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Johnny ‘Unaarrimin’ Mullagh — the greatest Aboriginal cricketer of his day

Johnny Mullagh was the greatest aboriginal cricketer of his day and the hero of the famed 1868 tour of England © Wikimedia commons
Johnny Mullagh was the greatest aboriginal cricketer of his day and the hero of the famed 1868 tour of England © Wikimedia commons

Unaarrimin, also known as Johnny Mullagh, born August 13, 1841, was the greatest Aboriginal cricketer of his day and the hero of the famed 1868 tour of England. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of this magnificent athlete.

What’s in a name?

England, 1868. It was a relief for the cricket scorers that the Aboriginal cricketers who visited the land that summer could be identified by easy English sobriquets. Else names like Murrumgunarrimin, Unaarrimin,  Brimbunyah, Jungunjinanuke, Ballrinjarrimin, Grougarrong, Jallachmurrimin, Bripokkeiand Pripumuarraman could have been quite a handful for the scorebooks.

But thankfully, back in Australia, the pastoral landlords of these excellent men had stuttered and stumbled over their indigenous names and had bestowed English counterparts – some of them not too flattering.

Thus Murrumgunarrimin – the man with flowing stresses and a slinging bowling action, who revelled at agricultural slogs down the order and was a champion with the boomerang – was given the name Two penny. The denomination might have been kept down to a mere two, but this fascinating hitter once struck the ball far enough to run nine in a match against Sheffield at Brammall Lane.

Brimbunyah, the slow medium bowler, was named Redcap. Jungunjinanuke, who could dodge balls hurled at him from ten paces, became Dick-a-Dick. The expert stock-whip Grouggarong was called Johnny Mosquito. Ballrinjarrimin, the man who ended with only one run in any form of cricket, responded to Sundown. Jallachmurrimin’s alias Jim Crow was frequently used as a counterpart of John Doe for Aboriginals. At least two Jim Crows were known to the police around that time and neither was the cricketer.

However, some other names were relatively decent. Pripumuarraman, another boomerang master, was called Charley Dumas. Bripokkei, the unfortunate cricketer who died of illness during the tour, went by King Cole. And Unaarrimin, the best player of the side and often referred to as the WG Grace of the Aboriginals, was named Johnny Mullagh.

Mullagh, a superb all-rounder, was by far the most successful cricketer on that 1868 tour – a famous voyage which saw the Aboriginals surprise everyone by winning 14 of their matches while losing 14 and drawing 19. He played all the 47 matches, scored 1698 runs at 23.65 on often treacherous tracks, and captured 245 wickets at 10 apiece. He also kept wickets once in a while, affecting four stumpings in the process.

The sheep shearer

Born on August 13, 1841, Mullagh was a member of the Jardwadjali tribe. He saw the light of the day 16 kilometres north of Harrow, Victoria. It was while working in the agricultural lands of the neighbouring Pine Hills that he picked up the sport, running to bowl right arm, fast and straight, while batting right handed with considerable style. He transferred from Pine Hills after a while and went to work for John Fitzgerald at the nearby Mullagh Sheep Station as a skilled shearer. Till then he had been known as Black Johnny. His workplace gave him the name Johnny Mullagh.

During that period, the Stations played a great role in promoting the game. Initially the Aboriginal workers made up the numbers and retrieved big hits during the matches on Saturday, but soon their skills were apparent. At Bringalbert, Thomas Gibson Hamilton began coaching indigenous workers. John Fitzgerald did the same at Mullagh.

At the same time, William Hayman was busy setting up the Edenhope Cricket Club.  Two of the founding members went on to become members of the1868 – Arrahmunyharrimin, otherwise known as Peter,  and Bullchanach  going by the more portable name Bullocky. Legendary all-round sportsman Tom Wills – the man instrumental in establishing Australian Rules Football as well as being a leading figure of cricket – became the coach at the club.

The Aboriginal side

By 1865, cricket was so popular among the Aboriginals that a match was arranged between them and the Europeans. It was played on a rough ground near the Bringalbert woolshed, and was won by the Aboriginals. Mullagh was one of the stars of the side.

The victory excited both Tom Hamilton and William Hayman, and soon arrangements were made for the Aboriginals to train together on the shores of Lake Wallace at Edenhope. In those scenic surroundings the talent blossomed. The recent influence of James Edgar saw the men to try the exciting art of over arm bowling.  A few adjustments to batting technique saw them beat the Edenhope and Hamilton club sides in 1866.

In the second match, the Aborigines scored 64 and 52 while Hamilton was bowled out for 36 and 30. Mullagh captured five second innings wickets, with his arm slightly higher than the shoulder as he sent down his deliveries. After this match, a sideshow of athletic events was held, as was the custom of the day. Mullagh was once again the star, clearing the high jump bar at five feet and three inches, and throwing the cricket ball 110 yards.

Soon, Charles Officer of the Mount Talbot Station challenged the side to play against his favourite team, the vaunted Upper Glenelg club. The inexperienced cricketers lost the match by nine wickets, but Mullagh top scored with 31, displaying his immense skills yet again . By August of the year, Tom Wills was coaching the exotic set of cricketers.

A match was set up with the Melbourne Cricket Club in late October, but had to be postponed to Boxing Day since Mullagh and others were required to be present for sheep shearing at their respective stations. When the big day arrived, the Aboriginals matched the MCC in bowling and exceeded them in fleet-footed athletic fielding, but were found short in the batting department. The exception was Mullagh with his straight bat, cool head and classy technique.

In 1867, Mullagh was selected for Victoria but had to withdraw because of circumstances compounded with injury. Bullocky took his place. Unfortunately as things turned out., Mullagh did not play for the colony again till 1879.

However, more interesting things were stirring in the antipodes.

The tour of England

The Boxing Day showdown had tickled the interest of one dubious character – Captain WEB Gurnett, or WE Broughton-Gurnett, as he often called himself. He approached Hayman and Wills with a plan of taking the Aboriginals on a tour to Sydney, and following that England.

Gurnett turned out to be a fraud, with the sole aim of cashing in on the model perfected by HH Stephenson and George Parr. Hayman and Wills did not get a farthing out of him. However, the team did travel to Sydney and came across Charles Lawrence when they stayed at his hotel at Manly. Lawrence, a veteran Surrey cricketer who had represented England, had charm, charisma and acumen. He immediately made an impression on the cricketers and spotted an opportunity for making big money. Within a few months he had replaced Tom Wills and established himself as the coach and captain of the Aboriginals. He trained them on the shores of Lake Wallace and the party soon embarked on the tour of England during the summer of 1868.

Just before leaving for the tour, the Aboriginals played Army and Navy at Redfern. The Duke of Edinburgh, having driven his four horse cart to the ground, witnessed the action. Mullagh scored 39 and then came within three inches of the high jump world record by clearing five feet seven inches.

The tour, as mentioned, was a story of fairytale success for Mullagh. He took wickets and scored runs with uncanny regularity. He started by bowling his team to a win against Lewisham with six for 24, and followed it up by scoring a superb 75 against a strong MCC side. Fred Gale, who played against him and later became a celebrated cricket writer as ‘The Old Buffer’, wrote that in the opinion of many judges Mullagh was good enough to play for the Players against the Gentlemen.

Some of the many highlights included six for 84 and 41 against East Lancashire, 11 for 81 against the Gentlemen of Rochdale, six for 17 against South Wales, 55 against Bradford, six for 23 against Lincoln and nine for 58 against Vulcan United. He also nearly knocked off a man’s head under the straw hat while demonstrating his boomerang skills during the Bradford match. However, Mullagh’s peak performance was perhaps against Bootle near Liverpool when he scored 51 and 78 while taking seven for 32 and four for 17 to singlehandedly defeat the opponents by 154 runs.

Towards the end of the tour, the Aborigines tasted their biggest victory by scoring 284 against Reading before bowling them out for 32 and 34. Mullagh captured eight for nine before walking out to hit 94.

He was the undisputed hero of the tour.

Somewhat like Ranji and Sachin

According to Ashley Mallett’s analysis Mullagh was said to possess the understated subtle power later seen in the Indian masters like KS Ranjitsinhji and Sachin Tendulkar. He was graceful, wristy, with neat deflections, delicate cuts and glides, and the occasional superbly timed cover drive.

Among the Aborigines, he was the only batsman with the patience needed to excel in batsmanship and often despaired of the impetuousness of his colleagues.  Gale wrote that he played forward with a bat as straight as Fuller Pilch, and could negotiate the shooter with panache, without being a ‘potato digger’. Additionally, again according to Gale, Mullagh was intelligent – an attribute not universal in the team.

His bowling was straight and fast, round arm, deadly accurate, miserly. While following through, he moved swiftly towards the batsman, much in the style of WG Grace. It was an intimidatory ploy which got him plenty of caught and bowled victims.

Mullagh also had a penchant for throwing down the batsman’s stumps if he advanced down the wicket after hitting the ball. He was a magnificent fielder, resembling his teammates in this aspect, and could keep wickets as well.

What distinguished him from the others in the team was the intensity with which he played. While the rest of the sidetended to be happy go lucky, Mullagh was a professional well ahead of his times.

Off the field, he was a calm, confident man with one glaring Achilles heel. Torn between two cultures, Mullagh idolised British women. He collected photographs and pictures of English ladies and looked at them adoringly during spare hours. He never married. His secret sorrow was confided to Tom Hamilton – ‘a white woman won’t have me … and I will never have a black one.’

The later career

On return to Australia Mullagh joined the Melbourne Cricket Club as a professional. However, he played just six matches before returning to Harrow due to largely unknown reasons. In the eight innings that he batted in during these matches, Mullagh scored 209 runs and also picked up eight wickets. He was selected for Victoria in 1870-71, but since he did not report to the management, his name was scrapped.

However, he continued to make runs for Harrow and was selected for Victoria against Lord Harris’s England side in 1879. By that time he was 38. The Age was vocal in slamming the selectors, but he top scored in the second innings with 36. The runs were scored in the usual artistic style, with sound defence and lovely drives. Lancashire opener AN Monkey Hornby was impressed enough to present him with a bat after the match. The Australian crowd raised £50 for him in a spontaneous collection.

Yet, Mullagh was never again picked for Victoria. He worked as a shearer in Penola, and played for Harrow. In 1884-85, well over 43, he visited Adelaide with a combined club team and scored a composed 43 not out against George Giffen.

Last days

A passionately independent man, Mullagh had once taken a stance against discrimination at a game in Apsley. He had been referred to as a ‘nigger’ and the captain had said that he could have dinner in the kitchen. In protest, Mullagh had sat outside the team hotel. Later in life, he refused to dwell in the state-controlled reserves for Aboriginals, spending his last days in a rabbiter’s shack

He played cricket right up to a few months before his death in 1891 – which took place a day after his 50th birthday. The spot in Pine Hills where his body was found is still known ‘Johnny’s Dam’. The Hamilton Spectator – an old paper from his times still in circulation in 2001 – raised funds to establish Harrow’s Mullagh Oval. The ground hosts an annual match between a Victorian Aboriginal side and a local Glenelg XI. They vie for the Johnny Mullagh memorial trophy.

In February 2012, Mullagh became one of the 20 inaugural inductees into The Victorian Indigenous Honour Roll.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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