Cricket fans the world over savour one such rivalry that has stood the test of time, and riles up fans on both sides. Ashes is the name given to the Test series between England and Australia held every two years, with each country alternating as the hosts.
There isn't a more storied rivalry in cricket. Players from both England and Australia have sworn that winning the Ashes was, and is, the pinnacle of their careers. A good performance in an Ashes series elevates players to demi-god status. Bad performances have ended careers. Fans of the Gentleman’s game get unusually boisterous during these matches, often playing the role of the 12th man by ribbing the opposition mercilessly. All cricket fans know of the Barmy Army. The media too plays its role. One of modern day cricket's biggest fears is that Test cricket is dying a slow, insipid death as its loses its appeal. Well, not when the Ashes roll into town!
Any, and every, Ashes series brings the full circus to town - packed stadiums, expensive television rights, op-ed columns by former players, vlogs… you name it and it’s there. Pretty serious stuff this. To think the Ashes legend began with what was a sarcastic paragraph…
Cricket, like many other modern day sports, originated in England. Given their penchant for lording it over others, it was only natural that the English perceived themselves to be superior to the colonies in sports as well, cricket included. Try telling a fair dinkum Aussie that. Naturally aggressive and never ones to take a foot back, it is said Australian cricketers like to give it better than they get (sometimes a bit overtly, a la sandpaper gate). Even during the mid-1800s, cricket matches between England and Australia had a bit of sting about them. However, they were akin to first class matches in stature, not quite the ‘Test’ matches we know. But they were fiercely contested. Not a quarter given, not one taken - the wins were split evenly.
The first official Test match between the two nations was played in March 1877 in Melbourne, Australia and was duly won by the hosts. But that’s not when things got serious.
In 1882, the teams played a test match at The Oval in London. It was a low scoring, attritional and acrimonious affair, and in the end Australia won by a mere 7 runs. That was the first time England had lost an official test to Australia on home soil. There was outrage and mourning in England. To paraphrase some of the consternation: "How could we lose to a colony? The previous loss in Australia was because of the foreign conditions, but what was the reason at home? Are we an inferior team?" Newspapers praised the Australian team but derided the English team. So much so that the following words were printed in The Sporting Times :
In Affectionate Remembrance of ENGLISH CRICKET, which died at the Oval on 29 August 1882,
Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances
N.B.—the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.
These words stuck with Hugo Bligh, captain of the England team that was to tour Australia later that year. He announced that he would triumph in Australia and recover the Ashes.
The England team toured Australia from late 1882 to early 1883. They played three Test matches and won two. The last of the Tests was played at Melbourne. Bligh had lived up to his promise of winning in Australia. The Ashes had been recovered. There was an interesting, perhaps telling, anecdote following England's victory in Melbourne. It is believed that soon after the match, a group of Melbourne ladies burnt a bail, poured its ashes in a little urn, and gave it to Bligh as a personal gift - a sweet gesture indeed.
The legend was now taking shape.
While the Ashes were recovered in 1882, no one made any reference to the term until 1903. 20 years after Bligh's win, another England Captain, Pelham Warner, promised to regain the Ashes. The words caught on and were hyped by the media. Soon enough, Test series between the mother country and the dominion became a quest to either retain or regain the Ashes.
What of the Trophy?
Contrary to the expectations of fans, the original urn isn't paraded out during every Ashes series. The urn given to Bligh was a personal gift and is stored at the MCC museum due to its deteriorating condition. In the initial contests, replicas of the urn were presented to the winning side. That has since become a tradition, and rightly so if one was to think about it. Where else can ashes be stored?
A history of thrilling cricket
Some of the most widely talked about performances in the history of test cricket have come in Ashes duels. Each series has been hotly contested, irrespective of what the stats show today. Let us take a look at some of the standout series.
1932–33 - Bodyline, and those famous words
England dominated the Ashes in its early days. Fortunes oscillated in the early 1900s before Australia began to dominate in the 1920s. Australia of the early 1930s had a strong batting lineup that included Bill Woodful, Bill Ponsford, Stan McCabe and one Mr Don Bradman. For the 1932-33 series held in Australia, the England Captain, Douglas Jardine, a wily and astute character, devised a plan to counter the strong Australian batting line up. It would come to be called Bodyline. Jardine asked his fast bowlers to attack to body of the batsmen, who would try to fend the ball and hopefully be caught by a packed leg side field. Harold Larwood was the prime enforcer for Jardine's plans. Over after over, the English executed this plan. Many Australian batsmen received body blows and injuries. There was an uproar in the press and amongst fans. Jardine was nonchalant. His insouciant reply was, "I’ve not travelled 6000 miles to make friends, I am here to win the Ashes.”
His strategy paid off handsomely on the field - England won the series 4-1. But the fallout was disastrous. Diplomats had to intervene to prevent relations between the two countries getting strained. The Australian public bayed for revenge but their captain, Bill Woodful, refused, and instead, said these famous words ( paraphrased by Anil Kumble in 2008 in Sydney during the acrimonious 2007-08 India tour of Australia) “..there are two teams out there, one is playing cricket and one is making no attempt to do so.”
And you thought Test cricket was a gentlemen’s game!
1948 - The Invincibles
These days, a cricket tour consists of 5-10 matches - a couple of Tests, 3 ODIs and 3 T20s. Maybe a few warm up games if the visitors insist. Things were different in post-war cricket. A tour was actually a tour. Players got on a ship and sailed to England or Australia(they would stop along the way to play matches in India or Sri Lanka ), and stayed on tour for months. For instance, the Aussies set sail on 19th March from Fremantle, stopped over in Sri Lanka for a day-long cricket match(that was truncated because of weather) and arrived in England on 16th April.
The touring team was captained by the Don and played 34 matches...yes 34! They weren’t one day affairs or T20 games, they were usually 4-day or 5-day matches. The Aussies won 27 matches and drew seven. Those 34 matches included 5 tests which they won 4- 0. Sure, England was recovering from WW2, but only Yorkshire ran the Aussies close. Can you imagine how strong a team has to be to not lose a single game over a span of 34 matches? No wonder then that the team is remembered by the moniker The Invincibles.
You would think this is reason enough to recall that great Ashes tour, but the above statistic is merely a side show. In his final test innings of the 5th test at The Oval, a 40-year-old Don Bradman walked out to bat needing to score 4 runs to end his career with an average of 100 or over in tests. To put that into perspective - if you think Virat Kohli is the most dominating modern day batsman, well ...his Test average is 54.6 #context). As fate would have it, he got out for a duck to end his career with an average of 99.94. Could it be any more dramatic?
His retirement notwithstanding, the Aussies lost only 5 and won 10 series between 1948-1977.
1981 – Botham’s Ashes
In 1977, Kerry Packer initiated World Series Cricket in Australia - an innovation that shook Australian cricket, and indeed world cricket. of Some of Australia's biggest cricket stars signed up for it, and declined to play for Australia in the Ashes. With Australia robbed of their firepower, England won the next two series emphatically. But by 1981, all the stars were back to represent Australia, which meant a full-strength Australia were favourites to clinch the 1981 Ashes in England comfortably. As expected, the Aussies took a 1-0 lead after two tests. This led to England's captain Ian Botham resigning. In the third test, Mike Brearley was made captain and Botham felt free to express himself, and he also had a point to prove. Australia dominated most of the match, and England were up against it. They were 227 runs behind, and made to follow on. It was then that Botham came to life - he smashed 149 not out to drag the home team from 137/5 to 356 all out. Botham had dug deep and salvaged some pride for his team. He had also set up a target of 130 runs for the rampaging Australians. Easy enough, no? English bowler Bob Willis, a weary 35-year-old with wobbly knees, and barely able to keep his place in the side until then, took eight wickets in 15.1 overs. Botham took a wicket as well, to take his match tally to seven wickets. Australia were dismissed for 111, resulting in a dramatic and unexpected England win. England seized the shift in momentum, and won 2 of the next 3 tests to win the series 3-1.
Beefy scored 399 runs, including 3 centuries, and took 34 wickets in the series - hewas the difference between the two sides. For his heroics , that series is remembered as Botham’s Ashes.
1989 – Start of a domination
Coming into the 1989 series in England, Australia had been winless in Tests in England since 1975. They also had a young, raw squad. In fact, the English press labeled the team one of the weakest to tour England. But that Australian side had a very determined captain in Allan Border. It also had a captain's bounty of raw talent in youngsters like Steve Waugh, Ian Healy, Mark Taylor, Merv Hughes and David Boon. They would later all become stalwarts of Australian cricket. They didn’t give an inch, and completely blew the opposition away. They played so well, and in such a brute fashion, that over the course of the 6-Test series, the Aussies used only 12 players as opposed to England's extravagant 29! Settled vs Unsettled meant that the Aussies won the series 4 – 0.
This win foretold what was to come for the next decade and a half - Australian dominance. Between 1989 and 2005, Australia would win 8 straight series, with 28 test victories and just 7 losses. It helped that during that period they were bolstered by the emergence of players such as Shane Warne, Mark Waugh, Glen McGrath, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Mathew Hayden - all looked upon as legends of the game now.
2005 – The Most Thrilling series ever?
The peeps at the Beeb certainly seemed to think so.
First, let us examine the circumstances leading up to the series. Australia had won 8 straight Ashes series which meant that the public was a bit ‘bored’ of their dominance, even some Australian players dare we say. Why would the public tune in to watch a series when the result was a foregone conclusion? England hadn’t even come close to challenging the Aussies since way back in 1987.
But things were a little different in 2005.
Led by the astute Michael Vaughan, England had performed very well in 2003 and 2004, climbing to no. 2 in the Test rankings. They had won 14 of their previous 18 Tests, and had a solid batting line up. They also possessed a talented pace quartet - something they had not seen in decades - comprising Simon Jones, Matthew Hoggard, Steve Harmison and the mercurial Andrew Flintoff. Vaughan's side was quietly confident of a good showing. By contrast, the Aussies were a bit over confident. Indeed, they won the first test fairly easily, but a freak injury prevented McGrath from playing the next test. That was opening England needed. They duly capitalized on this to win the test in the most dramatic fashion. The fourth day, with its swinging fortunes, and the last hurrah by Brett Lee and Michael Kasprowicz to take Australia within three runs of a win, only for Harmison to claim the last wicket to help England win by a whisker is the stuff of legend. The image of Flintoff consoling a dejected Brett Lee after the last wicket will stay etched in the memories of cricket fans for well nigh a lifetime.
After the third test was drawn, a captaincy error by Ponting (inviting England to bat after winning the Toss!!! Who does that?) Allowed England to win the next test. They went on to draw the final test and not only revived a rivalry, but interest of the general public in the Ashes again.
To beat the indomitable no. 1 Test side and win a series against them after 18 years was a cathartic moment for all of England.
A See-Saw Since Then
The Aussies were baying for blood after their unexpected loss in 2005 and took revenge by inflicting only the second 5-0 whitewash in Ashes history – in 2006/07. (The first one happened way back in 1920-21, when Australia thrashed England 5-0.) This allowed the likes of Warne and McGrath to retire from Test cricket on a well-earned high. England’s cause was not helped by the absence of key players like Vaughan and Jones.
The Ashes have since displayed the same symptoms as much of 21st century Test cricket. Teams have been winning in their own back yards and losing the ‘away’ series. The exception was 2010-11 series when a strong England side thumped a weakened Australian team grappling with the retirement of a plethora of veteran players.
The 2013-14 Ashes in Australia also witnessed another whitewash (5-0 again) as Australia, and Mitchell Johnson in particular, humiliated England. Johnson’s Ashes, some call it. Fast bowler Mitchell Johnson was unplayable, sending down accurate bouncers all through the series. It was an annihilation using raw pace and mental intimidation as primary weapons. Johnson collected 37 wickets and the Man of the Series trophy.
England hosted the next series in 2015, and won. The venue changed, and so did the honors. Australia are the current holders of the Ashes, having won it in 2017-18.
• 70 Ashes series have played in total– Australia have won 33, and England 32. Talk about tight!
• 330 Ashes Tests have been played. Australia have won 134 and England have won 106.
• Both teams have held the Ashes for 8 series in a row
• The most runs in Ashes have been scored by Don Bradman. Like you didn't see that coming! He made 5,028 runs.
• The most wickets were taken by ( surprise surprise!) Shane Warne - 195. He is most famously remembered for bowling that “ball of the century” or “that ball” - he bowled Mike Gatting with a ball that pitched well outside leg stump and turned viciously to hit the top of off stump. This single delivery is credited with reviving leg spin bowling in modern cricket.
So that, in brief, is nearly 140 years of Ashes cricket history. Every Ashes series brings with it a memorable incident or two, a big talking point and some splendid performances. What's that again about Test cricket dying?
First Published: November 21, 2018, 6:19 PM IST