Unaarrimin, popularly known as Johnny Mullagh, is a true sporting legend — nowhere more so than in the Wimmera town of Harrow, where he enjoys hero status to this day. His feats made him one of Australia's first international cricketing stars.
Mullagh's high-profile success contrasted with the solitude by which he lived most of his life. An unassuming Wotjobaluk man, he rarely strayed from the Pine Hills and Mullagh stations, where he was born in 1841 and later worked as a shearer and groom. Mullagh Station afforded him the name by which he came to be known. He never married and had no children. What he did possess was a prodigious talent for cricket.
In station life, cricket was an equaliser among men. It was not uncommon for Aboriginal people to play alongside the settlers. From the moment he was introduced to the game, Mullagh showed great promise as an all rounder.
He was an obvious pick when an all-Aboriginal team was formed. The team participated in inter-station sports days, with the players' abilities quickly attracting outside interest. They trained on the banks of Lake Wallace near Edenhope, eventually under the guidance of Victoria's best cricketer of the day, T.W Wills, who came on to coach them in 1866.
Despite their early promise, the team faltered during a tour of Victoria and New South Wales in 1867. Though Mullagh's talents were undeniable, the tour had taken its toll on many of the players and the team seemed destined to disband.
Chances are they would have, were it not for Charles Lawrence, an Englishman and coach whose attention they had caught in Sydney. Charles knew how lucrative an international cricket tour could be — he had been a member of the first English squad to visit Victoria in 1861 — and saw an opportunity to organise the first tour to England by a team from Australia. He would captain it, but otherwise it was to be all-Aboriginal.
With the financial backing of two Sydney businessmen, the team set out for England in 1868. The squad consisted of Mullagh, Bullocky, Sundown Dick-a-Dick (Jungunjinanuke), Johnny Cuzens, King Cole (Bripumyarrimin), Red Cap, Twopenny, Charley Dumas, and Jimmy Mosquito.
People naturally dismissed the Aboriginal cricket team from the colonies as posing no threat in the nation that had invented the game. However they underestimated the natural abilities of the players, who, led by Mullagh, beat English teams with vastly more experience. They further won over the crowds with displays of traditional skills, such as boomerang throwing, after the matches.
Mullagh captured imaginations in both countries. His performance in the 45 matches he played during the tour is comparable to the best the game has ever seen. He made 1,698 runs and took 257 wickets. As if that were not enough, he was also the team's most successful wicketkeeper. One pace bowler who played against him declared that Mullagh was the finest batsmen he had ever seen.
The team returned to Australia triumphant. Mullagh played professionally with the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) but after one season he was feeling the call of his country and returned to the western Wimmera. He was joined in this decision by his teammate Johnny Cuzens, who had also made his mark during the tour of England and earned himself a place at MCC.
Mullagh was selected to play for Victoria against an All-England side in 1879, and played the 1884-85 season in an Adelaide competition as part of a Western District team. For the most part, however, it was the Harrow Club that benefited from his talents, right until the end of his life in 1891. Unsurprisingly, he dominated the batting and bowling averages at the club, and locals recalled how he would emerge from the bush and, with seemingly no practice, perform like a champion.
It should be noted that Mullagh's life was not free from the discrimination of the day, but he would rise above these instances with dignity, admonishing the perpetrators in his own quiet way. One example occurred during the tour of England, when Mullagh refused to take to the field after one of his teammates was denied service at a refreshment tent in York.
The inscription on Mullagh's tomb reads 'world famed cricketer' and despite a life lived largely in seclusion, that was what he was. His memory is treasured by those in Harrow, where new generations are brought up on his story at a dedicated museum. As a prodigious sporting talent, Mullagh's star remains undiminished — a reminder of the importance of role models and the value of sport.
Reviewed 29 September 2019