Editor's note: Some of the language used in the newspaper excerpts below is a reflection of Australian society at the time. Readers may find the language offensive, but it has been included to help explain the relationship between Aboriginal people and white Australians 150 years ago.
The 1866 Boxing Day match between the Melbourne Cricket Club and an Aboriginal XI, while far from the first cricket game played at the MCG over the festive period, is one of the most notable contests in Australian cricket's greatest annual tradition.
In an era when Aboriginals were routinely persecuted throughout the colonies of Australia, the fact that a group of Aboriginal players took on a team of whites in a game of cricket at the MCG - and were roundly applauded for it - makes the match a remarkable deviation from the social norm of the time.
The introduction of Aboriginals to the very English game of cricket in the mid-19th century was at its strongest on the sheep stations of western Victoria, where they were recruited to work (unpaid) following the departure en masse of white farmhands to Ballarat for the gold rush of the 1850s.
Not only did the Aboriginal workers take fondly to the sport of their colonisers, they mastered it.
By 1865, an all-Aboriginal team had been formed and they travelled to the town of Hamilton, around 300km west of Melbourne, to take on a local club side consisting entirely of white players. Much to the surprise of locals and their chastened opponents, the Aboriginals were triumphant.
The Hamilton Spectator newspaper reported how the match had been a vehicle for those in attendance to view Aboriginal people, who at the time were treated as second-class citizens, in a completely different light.
"To convert the savage into a sheep shearer is something, but it is even more to make him into a smart cricketer," the newspaper wrote. "The savage rises to quite a higher social level.
"(Cricket has) afforded us the opportunity of seeing what the blacks could do when kindly and considerately treated, and of how they could play against almost born cricketers, as most Englishmen are.
"That generous kindness of the remote settler has disclosed to the outer world an undeniable talent in the Aborigine."
The formation of an Aboriginal team was due in large part to the efforts of Tom Wills, a white man and a talented athlete himself who was a key figure in the creation of the sport now known as Australian football.
While racism was rife throughout the colonies at the time, Wills had a close but turbulent relationship with Indigenous Australians; he communicated with the team in the language of the local Djab wurrung people, with whom he'd grown up, but in the early 1860s he had come under spear attack by a group of Aboriginals in Queensland, who killed his father and 17 other whites.
But not only did Wills recommence a strong bond with the Aboriginal community upon his return to Victoria, he agreed to coach and captain their cricket team.
And after viewing their skills up close in the country, he was keen to bring them to the big smoke of Melbourne.
With farming duties restricting the availability of the Aboriginal players, a match was agreed to against the Melbourne Cricket Club on Boxing Day, 1866. The reputation of the Aboriginal players had already reached the MCC and, fearing a shock defeat, the hosts began recruiting top players to bulk up their side.
More than 10,000 people were in attendance for the post-Christmas clash, double the crowd for the Victoria v NSW match played in Sydney over the same weekend, and significantly higher than the attendance for the inter-colonial Boxing Day match at the MCG the previous year.
The game itself was a low-scoring affair that finished inside two days; the Aboriginal XI managed only 39 and 87 with the bat, Melbourne's totals of 100 and 1-27 giving them victory by nine wickets. Wills was not out in both innings and picked up two wickets, while Jonny Cuzens was the pick of the Aboriginal bowlers, taking seven for the match.
But the game held far greater significance than the final result. Newspaper articles at the time lauded the Aboriginal side and remarked on the warm reception they were given from the locals.
"The veteran Wills never captained an eleven who so thoroughly possessed the sympathies of the spectators," reported The Sydney Mail. "A dark skin suddenly became a passport to the good graces of Victorians.
"It is not saying too much to assert that this match created nearly as much interest as the first one played by the celebrated eleven brought from England (five years earlier)."
The Argus newspaper said the crowd was particularly captured by Cuzens and star allrounder Johnny Mullagh, who top-scored with the bat and grabbed two wickets.
"From beginning to end, the greatest interest was manifested in the game, and the spectators showed their sympathy for the blackfellows by loudly cheering every exhibition of cricketing skill on their part," the newspaper reported.
"Although they did not handle the bat so effectively as was expected, the natives fielded in a manner which more than justified the praise they had received, while Mullagh and Cuzens both proved themselves to be first-class bowlers."
With the game finishing early, a scratch match was played to entertain the big crowd, followed by sprint and hurdles races, in which the Aboriginals also starred.
In an era of great physical and emotional trauma for their people, this group of Aboriginal men were applauded and celebrated by thousands white Australians, all keen to get a glimpse of their impressive talents.
And there was more adulation to come; Wills took his team to Sydney in the new year and around 12 months later, the Aboriginal side travelled across the globe - minus Wills - for a six-month tour of England comprising 47 matches, thus becoming the first ever Australian sporting team to play abroad.
The names of Mullagh and Cuzens became famous on that tour, where the players were greeted with both fascination and disdain by the English public. The tourists more than matched their rivals, winning 14 games, losing 14 and drawing 19 in front of crowds in the tens of thousands. Mullagh is said to have finished the tour with an astonishing 245 wickets and almost 1700 runs.
But from there, Aboriginal involvement in cricket dwindled to the point where, today, only two Indigenous Australians - women's cricket trailblazer Faith Thomas and pace-bowling great Jason Gillespie - have worn the Baggy Green.
But the imbalance is slowly being redressed; almost 37,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders participated in cricket last summer, an increase of 40 per cent on the previous season, while eight Indigenous players (seven males and one female) are contracted at state level, and 10 in either the BBL or WBBL.
This month’s celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the 1866 Boxing Day clash is long overdue recognition of these pioneering Aboriginal players, superstar cricketers and men who used their sporting prowess to rise above the cruel punishment their people suffered at the time.
They may have lost the match inside two days, but the fact they were playing at all – viewed today with a 150 years of hindsight – is of far greater significance.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in cricket
• 36,900 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders participated in cricket in the 2015-16 cricket season. A 40% increase on 2014-15, and an increase of over 27000 in participants since 2013-14.
• 62 male and females playing first XI Premier Cricket across the country
• 8 state contracted played (seven male and one female)
• 7 BBL contracted players and three WBBL contracted players
• The 2017 National Indigenous Cricket Championships for both women and men will take place in Alice Springs from 6 – 13 February 2017
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