This Wednesday, England and Australia will begin the 69th Ashes series, cricket’s most celebrated rivalry, and one of the oldest contests in international sports. David Saunders reports on the strange beginnings of this contest, which has been going for more than 130 years, and how the two teams are shaping up for this coming five-test series in England.
Cricket is a strange game. More than most sports, it is laden with quirks and eccentricities reflecting heritage dating back, according to reliable academic research, to 14th-century village life in England. As with other games involving small hard leather-cased balls flung at players armed with a piece of shaped wood, fortunes are measured in millimeters and split seconds.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that cricket’s most celebrated and fiercely contested rivalry – that between Australia and England – was born out of a humorous lament in a London newspaper more than 130 years ago.
It started with a humiliating defeat of England by the touring Australians in London in 1882. Stunned by the home side’s capitulation, the local press turned on their team and wrote scathing post mortems – thus beginning another enduring tradition: the bilious English sports media – that contrasted the England team’s lack of resilience with the pluck of the lads from the faraway former convict colony.
Mock obituaries lamenting the death of English cricket were published, the most famous of which, depicted below, appeared in The Sporting Times, on 2 September 1882, penned by journalist Reginald Brooks.
A year later, a touring England team avenged the loss with a 2-1 series victory in Australia. At a post-series reception in the town of Sunbury, just outside Melbourne, a group of ladies presented England captain Ivo Bligh with a small urn, said to contain the ashes of a bail, one of the two cylindrical bits of wood that are placed across three stumps to form a wicket, which the batting team must defend and the bowling team try to hit with the ball. The Ashes had been regained for the first time, and a tradition was born.
Small trophy – big stakes
The urn stands a few inches tall and is so fragile that it almost never leaves English cricket’s headquarters at the Lord’s ground in St John’s Wood, London. Yet the contest for this minuscule ceramic vessel containing the remains of a small piece of burnt wood – one of the most unprepossessing trophies in sports – has generated one of the world’s greatest sporting rivalries.
That lighthearted episode has spawned a tradition and rivalry that grows in stature with each encounter. Long after Australia became an independent nation (albeit one that still pledges allegiance to the British monarch) in 1901, the Ashes continues to define the love-hate relationship between England and Australia. Regardless of modern day reality, stereotypes are never far from the surface when the two nations meet on the cricket field: Australians, with their innate distrust of authority and dislike of formality, regard the English as snooty, holding on to an undeserved and obsolete sense of superiority. The English, on the other hand, are always keen to remind their former colonists that they are descended from convicts. Indeed, England’s cricket fans love to chant “You all live in a convict colony” to the tune of “We all live in a yellow submarine” when on tour Down Under.
The overall record of the two teams is remarkably even over the 133 years the Ashes has been contested. As it stands, Australia has won 32 series to England’s 31, with five drawn series. Of the 320 test matches between them, Australia’s dominance is more pronounced, with 128 wins to England’s 103.
Tests are the long form of cricket during which the two teams of 11 players play a four-innings match, which last up to five days. Ashes series are usually the best of five tests, which are played in different cities in either England (and occasionally Wales) or Australia.
Bodyline: cricket causes an international incident
Like most great international sporting contests, the Ashes has had its share of thrilling moments and controversies. The most infamous was in 1932-33, when the visiting England team adopted a tactic known as Bodyline, a strategy of intimidatory bowling that involved England’s bowlers aiming the ball at the upper bodies of Australian batsmen who would have to fend off the ball with their bats to a cordon of close fielders waiting for a catch.
England adopted the strategy principally to curtail Don Bradman, Australia’s greatest ever batsman. Australia’s management and players accused England of unsportsmanlike behavior, and the matter was taken up at diplomatic level.
So there you have it: Americans went to war with Britain over taxation and representation; the closest Australia got was over men being hit by a ball on a sporting field.
At different times, Australia or England has dominated the Ashes series for varying lengths of time. During the 1990s and first decade of the new century, Australia dominated cricket, not just against England but across the world, like no other team before them.
Shane Warne and the “ball of the century”
At the height of their powers in the 1990s, Australia was near invincible. Its dominance was due in no small way to a brash young man from Melbourne with bleached hair and an earring. His name was Shane Warne, and in 1993 he did this with his first test delivery on English soil:
It has been called the “Ball of the Century”. Warne and his victim Mike Gatting, an otherwise long-serving batsman who had captained England to an Ashes victory in 1986/87, still talk about it, while it still brings a smile and jaw-dropping admiration from the rest of the cricket world – players and fans alike.
In the past decade, the contest has been more even, with England regaining some form after 10 years in cricketing wilderness as Australia ran rampant, winning eight Ashes series on the trot. Since 2005, Australia has won 13 tests to England’s 10. Whilst England has won four of the six series contested, Australia has whitewashed England 5-0 on two occasions, 2006-07 and in the most recent series in 2013-14.
Last time the two teams met in England in 2013, it was Australia that was uncharacteristically in disarray and out of form. On the eve of that tour, Australia fired its coach Mickey Arthur after a revolt by senior players. England, led by captain and opening batsman Alastair Cook and bowlers Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, exploited the cracks in Australia’s armor and won an engaging series 3-0.
Nonetheless, Australia’s cricketers are rarely on the canvas for long, and even as they lost in England, there were signs that England’s glory was going to be short-lived.
Nothing motivates Australians quite like beating the Poms, particularly after a series defeat. It didn’t take long. In November 2013, just months after returning vanquished from their ill-fated English tour, hostilities recommenced Down Under and this time and the Australians weren’t going to be taken down on home soil.
Australian shock and awe
Instead, Michael Clarke’s team unleashed shock and awe on England, winning the series 5-0 to regain the Ashes. Led by maturing batsmen David Warner, Clarke himself and a back-in-form Brad Haddin, the batting was inspiring. However, it was the unrelentingly vicious fast bowling of Mitchell Johnson, partnered by Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle, that sealed England’s fate.
England had previously taunted Johnson on the field, preying on the previous lack of consistency and mental fragility that had impeded the Queenslander. Bowlers had baited him, insinuating he was a head case lacking the mental toughness needed at the highest level. To be fair, they had a point. Johnson could be brilliant, but after losing his way with the ball he had been demoted back to state level cricket.
Now, back in the fold, armed with a mustache stolen from the 1970s, sleeve tattoos and the meanest death stare this side of Clint Eastwood, Johnson had the last laugh. He regularly clocked over 90 mph, as he combined pace with unplayable swing that bamboozled and intimidated the hapless English bats. He ended the Ashes series with 37 wickets and an enhanced reputation as a match-winner after producing some of the most hostile fast bowling in test cricket history.
The double act of Johnson and Harris, with Siddle as the third wheel, cutting down through England’s batsmen like raiders through medieval villages. It was reminiscent of another great Australian Ashes bowling attack in 1974-75, which featured Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee, backed up by Max Walker. Thomson, a little known Sydney fast bowler who’d played one undistinguished test, and Lillee, who was returning from a back injury that had threatened to end his career, rained down hell on the visiting England team.
It was a nightmarish series for the visitors, whose top order batsmen were traumatized in particular by Thomson who was subsequently to become the fastest bowler ever recorded in cricket. England’s captain, Mike Denness, the only Scotsman to captain England, dropped himself from the team because of poor form, while the only resistance England showed was from a six-foot six South African called Tony Greig.
The two teams have had contrasting fortunes in the lead up to this series. Australia has continued to rebuild its reputation as the team to beat in test cricket, with a 2-0 series win recently against an inexperienced West Indies team, following on from its victory in the World Cup against New Zealand in March.
England’s off-field dramas
England, on the other hand, has struggled on the field and had upheaval off it. Humiliated in the World Cup in Australia after going out in the group stage during which they managed to lose to Bangladesh, they sacked their management amid infighting and team selection controversies. A test series against arguably the finest ever New Zealand team ended in 1-1, while another two-march series against the West Indies also ended 1-1. In May, the England and Wales Cricket Board appointed Trevor Bayliss, an Australian, as its coach for the upcoming Ashes series.
So, what is expected come Wednesday? On form it is difficult to see how England, with its disrupted preparation and patchy form, can stop the visitors. Michael Clarke’s men, many of whom were in England for the previous Ashes series there in 2013, will be out to wipe that defeat from memory.
England captain Alistair Cook became England’s all-time leading run scorer in May, overtaking former captain Graham Gooch. Despite his achievements with the bat, Cook’s leadership capabilities have been questioned, and has survived calls for his removal in the past 18 months, triggered initially by his team’s 5-0 Ashes drubbing in 2013-14.
In contrast, Clarke, one of Australia’s finest ever batsmen with an impressive captaincy record of 22 test wins, 13 losses and seven draws, is almost certainly playing his final Ashes series. He will want to leave his legacy intact with a series win. With Johnson, fellow quick bowler Mitchell Starc and a formidable batting line up that includes David Warner and Steve Smith, his wish looks like being granted.
But, as the saying goes, cricket is a funny game. Fortunes can turn in minutes and, as England proved in 2013, anything can happen if things are going your way and conditions are right. It promises to be an interesting series.
Photo Credit: AAP/File
Join our Community at The Good Men Project Sports Facebook Page!
And, if you like that, you might want a daily dose of Good Men Project awesomeness delivered straight to your inbox. Once a day or once a week for Good Men Project, or sign up for our once a week GMP Best of Sports email here.