The sport of cricket is home to many great rivalries, from India and Pakistan to Australia and New Zealand. These rivalries have been played out over decades of heated competition and have produced some of the most memorable moments in the history of sport. No rivalry though is more sacred to the sport and more celebrated than the rivalry between England and Australia.
These countries, linked by language and a shared history, have been playing Test cricket against each other since 1877, but the series between the two countries only began to be referred to as ‘The Ashes’ in 1882. The two nations played only one test match against each other in that series, at the Oval. In a low-scoring affair the English were bowled out in their second innings just eight runs short of victory, succumbing to their first ever defeat on home soil to Australia. This prompted shock and disbelief from the English fans and media, and a few days after the defeat a short, satirical obituary was published in The Sporting Times, mourning the death of English cricket. The obituary ended by stating “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”, from which the following series drew their name.
The Ashes were physically embodied the next year in an urn which was presented to Ivo Bligh, the English captain, after his side defeated the Australians 2-1 in the 1883 series. The urn was presented to Bligh by a group of Melbourne women, and it is believed that it contains the ashes of a cricket bail, though the truth of this has never been fully ascertained. The urn now resides permanently in the MCC’s Cricket Museum at Lord’s Cricket Ground, and contrary to popular belief it is not presented to the winning team at the end of each series. Since 1997/8, victorious sides have been awarded a replica urn, which was theirs to keep until they were defeated.
The convention of calling Test series between England and Australia ‘The Ashes’ did not immediately take hold, especially in England. Only from about 1903 did the term begin to stick in both England and Australia, when Pelham Warner took a team to Australia claiming that he would regain “the ashes”. Since then the term has been in constant use, and the series has grown in popularity become the most renowned Test series in the world. So many of its moments are weaved into the history of cricket and in some cases have changed the very way the game is played.
The infamous 1932/3 “Bodyline” series is one such example. Facing one of the greatest batting line-ups ever assembled, including the legendary Donald Bradman, England captain Douglas Jardine elected to employ the controversial tactic of instructing his bowlers to bowl at the bodies of the Australian batsmen. Jardine believed that this would force the batsmen to defend their bodies with their bats, offering up easy catches to fielders stacked on the leg side of the field. This tactic was executed with devastating effect by pace bowlers Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, and the English prevailed in the series 4-1. The Australian team were infuriated by the tactic, believing that it was dishonourable and not in the spirit of cricket. A serious row was only averted by the intervention of Australian diplomats, and eventually cricket’s rule-making body, the MCC, changed the laws of the game to limit the number of leg side fielders a team was allowed to place in order to curtail further use of this tactic.
During its history The Ashes has also been the stage where great teams have displayed their dominance to the world. Until the 1970s, England and Australia maintained almost superpower level dominance over the other Test playing nations, and thus the series between the two generally dictated who the world’s top team was. The emergence of the West Indies in the 70s as a legitimate cricketing power reduced this impression somewhat, but in the 1990s and early 2000s The Ashes once again became the stage where the world’s top team asserted themselves.
Anchored by such cricketing greats as Steve Waugh, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Ricky Ponting, Australia went on an unprecedented run of Ashes dominance, winning all the series between 1989 and 2002/3. Although this time frame also coincided with the decline of English cricket, it cannot be avoided that the Australians were truly great during those years. Australia won 28 of the Ashes Tests in that period to England’s 7, with 8 further Tests drawn. This moved the all-time standings from an almost even 87-86 Australian advantage in Tests won to a dominating 115-93 advantage. This remains the most dominating period in Ashes history.
In recent years the revitalisation of English cricket has led to more even contests between the two sides. The retirements of some of the Australian greats have also helped redress the balance, with the Australians seemingly being unable to find replacements for their lost stars. England regained the Ashes in 2005 in a dramatic 2-1 series that many observers have rated as one of the greatest Ashes series ever. In the following tour in 2006/7, Australia reasserted themselves by whitewashing the English 5-0, the second time in the history of the series that Australia have won by that margin. Since then however, England have been largely dominant, winning the 2009 series 2-1 before convincingly defeating Australia 4-0 in the 2010/11 series, with three of their victories coming by an innings. Given the current decline in Australian cricket and the strength in depth of the English side, it is possible that we are witnessing an era of English dominance in the Ashes.