THEY were sporting heroes, brothers and trailblazers for their nation and culture.
Yet in death, they warranted not a memorial, or even a headstone to mark their graves.
Their fame was fleeting, like their deeds. Their names, which were not even their own, faded into obscurity.
Yellenach and Grongarrong, as they were known to their mobs, are believed to lie at rest on country at Framlingham in undisclosed graves.
In the white man’s world, they were Jimmy ‘Mosquito’ Couzens and Johnny Cuzens, two members of the first Indigenous Australian cricket team and incredibly, whose 1868 UK tour was the first by any Australian sporting team overseas.
Now, more than 150 years later, a new television documentary aims to shine a light on the largely untold story of these 13 cricketing pioneers.
Commissioned by Cricket Australia, Walkabout Wickets traces the journey of the First XI alongside that of their contemporaries, the 2018 Australian Indigenous men’s and women’s squads who followed in their footsteps on the 150th anniversary commemorative UK tour.
The documentary will screen on Prime 7 at 1.30pm Saturday, ahead of an indigenous-themed Big Bash clash between the Perth Scorchers and the Adelaide Strikers in Adelaide.
For Warrnambool’s Fiona Clarke and Ashley Couzens, the documentary represents a significant step in achieving due recognition not just for their ancestors Mosquito and Cuzens, but all their teammates in the historic squad.
“These guys were our first sporting heroes and they deserve to be recognised,” Mr Couzens says. “It’s a national Australian sporting story and a very powerful one.”
As a male who carries the Couzens family name, the Kirrae Whurrong Gunditjmara man proudly bears the responsibility of honouring the memory of his ancestors and keeping alive their story for future generations and the wider community.
“As a Couzens family, we try and honour these men as part of our cultural responsibilities through everyday life. We need to teach young ones about the story so they can draw some inspiration from it.”
The great-great-great grandson of Yellanach, Mr Couzens says it wasn’t until he grew older that he realised the power and spirituality of the story.
“It’s not just about our family or our community. It should be something that all Australians are proud of,” Another Indigenous district cricketer, Harry Rose, an ancestor of boxing champion Lionel Rose is also said to have been a member of the First XI, but didn’t tour the UK.
It’s a national Australian sporting story and a very powerful one.Ashley Couzens
Already immensely proud of her great-great-grandfather Mosquito and her great-great-grand uncle Johnny Cuzens, it was through her art that Ms Clarke has strengthened her spiritual bonds with her ancestors.
Her design, ‘Walkabout Wickets’, from which the documentary takes its name, has become a lasting symbol of the Indigenous cricket story after first being selected for the 2016 Boxing Day Test commemorating the 1866 First XI versus MCC side, and last year’s 1868 UK commemorative tour.
“It means a real lot to me, more than a lot, to see my work out there on the cricket field and the players. It’s like winning first prize really,” the keen cricket fan says.
“I am so over the moon and proud of everything it’s done for myself as an artist and for the cricket society and to know how much it went around the globe.”
The artwork, which features on uniforms, stumps, cricket balls and a gigantic 12-by-12 metre silk banner, represents past, present and future cricketers.
“The circles are meeting places and represent where the players meet and where they’ll go. The wickets in the middle have been flung down, there are no stumps, the player is already out and so the game moves on,” Ms Clarke explains.
“I hope it can help lift the profile of our cricketers and open up opportunities in the future.”
Ms Clarke and Mr Couzens feature in the documentary alongside other First XI descendants filmed at Harrow meeting members of the Indigenous men’s and women’s teams ahead of last year’s commemorative tour.
Each of the 13-strong men’s squad represented one of the original players with Victoria’s Boland brothers, Scott and Nick, representing Cuzens and Mosquito respectively.
Like their more celebrated captain Johnny Mullagh (Unaarrimin) and the other members of the first indigenous team, the Couzens brothers were station hands, introduced to the game by stockmen working around the West Wimmera.
Many were given more easily pronounceable English names, after local properties or prominent residents, by their white bosses. A misspelling led to different versions of the brothers’ surname.
Harrow, which became the training base for the team, and ultimately the final resting place for the star all-rounder Mullagh, today embraces its indigenous cricket history with the Harrow Discovery Centre and Johnny Mullagh Interpretive Centre.
Under the leadership of their coach, former English cricketer Tom Wills, later replaced by William Lawrence, the First XI played regional sides in Victoria and New South Wales before its 1868 history-making tour of England.
On one outing, the team spent eight days travelling by horse-drawn wagon from Lake Wallace to Warrnambool. Arriving on September 24, 1867, the players stayed at the Victoria Hotel before soundly thrashing a local side by an innings and 97 runs.
They were a colourful sight on the field. Dressed in white flannel trousers, red military shirts with a blue sash, blue belts and ties, they wore different coloured caps to help identify them.
Johnny Cuzens was said to have been “the Jeff Thomson of his day”. The quickest of the First XI bowlers, according to Ashley Couzens, he had “a stare-down like no other” and excelled at foot running.
Mosquito was a specialist batsman and could perform impressive feats with a stockwhip.
With news that the Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines was lobbying the Victorian Government to block the team’s proposed UK tour, they were “smuggled” out of Melbourne by boat to embark from Sydney instead.
During a gruelling six-month tour of England, the First XI proved to be not just a colonial curiosity, but a talented group of skilled athletes. Against intermediate-level English amateur teams, they managed 14 wins, 14 losses and 19 draws, with displays of boomerang and spear throwing also a hit with spectators.
Sadly, one player, King Cole, (Bripumyarramin) died midway through the tour from tuberculosis and pneumonia and at least three others died within five years after the tour. Most returned to their station jobs and only Johnny Mullagh and Johnny Cuzens continued their cricketing careers.
Last year’s representative team did the pioneers proud, winning five of its six matches against sides that had defeated the First XI. The women’s side won one of its four matches.
Cricket Australia community diversity and inclusion manager Adam Cassidy said the organisation was committed to continuing the legacy of the First XI and hoped the documentary would help lift the profile of their story.
The story forms the basis of a Year 9 Aboriginal History unit which he is optimistic will be adopted by an increasing number of Victorian schools.
Ashley Couzens performed a smoking ceremony last year at Harrow’s Unaarrimin Lake where Johnny Mullagh died, aged 50 in 1891, one he described as “a spiritual experience.”
He hopes one day that the final resting places and the story of Mosquito, Johnny Cuzens and their teammates will also be recognised in the same way.
Have you signed up to The Standard's daily newsletter and breaking news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in the south-west.