapport which builds trust so when mistakes are made hands are extended and healing is possible. In a post apology Australia it seems a fitting path to take.





[i] Bernard Whimpress (1999), ‘Pastoral Cricket: The Unasked Questions Including 1868.’ Passport to Nowhere: Aborigines in Australian Cricket 1850-1939. Walla Walla Press, NSW, p 77.

[ii] D.J. Mulvaney. (1967)  Cricket Walkabout: The Australian Aboriginal Cricketers on Tour 1867-8. Melbourne University Press, Carlton Victoria, p 47.

[iii] Whimpress 1999, pages 36, 39 and 73. My emphasis.

[iv] Ditto pg 42. My emphasis.

[v] Greg de Moore, (2008) Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall. Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, p 44.

[vi] Tom Wills (1858) Letter to the Editor. Bell’s Life in Victoria.

[vii] Bernard Whimpress (2001) ‘Ranji and Mullagh: The Prince and the Rabbiter’ in The Best Ever Australian Sports Writing: A 200 year Collection. (ed David Headon. Black Inc, Melbourne, Victoria, p55.

[viii] de Moore p178.

[ix] de Moore p 170 and 171.

[x] de Moore p 172.

[xi] de Moore p 173.

[xii] Mulvaney p 28.

[xiii] All interviews shown in this section were conducted with Matt Abrahamson on 27/8/2010.


  1. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Superb work Sean,
    After such pioneering work by TW with Indigenous cricketers the lack of representation in Australian teams is unpardonable.

  2. Sean Gorman says

    Thanks Phil, I really hope the crowd sourcing effort get up to do the restoration. Any approach to from the CA or AFL?

    It really is surprising that not more Indigenous men have not made test selection for Australia.


  3. Fascinating read Sean. Wonderful research drawing so many threads together. I particularly enjoyed the speculation about the motives of Wills and the indigenous players. We will never really know and we all overlay our speculation with our own life experience.
    You mentioned Shane Warne’s hunger for the game (cricket, poker and skirt chasing) and I saw a connection in Wills to SKW’s mentor Terry Jenner.
    How many of us today who have experienced only 1% of the life trauma of Wills and the dispossessed aboriginal cricketers seek refuge in a fantasy parallel universe of on-line games, grog, drugs and the punt? I could pretend that the real world didn’t exist for an hour or six, only to return to it with my troubles doubled with more self created ones. No doubt that’s how it ended for Wills as there was no real understanding or support for these problems in the anglo world (other than “pull yourself together man”) right up to the 1960’s.
    Europeans accepted the significance of the psyche and the unconscious through the work of Freud and Jung long before the regressive anglo world.

  4. bring back the torp says

    Great insights on the incredible tour of 1868.

    Two questions:-
    Is there any evidence that the Aboriginal cricketers played white man’s football (Aust. football) before, during, or after the Tour?

    In their “athletic”displays (ie not cricket) that they did in Britain, for the entertainment of the English, did any of the Aboriginals perform football-related skills eg kicking a football, taking a mark from a high kick etc

Leave a Comment