We be­gin our look into the Ashes Ar­chives

It’s a con­test that re­mains un­matched for his­tory, hunger and of course, vil­lains

The Cricket Paper - - NEWS -

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

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