Early days of Australian cricket: Part I

No story of the early days of cricket in Australia would ever be complete without mention of the colourful indigenous cricketers, who formed an integral part of the cricket milieu in Australia in the old days.

Early days of Australian cricket: Part I
Updated: December 1, 2016 1:21 PM IST | Edited By: Devarchit Varma

Sunday, May 13, 1787, was to become an important date in history. Following Parliamentary deliberations, a convoy of 11 ships, later dubbed the First Fleet, left England on the journey to Australia to set up the first penal colony in the Antipodes. Commanded by Commodore Arthur Phillip, and consisting of two Royal Navy vessels, three store ships and 6 convict transports, carrying a human complement of between 1,000 and 1,500 convicts, marines, seamen, civil officers and free people (accounts differ on the numbers), and a vast quantity of stores, the Fleet sailed southwest to Rio de Janeiro, then east to Cape Town and via the Great Southern Ocean to Botany Bay, about 13 km away from what is now the Central Business District of Sydney, arriving over the period 18 to 20 January 1788, taking 250 to 252 days from departure to final arrival.

It is not known, of course, whether there were any cricketers among the convicts and their marine guards on the First Fleet. Governor Phillip's early letters and dispatches back to England were concerned with more important matters than the sporting activities of the new colony as it struggled to survive in a strange new land. It was a hard life at the beginning with back-breaking labour and hardly any opportunity for leisure. Recreation was probably not very high on the priority list of those intrepid early settlers. Although cricket was a fairly wide-spread and popular pastime in England by this time, it took a little longer to engage the attention of the motley group finding themselves in a strange land. But not for too long, and the first authenticated instance of cricket in the newly established habitation was to come soon enough.

The hop-on-hop-off city sightseeing bus wound its way through different parts of the sprawling metropolis of Sydney with a voice highlighting the main points of interest in the historic city. The bus arrived at an area known by the quaint name of The Domain. The narration suddenly caught the attention of the cricket history aficionado. When the bus arrived at an area known as Hyde Park (named after the famous London landmark to remind the new arrivals of Home), the narration related an interesting episode from history, to the effect that the very first cricket match had been played on Australian soilin that very area of the city.

It seems that an English vessel, the HMS Calcutta, had anchored at Sydney, coming via Melbourne, in December 1803, and that the sailors had come ashore for an impromptu game of cricket, details of which, however, are lost in the mists of time. There is, however, a reference to cricket being played in Sydney in the Sydney Gazette of January 8, 1804, in a brief paragraph that began:"The late intense weather has been very favourable to the amateurs of cricket who have scarce lost a day for the past month."

In the following years occasional references to cricket appeared in Sydney Gazette. These early games were played on a large tract of public land called Phillip's Common, part of which has survived as the present Domain and Hyde Park. By March 1826, there were several local cricket clubs in the Sydney area such as the Currency Cricket Club, the Military Cricket Club, and the Australian Cricket Club, and games began to be arranged at Hyde Park.

The first cricket game in Australia for which any sort of scorecard is available in the archives was played between the 17th Regiment and the 39th Regiment, in a one-day game on May 7, 1832 at Hyde Park Racecourse, Sydney. The 11-a side game was played with 4-ball overs, as was the custom in England at the time. The outcome of the toss is not known, but it is on record that the 39th Regiment had batted first and put up a total of 55. One Westbrook had top-scored with 20. The only other man in double-figures was opening batsman Hopewell with 12. For the 17th Regiment, Private Stafford had taken 5 wickets and Private Carnell 3.


The visitors had scored 47 with Privates Stafford and Carnell opening and scoring 12 and 6 respectively. One man named Gambler had taken 5 wickets and Hopewell 2. The home team s second innings had finished at 40, with 3 ducks, and one man, Hines, in double-figures (12). This time Carnell took 5 wickets, Stafford 2 and Webb 1.

The 17th Regiment had won the game by 5 wickets. Webb had remained not out on 18. History had been made and Australia, particularly Sydney, had been placed on the cricket map of the known world along with England, and later, Scotland.

There was another game played at the same venue, this time on June 18, 1832, between The Civilians and The Garrison. The Civilians had been shot out for 43, the sturdy Stafford picking up 3 wickets and the canny Carnell 6. The highest individual score had been 9 by Thomas Stubbs.

The Garrison had then scored 57, Turner scoring 19 and D Conn 11. Stubbs had been the star for the Civilians, picking up 9 wickets. The Civilians had then put up a total of 86, Francis Stephen top-scoring with 17. Needing 73, the Garrison had ended the day on 81 for 4, having batted on after the target had been achieved. Stafford had top scored with 26.

History tells us that voyages from The Mother Country to the far-flung Antipodes in those days were never complete without similar cricket matches being played against local opposition. Indeed, it is reported that some form of cricket equipment would invariably be part of the inventory of the ships going to the colonies, including items that would have been requested for from the outlying posts of the Empire. The gospel of cricket, therefore, was being propagated throughout these parts in right earnest.

In October of the same year we find some details of two one-day games played a fortnight apart between an Amateur Club and an Australian Club at the same Hyde Park Racecourse. One of the players in the second of these matches was Edward William Gregory, the patriarch of perhaps one of the most famous cricketing families of Australia; Edward s son Dave would later have the signal honour of leading the Australia out for the first ever Test, against a representative England team, at Melbourne in 1876-77. Syd, nephew of Dave, would put in many scintillating performances for Australia in later years, and do ample justice to his lineage.

In November 1838, five men met and formed the Melbourne Cricket Club; they were Frederick Powlett, R Russell, George Smyth and the brothers AM and CF Mundy. The first match under the auspices of the newly formed club was played on November 15, 1838 at the site of the Royal Mint. In 1839 the Club began playing cricket matches near the current site of Southern Cross railway station. Powlett was elected inaugural President in 1841. In his seminal work The Paddock That Grew, Keith Dunstan relates the fascinating story of how a bare patch of meadow was gradually metamorphosed into one of the most easily recognised cricket grounds in the world, Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), the home of the Melbourne Cricket Club.

The game of cricket spread steadily across the country along with the establishment of the settlements. With the setting up of an important outpost of the penal colony in Tasmania, and a military base for the management and control of the convicts, places like Oatlands in Tasmania gradually became large and well-populated habitations where cricket gradually became a well-loved pastime,and we find records of 5 cricket matches being played between January 1850 and April 1850 in Tasmania.

Ric Finlay, the noted cricket historian and statistician, relates how one of the early settlers in Tasmania, the Rev. Robert Knopwood, had made a diary entry over Christmas of 1814z of cricket being played in the area. It seems that cricket had become quite firmly entrenched among the local population of Hobart and Launceston by the 1820s. We find records of 5 cricket matches being played between January and April 1850 in Tasmania, including the first inter-state match between North and South, a one-day affair, at Oatlands on April 23.

In 1851 the first inter-colonial match was played at Launceston between the Gentlemen of Port Phillip (of the Melbourne area), and the Gentlemen of Van Diemen's Land, later to be known as Tasmania. The game, which is sometimes recorded in the archives as Tasmania versus Victoria (a rather exaggerated way of representing the reality) began on February 11, 1851 at the Launceston Cricket Club Ground, and was the first cricket match in Australia to be accorded First-Class status.

It must be mentioned here that a common feature of these early games in Australia, as, indeed, in England in the infancy of the game, was the rather low-scoring, the ball usually being in the ascendancy rather than the bat. The art of preparing a good pitch and outfield was largely unknown at the time, and the sportsmen of the days gone by were usually satisfied with a bit of grassland just about levelled out. The breed of efficient curators of the turf would come much later to cricket.

The earliest First-Class match played on the mainland of Australia appears to be the game between Victoria and a visiting Tasmania team at Emerald Hill, Melbourne, in March 1852. It was fairly well-attended for the times: the match notes speak of an attendance of 2,000 for the first day and 500 for the second. Victoria had batted first and had put up 80 despite openers Thomas Hamilton (42) and Henry Foot (20) getting them off to an excellent start. Hamilton was run out for the same score in the second innings, providing an interesting early instance of a man being dismissed for identical scores in both innings of a First-Class game.

Victoria fielded the brothers Edward and Malwyn a Beckett (whose grandnephew Ted a Beckett would later play 4 Tests for Australia and perform wonderful all-round feats for Victoria). William Henty, one of three cricketing brothers, took 6 for 40, and Henry Lette 3 for 31.

The Tasmania first innings ended at 65. John Tabart top-scored with 20, while Frederick Powlett (later to lead Victoria with distinction) took 4 for 13 and Thomas Hamilton 3 for 29.

The Victoria second innings ended on 127 with Hamilton being run out for 42 (as mentioned above) and Powlett scoring 33. Henty and Lette captured 4 wickets each. Tasmania were dismissed for 81, Hamilton again playing a big role by capturing 5 for 27. Victoria won by 61 runs.

The only First-Class game of 1853-54 was the return game between Tasmania and Victoria, played at Launceston this time, in March. It was an act of redemption of sorts for Tasmania, who managed to avenge their defeat against the same opponents two years ago by winning the game by 8 wickets on home turf.

It was on a Wednesday, March 26, 1856, that the first clash was recorded between the traditional Titans of Australian cricket, Victoria and New South Wales (NSW). Originally billed as timeless, the low-scoring game was completed on the next day at MCG.

Victoria batted first, but the total amounted to a mere 63 with only John Mather (16) and Philip Kington (12*) reaching double-figures. NSW used only two bowlers: George Gilbert, cousin of the Graces, captured 4 for 34, while John McKone took 5 for 25.

NSW could score only 76 despite 13 extras including 9 wides. There were two individual scores of 18, from Richard Driver and John McKone (not out). Gideon Elliott took 7 for 25 and Richard Coulstock 3 for 30. The Victoria second-innings total was a sorry 28, skipper William Philpott scoring 11 of them. The wickets were shared by McKone (5 for 11) and Richard Murray (3 for 16). Needing only 17 to win the game, NSW lost 7 wickets in the process, with 4 individual ducks.

The return game was played in the next season at the Domain, Sydney, in January 1857. There was no toss made, and NSW were allowed first strike by agreement. Their first-innings total was 80 despite a second-wicket stand of 32 between William Rees (28), another cousin of the Graces and born in Wales and wicketkeeper Henry Hilliard (20). Tom Wills picked up 6 for 25 and skipper William Hammersley 2 for 7.

Victoria replied with 63, one of the victims being Edward a Beckett who sprained his ankle in the process and was substituted in the field by his brother Malwyn during the second innings. James Bryant scored 23, while Oswald Lewis took 4 for 13.

The home second innings ended on 86. Skipper George Gilbert top-scored with 31. Wills added 4 more wickets to his match tally, making it 10 wickets for the game and Gideon Elliott took 4 for 19. Needing 104 to win the game, Victoria were dismissed for 38. Edward Ward took 5 for 15 and the above-mentioned Lewis 4 for 21.

NSW won by 65 runs. The archives of the State Library of New South Wales add the interesting morsel of information that NSW won the game: In the face of some hostile round-arm bowling and despite some of the home team taking the unusual step of discarding their boots and playing in bare feet.

No story of the early days of cricket in Australia would ever be complete without mention of the colourful indigenous cricketers, who formed an integral part of the cricket milieu in Australia in the old days. Here is what an official website of the Australian Government has to say about them: Cricket was popular at several Aboriginal mission stations across the colonies in the 1870s, including: Coranderrk and Edenhope in Victoria, Deebing Creek in Queensland and Poonindie in South Australia (SA). In Western Australia (WA), an Aboriginal team from New Norcia where the game was introduced by Bishop Salvado and encouraged by the missionaries as a 'civilizing' process became a leading team in the West. However, it was the Aboriginal cricket players from western Victoria who were the nucleus of the 13-member tour of England in 1868. It is worth mentioning here that the very first cricket team from Australia to tour England for a series of games were all of indigenous origin.

In 1858, there is recorded evidence of 3 games taking place involving Victoria, NSW and Tasmania, the games being distributed over the three centres. An interesting First-Class record was established in the third game between Tasmania and Victoria played at Hobart in March 1858. Although Victoria won this match by 69 runs, it was a Tasmanian who created waves with his bowling performances.

Tasmania skipper William Brown, who played only this one First-Class match in his life, captured 7 for 42 in the Victoria first innings of 78. Brown then did an encore by capturing 8 for 31 in the VIC 2nd innings of 67 all out. In his expert analysis of the situations where a bowler had taken 15 wickets in a First-Class game, renowned statistician Andrew Samson makes the following observation: On Day 1 (4 Mar/1858), William Brown (TAS): 13 (x 4)-0-42-7 & 10 (x 4)-1-31-8 15 wickets off 92 deliveries till date, the fewest deliveries anyone has taken to capture 15 wickets in a match.This amazing record has been in force for the last 158 years, and is an astounding performance for a person who has played only 1 First-Class game.

There was only one game in 1858-59, between NSW and Victoria, at Sydney, played in January. Victoria won by 2 wickets, and there were some sterling bowling performances from both teams. For Victoria, skipper Wills had figures of 30-17-24-5 and 24-10-25-6, For NSW, the star bowling performance of the match was from Edward Ward, who had figures of 20-10-24-6 and 29-11-33-4. The attendance for the match was given as 8,000, 8,000, and 10,000 over the three days, a total of 26,000 spectators in all. Things were looking up in Australian domestic cricket.

An interesting side-light of the NSW vs Victoria match at Sydney in March 1869 had to do with the NSW skipper-cum-wicketkeeper Richard Hewitt, who saw it fit to forsake his wicketkeeping gear in both innings to bowl and to capture 3 for 5 and 2 for 38. Nat Thomson, who played 2 Tests for Australia, was prevailed upon to keep wickets in the first innings, making a very creditable stumping in the process. Having captured the wickets of the first two batsmen in the second innings Hewitt went on to hold 3 catches behind the stumps. Hewitt provided the first instance of a designated wicketkeeper taking off his pads to take wickets in both innings.

(Pradip Dhole is a retired medical practitioner with a life-long interest in cricket history and statistics)