The Ashes: The Longest Battle in the History of Cricket
- Channel 4 tagline
When Queen Victoria was on the British throne, and the British Empire covered a quarter of the world, many aspects of British life bled through into the colonies. Punting down a river was common, as were rugby, tennis and afternoon tea.
The most perplexing aspect of all, which found its way into such British colonies as Australia, New Zealand, India1, Zimbabwe, South Africa and the West Indies, was the English sport of cricket. The English national XI2 finally had international squads to go against. In test cricket, the Ashes Tour is the most well-known of all the tours.
But how did the Ashes get its name?
England v Australia - The Oval Meeting
The August 1882 cricket match at the Oval Cricket Ground in Kennington, London, was recorded as the most exciting cricket match of all time. It was a match played between two great sides: the home side, led by the Honourable Ivo Bligh, and the tourists by William Lloyd Murdoch.
The tourists started off badly - 63 all out in the first innings. After the tea break and regaining their composure, they secured a miraculous victory in just two days, with fast bowler Fred 'The Demon' Spofforth living up to his name and taking 14 English wickets for just 90 runs.
The Aussies wrapped up their victory by just seven runs.
This was a blow to the English side - their country being the birthplace of the sport, and also being one of the best sides of their time, their defeat proved that they weren't invincible. The Australians saw it as a breakthrough. They were the side that stood a healthy chance of beating the English side in future meetings.
The satirical magazine Punch published this poem after the English defeat:
Well done, Cornstalks, whipt us
Fair and square.
Was it luck that tripped us?
Was it scare?
Kangaroo land's 'Demon', or our own
Want of devil, coolness, nerve, backbone?
To rub it in even more, The Sporting Times published this on 2 September 1882:
In Affectionate Remembrance
E N G L I S H C R I C K E T,
which died at the Oval
29th A U G U S T, 1882
Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances
NB - The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.
It has to be agreed, that even by today's standards, that obituary was a harsh criticism of the state of English cricket.
England v Australia - Down Under
In the Australian summer3, Bligh's English side took the trip to Australia in an attempt to restore their pride. This was only two weeks after the English lost at the Oval. They were originally to play three test matches - two in Melbourne and one in Sydney, but a fourth test was also played at Sydney.
The English side lost the first and fourth tests, but won the second and third. As the fourth test was not originally in the fixtures list, the rubber went to Bligh's side.
The English side decided to do a tour of southern Australia, while Murdoch's side spent their time playing cricket in England. The first game that Bligh's side played was in Adelaide. After two days, the game ended in a draw, and in the South Australian capital, Bligh made a speech in which he referred to 'the ashes':
... I have come to retrieve the ashes of English cricket...
This didn't mean very much to the locals. However, the Ashes were about to reach their true meaning.
Victoria were the next opponents. The English side stayed in Melbourne for the match, which was to be played at Rupertwood. During their Christmas stay, Bligh was presented with an urn, carrying the ashes of either the cricket ball or the bails used in the Rupertwood match. There is a dispute over whether the Ashes were in fact the cricket ball or the bails used in the match. There are some good and reliable sources which say that it was definitely the bails. However, there are some equally good and reliable sources which say that it was definitely the ball.
Ivo Bligh had literally 'retrieved the ashes'.
The Ashes Urn
The urn itself has two inscriptions upon it. The upper reads only 'The Ashes', and the lower, a poem:
When Ivo goes back with the urn, the urn;
Studds, Steel, Read and Tylecote return, return;
The welkin will ring loud,
The great crowd will feel proud,
Seeing Barlow and Bates with the urn, the urn;
And the rest coming home with the urn.
It is believed that the poem was written by Bligh's wife Florence, but it is only possible to guess.
The urn's present location is at the MCC, more commonly known as Lord's cricket ground.
Can they Exorcise their Demons?
At present, the Ashes tour is a popular part of Test cricket, highly enjoyed by both English and Australian fans. Even though it seems that the English XI have a pathetic run against the Australian XI almost all the time, it is hard to believe that England weren't doing so badly as it seemed.
Well, historically speaking.
On the other hand, it must be made clear that most of the English victories happened shortly after World War II.
It is quite ironic that even though the Ashes urn is kept in England, it commemorates an embarrassing English defeat.
It is also quite ironic that the Ashes urn may possibly never be allowed to be taken back to Australia4. The Ashes urn has stayed in England since Bligh brought it to England. From that time on, even if Australia won the Ashes tour, they have never taken it back.
One example was in the 1938 Ashes tour, where contemporary film footage shows a disconsolate English XI ready to wave goodbye to The Ashes. Lady Darnley, who was given the job of presenting the Australian captain with their prize, then proceeded thus; she presented the Australian captain with a 'Consolation Cup', much to the visible perplexity of the Australian XI and the English XI. The Ashes were going nowhere.
Some fans still have hope that The Ashes will someday commemorate a fantastic English victory rather than a loss. The win by England in 2005 only saw to boost that theory.
A Bit Of Ashes Sledging
We will win... because Shane Warne's too fat; Mark Waugh's too old...
- an English fan describing the Australian XI Channel 4 commercial for the 2001 Ashes Tour which incidentally, Australia won, four tests to one
I'm not looking at it as being the first to lose them. I'm looking at being another Australian captain to retain the Ashes.
- Ricky Ponting, who became the first Australian captain to lose the Ashes in sixteen years when Australia lost in 2005.
I missed my wedding for this
- sign held up by an England supporter on the final day of the 5th Test at the Oval, 2005.
I think I was saying 3-0 or 4-0 about 12 months ago, thinking there might be a bit of rain around. But with the weather as it is at the moment, I have to say 5-0.
- Glenn McGrath, dangerous Australian fast bowler, talking about the 2005 Ashes Tour. Incidentally, rain washed out almost an entire day of the 3rd Test at Old Trafford, with thunderstorms and bad light taking their toll, and McGrath himself getting injured stepping on a cricket ball, playing touch rugby on the morning of the 2nd Test, before it had even started. England won, two tests to one.
I definitely believe if any of our batsmen get out to Giles in the Tests they should go and hang themselves. But I'm confident that won't happen.
- Terry Alderman, former Australian cricketer, on England's spin bowler Ashley Giles. Note this was before Giles took 10 wickets, including the prized scalps of most of Australia's top order batsmen. There wasn't a gallows in sight though.
They are getting on a little bit. It will be interesting to see if they have the firepower to bowl us out twice.
- Matthew Hoggard, England fast bowler, about Ashes veterans Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne before the 1st Test at Lords in 2005. Let's just say that England got thrashed, and McGrath and Warne took 15 wickets between them.