Cricket Walkabout

D.J. Mulvaney. 1967. Cricket Walkabout: The Australian Aboriginal Cricketers on Tour 1867-8. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. 112 pages.

Prior to the start of the Boxing Day test of 2016, a group of historians and cricket enthusiasts gathered by the Scarred Tree in Yarra Park (i.e. next to the MCG) to remember the Aboriginal cricketers who had played at the ‘G some 150 years earlier. It was a small crowd, yet, those who were present listened quietly and attentively to the solemn telling of stories of the largely forgotten players and their remarkable journeys. Towards the end of the formalities I overheard some members of the MCC talking: “so and so wants to do an ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ before each meeting; I told him, ‘over my dead body’” – the man’s friend laughed gently to himself and maintained a broad grin. It was a wonder that these men had made the early morning trip to partake in an event which they clearly held in deep disdain. The event was organised by the Mullagh-Wills Foundation which advocates “reconciliation through sport”. Here in the heartland of sporting Australia, and on Wurundjeri country, resistance to reconciliation remained unshakeable amongst a stubborn few.

I found Mulvaney’s Cricket Walkabout at City Basement Books for $15. There were two copies in the shop: one in the ‘Aboriginal Australia’ section the other in the ‘Sports’ section. I had one encounter with the legendary Mulvaney: he gave a speech at my graduation from the University of Melbourne in 1999 – if I’m not mistaken. Knowing next to nothing of Aboriginal Australia – contemporary or otherwise at the time – I immediately got the impression of him being a scholar from a totally different era. Old school. He spoke on the pre-history of Australia. And yet, here is his book on what for him, must have been the very contemporary era of the late 1860s. This book, old school, in its privileging of a colonial perspective provides thorough information and a clear narrative on an early sporting encounter between Settler and First Nations Australians. The apparent success and skills of these Aboriginal cricketers is regularly referred to when sporting enthusiasts point to the almost total absence of contemporary Aboriginal cricketers.

The book contains wonderful photographs, scorecards and other kinds of illustrations. For a thin volume, it is beautifully presented: no doubt, this comes from another era in publishing. In the present vogue, a volume of this size would only be made available as an e-book: probably for $50 plus, or printed on demand on some shabby paper with a standard cookie-cutter design. The team travelled throughout Victoria and New South Wales and of course made a year-long trip to England. It is regrettable that one of the few omissions from the book is an adequate map and possible itinerary. The main statistics of the players’ performances in England, however, are included. Mulvaney concludes the book with the observation that the tour was only possible as a law against the movement of First Nations people had not yet been enforced. While in England, the players were frequently regarded as being ‘civilised’ and certainly adequate players of the game. Mulvaney also asserts that they were not condescended to in any worse fashion than they would otherwise encounter in Australia. Reference to the players as ‘darkies’ and ‘n——s’ was unproblematic; and a few reports mistook their origins for being from the Pacific.

As Kevin Gilbert might say, the ‘players are legends’. Mullagh was an inventive batsman and they all showed tremendous stamina to play day in day out while in the foreign lands of England. Mullagh too was contemptuous of those players who addressed him in a racist manner. This early tour could have forged collaborative sporting relations between Settler and First Nations peoples; instead, it has become a long-distant one-off. Cricket now being far removed from discourses on sport, politics and Aboriginal identity.

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