A peek into the oldest rivalry in cricketing history

By Vishnu Prashanth (B.E Production, 2015-2019)

Quite often, one is tempted to wonder how and why the World is, as it is now. What event set the gears in motion? How did the first domino fall? In most cases, tracing the origin of a practice is a Herculean task. It is also one that leaves the investigator at no clear root. The longevity of the Ashes can perhaps be attributed to the very fact that its origins remain written down on the pages of history, if not memory. Every time the English and Australian cricket teams lock horns, it is with their eyes trained on the prize.

‘Twas a late summer evening in 1882 that shook the sport to its foundations.  For the first time in (the relatively short) history, the English team conceded defeat on home soil! The Australian victory was said to be so tense that one spectator reportedly suffered heart failure, and another was said to have bitten through an umbrella handle. The British media were quick to announce the “Demise of English cricket”. The Sporting Times’ obituary, gave rise to the term in question.

The article that launched a thousand matches

Ever since, the English-Australian test encounters have been termed the Ashes, with the winning team being presented with an Urn, symbolic of an original urn filled with the ashes of a burnt bail. The early history of these matches presents a rather one-sided glance. In the 14 years, spanning 1882 to 1896, the Aussies managed but one victory. At the outbreak of the First World War, the series stood at 15-7 to the Englishmen. The year 1912 stood witness to a triangular series with the third being a team of English expatriates, representing South Africa, in the final test series of the ‘Golden Age of Cricket’. Cricket was deprived of illustrious figures like W.C. Grace and Colin Blythe, who laid down their lives in war duty during the following years. Soon after, in the 1920s, the colonial nations of West Indies, New Zealand, and India were granted test-playing status and inducted into the Imperial Cricket Council (ICC), as it was then known.

The start of the post-war Ashes nearly “Set the Sun” on the British Empire. The 1920-21 Ashes gave rise to mainstream usage of the term ‘Whitewash’ in the sport, as the host – Australia walloped the visitors 5-0; a statement indicative of the shift in power. In most other contexts, the years 1930-1950 are looked upon with a tinge of regret. ‘The Great Depression’, emergence of a certain Adolf Hitler, the widespread famines, and the massacre spanning 1939-45, come to mind as relatively darker blots of mankind’s stay on earth. Yet, cricket owes a fair number of its records to this period. Or rather, to one man; for the 1930s & 40s were truly the ‘Era of the Don’. Over his 20-year career, Sir Donald Bradman played 37 tests (and 63 innings) against England, scoring 5028 runs! His 19 centuries, at an average of 89.78 runs are still the Ashes record. To put that into perspective, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting have batting averages of 58.75 and 44.21 respectively. British newspapers were quoted requesting “a legal limit on the number of runs Bradman should be allowed to make”.

Sir Donald, pictured before his last Ashes

In the 7 bilateral match series that were played in this period, Australia retained the Urn 6 times. This success was not unprecedented. The 1926 revamp of the Australian cricket team reaped its rewards; but it faced its own setbacks. To counter the batting skills of the relatively young visiting squad, the Englishmen devised an aggressive and controversial strategy during the 1932-33 Ashes. Infamously termed the ‘Bodyline’ series, the hosts made use of pace bowlers to deliver short-pitched deliveries in succession, deliberately targeting the body of the batsmen. Immortalised in the mini-series of the same name, this edition of the Ashes had wide reaching consequences. The Laws of the Game were altered so as to make Cricket more sportive,while protective gear for the batsmen were introduced.

Resumption after the Second World War was particularly memorable, as the English hosts huffed and puffed to draw a rain-curtailed third test in 1948; avoiding another 5-0 Whitewash to the Invincible visitors, captained by the Don himself before his retirement. The next 40 years saw alternating spells of domination by either team, with other cricketing nations starting to flex their limbs. A depleted Australian squad conceded the Ashes thrice in succession, affected by the rebel Kerry Packer’s “World Series Cricket”, in spite of which the Australian teams of the 90s evoke memories of the great teams of yore. With the English setup at its lowest ebb, the team was spearheaded by the likes of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath dominated on all fronts, winning 3 World Cups and 8 consecutive test series vs. England!

As does everything under the Sun, this too had to change. And change it did, in the most dramatic fashion possible. The 2005 Ashes in England, began similar to the 8 previous ones, with an Australian victory. But the hosts had learned from their painful past, and won the second test by the slimmest of margins of 2 runs (to date, the narrowest win in the history of the Ashes!) The third was drawn, and the fourth – an English victory. The final test went right to the wire and ended in a draw; with the upshot being that the Ashes returned to England for the first time since 1987.

After the notably action packed summer of 2005, the following tournaments have been relatively humdrum, with England seizing the upper hand in 4 of the 6, drawing them level with Australia on 32 series each. The 2017-18 edition sees England tour Australia, seeking to become the second visiting team in 5 years to win a series on Australian soil.

The imperialistic policies of the European nations shaped the culture of the world as we know it today. This is apparent in the world of cricket too; of the 53 current nations that were once part of the British Empire, 16 have been participants in the ICC World Cups, and a larger number have organized cricket teams and boards. What has truly shaped the world of Cricket today is the long standing rivalry between England, and the men from down under. Having evolved from 3-day encounters to 2-day variants, to the present day 5-day standard issue, this battle of Cricketing powerhouses has stood the test of time. It even kindles the interest in otherwise disinterested fans, and enchants the purist and the hipster alike. Long may it continue…

The Holy Grail of the Ashes, the URN

Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust

All statistics, courtesy: ESPN CricInfo, Wikipedia.


VISHNU PRASHANTH (B.E. PRODUCTION, 2015-2019) is an introvert, wannabe quizzer, and is into football. A fan of P.G.Wodehouse, the Oxford comma, wordplay, and Radiohead.

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