We begin our look into the Ashes Archives
It’s a contest that remains unmatched for history, hunger and of course, villains
With this winter’s Ashes looming, Paul Edwards kicks off his new weekly series looking at the best tours of years gone by. But first up, just what is it that makes the battle for the Urn such a special and deep-rooted rivalry?
On November 23, the team currently occupying fifth position in the ICC Test rankings will begin a five-match home series against the third-placed side.Yet the games will attract interest beyond the two countries directly involved in them. There will be no need for hyperbole but no shortage of it either. Indeed, the hype began 135 years ago and pre-dated the creation of the trophy being contested.
That trophy, incidentally, is a little over four inches high and contains the burned remains of something, although no one’s quite sure what. And the contest is symbolic; the terracotta Urn containing these cinders is never handed to the winners, who have to make do with facsimiles, beer and ballyhoo.
In the moment of triumph, though, symbolism is sufficient. For the cricketers of England and Australia, winning an Ashes series is one of the best moments of their careers; a justification for the sacrifices and the hard work. An IPL contract may be worth more money, but you cannot place a price on the Ashes.
If asked why they attach such importance to the series, players will probably invoke the history of the rivalry or the maintenance of a tradition which mattered to their parents. They may also point out that the greatest English and Australian cricketers have always proved themselves in Ashes series. Now it is their turn. “Pass the parcel,” says Hector at the end of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, “Take it, feel it and pass it on… That’s the game I wanted you to learn. Pass it on.”
Which is all very admirable, except that the parcel in this case began as journalistic mockery and even its material creation is of uncertain origin. Moreover, even when the priceless Urn had been presented for the first of only two occasions on which it has physically changed hands, few people made any reference to it for 20 years until the England captain, Pelham Warner, entitled his book on the 1903-4 tour, How
We Recovered The Ashes. Wisden’s first reference to the Urn appeared in 1926.
But a brief investigation into the origin of the Ashes offers suggestions as to why they maintain their power. Two days after Australia’s seven-run defeat of England on August 29, 1882, the magazine Cricket published a mock obituary “Sacred to the Memory of England’s Supremacy in the Cricket Field which expired… at The Oval”. Two days later still, Reginald Brooks did the job rather better in the Sporting Times: “In affectionate remembrance of English cricket,” began the famous black-edged notice, “which died at The Oval on 29th August 1882…The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”
As yet there was no upper-case ‘A’ needed when referring to what was, after all, imaginary soot but there is an awareness of the inflated importance England attached to its cricket and a pleasing capacity to satirise it. However, in a less famous piece of journalism the Australasian greeted the victory in an equally revealing fashion: August 29 would always be memorable to Australians, it declared, “for upon that day their countrymen achieved the object of their ambition and in a friendly contest with the flower of England’s cricketers gained a victory for the Southern Cross.”
Friendly? Up to a point, Lord Copper. An England side toured Australia in the winter immediately following their defeat and Gideon Haigh relates that the Lancashire opener, Richard Barlow, accused the fast bowler Fred Spofforth of “unlawfully putting spikes in his boots to cut up the turf”. The response, according to the
Sydney Sportsman, was “a blow which knocked Barlow over the seat”. Beat that with a stick, Ben Stokes. (Actually, please don’t. You may already be in enough bother.)
That 1882-3 series, of course, was famous for more than punch-ups. The England captain, the Hon. Ivo Bligh, had pledged he would bring back ‘the Ashes’, an impressive feat given that none existed, but Bligh was probably a better publicist than a cricketer. Responding to his vow, some young ladies, very probably in Sunbury, Victoria, burned a bail or stump or something else and presented Bligh with his grail. There are four accounts of this particular business, but what nobody doubts is that the Urn, which was placed in a velvet bag, remained in Bligh’s possession until his death in 1927, when his widow gave it to MCC.
And at Lord’s it has almost always remained. Citing its fragility, MCC has only allowed the Urn to travel to Australia twice, first for the Bicentenary Test in 1988, when the Ashes were not at stake, and then for the 2006-07 series when it was displayed in various museums around the country. England lost the series 5-0, but the Ashes came back to St John’s Wood, where their image continues to be milked with cultivated shamelessness. One can, for instance, buy Ashes socks (£15), tie (£25), fridge magnet (£6) and cufflinks (£37). As a smirking Arthur Daley might observe, it has been “a nice little urner”.
But the power of the Ashes has never been dependent on their physical presence; their symbolism has been more than enough to ensure the rivalry has flared with the fierce persistence of an oil well fire. Some have argued the antagonism derives from the fact Australia has been a relatively young country with correspondingly little history, albeit much of it is sporting, being pitted against former masters with archives to burn.
Australians, so it is thought, want to beat England with a passion their opponents have not matched. Thus they have won 140 of the 341 Tests played between the countries against England’s 108. “The margin of superiority is slight, but it is consistent, and therefore calls for explanation,” wrote the philosopher, David Stove, in 1977. “My own belief is that it is due to a difference in attitude towards the opponent: that whereas the Australians hate the Poms, the Poms only despise the Australians.” Gideon Haigh’s analysis of his country’s 5-0 whitewash in 2013-4 mined a comparable seam. “I suspect what we saw [after the Brisbane Test] was the difference between a team for which winning was the main thing and for which winning was the only thing,” he said. The 70th Ashes series does not begin for another month, but some of Steve Smith’s cricketers have already given vent to their blazing obsession with victory. Pat Cummins has warned England’s batsmen to expect plenty of bouncers –“Imagine our shock,” Joe Root’s top--
The power of the Ashes has never been dependant on their presence; their symbolism has been more than enough to ensure the rivalry has always flared
order might reply – while even as this piece was being written David Warner expressed himself in appropriately martial terms
“As soon as you step on that line it’s war,” he said.“You try and get into a battle as quick as you can. I try and look in the opposition’s eyes and try and work out how can I dislike this player, how can I get on top of him?’ You have to delve and dig deep into yourself to actually get some hatred about them to actually get up when you’re out there. History is a big part in this and that is what carries us onto the ground.”
Well, if you say so, David, but what the Australian vice-captain might also accept in his more contemplative moments is that the history is shared and that this joint-ownership of the Ashes in the broadest sense is part of what will grip the cricketing public in both countries very late in the evening (UK time) on November 22. The other thing, of course, is that those 327 Ashes Tests have contained some of the finest sport it is possible to imagine, and that without a fine opponent where is the glory of victory?
Let us consider a newspaper’s editorial on the first morning of a deciding Ashes Test. I’ll leave you to deduce the year from the language.
“Striking, above all, has been the spirit of the combat,” it read. “Never less than wholehearted, it has also, largely, been generous spirited. These two teams have produced thrilling human theatre. Whichever ultimately triumphs is, of course, the point. But so is the manner of their moment. It would suit the summer if the victors shared the praise for their triumph. Because, in a way, we have all won.”
1926? 1953? No, neither of those. Inspired by the greatest Ashes series of all, The
Times’ leader writer felt able to express admiration in terms which may have seemed false and cloying to anyone who had not witnessed the full splendour of the five Tests in 2005.
But “we have all won?” Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain in that summer, might have responded to such an assessment rather tersely: “Boll**ks,” possibly. But Ponting, the ex-cricketer and thoughtful commentator, might accept that there’s something in it.
Perhaps the Ashes’ ultimate triumph is to transcend the rivalry between the only two teams who can contest them. An acquaintance of mine who manages to watch England-Australia Tests without supporting either side finally decided that his crumbling relationship was not worth saving when his girlfriend sent him a text in which the ‘A’ of “Ashes” was not capitalised.
And, from a considerably better adjusted view of affairs, we have this from Geoffrey Blainey’s description of the post-war world in A Shorter History of Australia. “When would the English cricket team arrive? That burning topic was even discussed by prisoners of war as they returned from east Asia…When Don Bradman walked to the wicket, every second pair of ears in the nation was close to a radio. Nothing else signified so strikingly the coming of peace.
“As the resumption of a different war?” I think not.“As the return of the bloody Poms?” That’s much better.Whisper it this winter but English and Australian cricketers need each other. Bradman, by the way, made 187.
It’s all-out war: David Warner has signalled his side’s intent for the battle ahead