In 1868, the first Australian cricket team toured England, playing 47 matches, including one at Lord's against the MCC. But this was not a team of white colonists; apart from the captain, Charles Lawrence, all its members were Aborigines. They acquitted themselves well, winning as many matches as they lost.
Though the tour was virtually ignored by the English press, it attracted crowds of several thousands and only a few matches made a financial loss (though that is hardly surprising when you consider the players got nothing except board and lodging). Whether people turned up to watch the cricket is another matter. The Aborigines were treated as curiosities, and put on displays of their native athletic skills before and after the matches. One player travelled with 15 boomerangs; another could run 100 yards backwards in 14 seconds; a third challenged people to stand ten paces away and throw a cricket ball at him (he was hit only once, and that a glancing blow on the shoulder, during the entire tour of England).
All this, along with the very idea of a team being selected along racial lines, may seem shocking to us. But in those days, it was not unusual for cricket matches to be accompanied by athletics events. Whatever is now dreamt up by the marketing people - the 20-overs-a-side match being the latest wheeze - will not be more exotic than the gimmicks tried by cricket's promoters in the 19th century. Matches sometimes proceeded with stumps three or four times the normal size. Even the coloured clothing now customary at one-day matches is not so very new; on their 1868 tour, the Aborigines wore different coloured sashes to identify them individually.
There were a few racial incidents on the tour, including (predictably) an unpleasant fuss in Yorkshire about whether the players had been invited to lunch. But this book is a useful reminder that the deep-seated racism of the Victorians was often well-intentioned. One player, arrested for drunkenly assaulting a policeman in Sheffield, was let off lightly by the magistrates on account of his "weak intellect". Victoria's Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines tried to stop the tour going ahead at all, expressing concern about the players' mercenary exploitation, and the team had to be smuggled out of Australia in secret.
But racism is racism and has vicious consequences, whatever the intentions. Mallett conveys the pleasure and excitement that the 1868 tour brought to players and spectators alike (not to mention its sponsors, with their handsome profits). It is a sad, even tragic book, nevertheless. There would be no more Aboriginal tours. With the ostensible aim of protecting the native population, the colonial governments of Australia were soon to turn full-blooded Aborigines into virtual prisoners on their reservations. Of many in the 1868 team, there is no record after their return to Australia; of those Mallett could trace, not one survived into the 20th century. The most shocking, and riveting, part of this book recalls how some very good Aboriginal cricketers - usually fast bowlers who could be branded as "chuckers" - were driven out of first-class cricket until as late as the 1930s.
Mallett was a very good Australian Test match off-spinner whose bowling was always what the commentators call tidy. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for this book, despite the author's infectious enthusiasm for his subject and his manifest abhorrence of Australia's treatment of its Aboriginal population. Repetitions are legion, the chronology uncertain, the sentence structures erratic, and someone should have explained to the author that Bury St Edmunds is in Suffolk, not Norfolk, and that the church with the crooked spire is in Chesterfield, not Derby.