Drunken entertainment: The roots of Australian cricket

Originally published December 15, 2015 at The Roar

One of the big laments of the modern ‘traditionalist’ is how much of the game has been lost to the entertainment industry and the role that alcohol – both in terms of culture and sponsorship – has on the game. But is this a fair call?

To better understand this, I decided to look into the First Tour. Not the first Ashes, of 1877, but the first time a team of Englishmen made the 38,000-kilometre round-trip to these lands to play a game of cricket.

A company had been set up to facilitate the tour, but couldn’t organise the funding, and was soon sued into bankruptcy. Enter theatre promoter George Seth Coppin – comic actor, serial fortune maker and loser, and original importer of white swans to Australia. Coppin suggested to local hoteliers Felix Spiers and Nicholas Pond that, following their rejection by Charles Dickens to come on a speaking tour, they engage the English cricket team to come on tour to promote their various hotels.

Most notorious among these was Spier’s Theatre Royal Hotel, described in The Argus as a den of “disorderly conduct… suffering prostitutes and other persons of notorious bad character”, and Café de Paris, favourite of the rich and famous of the entertainment set. Both were in Bourke Street and are long gone today.

Thomas Wentworth Wills, described as the “WG Grace of Australian cricket”, made the trip to England and organised a North versus South match from which to pick the best English professional cricketers to tour Australia. After the game, the idea was pitched to the players, and they were offered £150 a man (about $25,000 in today’s money), plus expenses, for the six-month tour.

George Parr, captain of the North and All England teams, called the sum “chicken feed” and all the Northerners walked out on the idea, better able to make a buck playing for the professional teams of England’s booming industrial north. So a team of men drawn from various clubs in southern England left on the steamer Great Britain on October 18, 1861.

They arrived Christmas Eve of that year, greeted by a raucous crowd of 10,000 at the docks in Melbourne, followed by a parade up Bourke Street. Pictures from the time see the streets full of people – many, no doubt, partaking in a whistle-wetting at one of the promoters’ venues.

A hastily erected grandstand for 6000 was filled to the brim, with an additional 10,000 punters, ladies in hoop skirts, and men in top hats, filling the space around the ‘Richmond Paddock’ (now known as the MCG).

Advertising was everywhere – everything from the hotels of Spiers and Pond, to the Canada Hotel on Swanston Street (which you can still visit), to former Victorian Captain George Marshall’s Cricketers Arms hotel, to J. Castle’s Brian Boru hotel in Bendigo. The full range of pubs were sponsoring cricket. There was also promotion for land sales in Western Victoria, yet another contemporary similarity.

Many more people enjoyed the activities around the ground; musicians playing hurdy-gurdies, gambling dens (there was a £100 sweep on offer for highest individual score), shooting galleries, and one enterprising painter renting out his ladder to help get you into a tree to watch the match.

The game was ‘against the odds’, as many games were at the time. This meant rather than being 11 a side, one side had 11, and the other had enough players to balance out the uneven abilities. This was, after all, the finest professional cricketers from (half of) England, playing a bunch of roustabout colonial labourers, professionals and publicans.

Victoria were initially to field 22 men, but a complaint from the tourists about the arduous nature of the travel meant a compromise of 18 Victorians took the field. Local reporters of the time accused the English of “showing the white feather”; again, not a lot has changed in some aspects of the game.

The teams took to the field in helmets; not to protect their noggins from the bouncer, but from the blistering Australian sun, fierce even in the days of the ozone layer. Billy Caffyn of England bowled the first ball to Victorian captain Jerry Bryant – owner of the Parade Hotel, where Australian Rules Football was invented (now the big yellow building across from Jolimont station being demolished for apartments; the planning department don’t seem to be ‘traditionalists’).

Bryant top-scored for Victoria, with 27, the Vics all out for 118, including six ducks among the 18 batsmen. George Bennett and George Griffith both took seven wickets apiece. The English response was total; all out for 305, Caffyn top scoring with 79.

The second innings was even more disastrous for the colonials, this time having 11 ducks among their score of 92, meaning it took only 10 English wickets to beat the 34 of the Victorians. The wickets were better shared in the second innings, but Tom Sewell still managed to take 7-20.

The game was over in four days, with a total crowd attendance of 45,000 paying customers – more than covering the cost of the entire tour. The English would go on to win six further games in the colonies, with four draws and two losses; one to the 22 from Castlemaine (major mining boom town, not the sleepy village it is now), the other to a Victorian-NSW combined 22.

The proudest moment for Australian cricket came when the English players all agreed that the MCG was of a standard unrivalled in their homeland.

So international cricket in Australia began as a professional entertainment enterprise to sell booze, surrounded by gambling. It seems not much has changed, with the exception of the hindsight of the purists, and the quality of Australian cricketers.

As English batsman Roger Iddison put it, “Well, I don’t think much of their play, but they’re a fine lot of drinkin’ men.”

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