Imagine, if you will, a time of affluence and certainty, when everyone knew their place and the world was orderly and England ruled a vast empire. A time when Englishmen spread civilization, knowledge, government and the values of an older, wiser people to the world.
Now imagine you’re Australian. Proud, independent, aware of your country’s origins and ready and willing to look down on those who sent your grandparents there, yet grateful they did, because it meant that you didn’t live in England’s rigid society anymore. You were free to be yourself because your forebears had been rejected by their own country.
I think you’ll agree that such a situation gives rise to the possibility for tension, for challenge and for asserting independence.
Ah! But it is not a time to express that tension in anything so un-gentlemanly as war. Nothing as vulgar as that. But sport? Now that was a different matter. England was the home of an old, strange and complicated game called cricket. She had spread this indecipherable pastime to wherever it might take root in the empire. But there was an unspoken understanding that wherever it was played, the colonial players were always of lesser stature than the home-grown versions. After all, the traditions of the game dictated that it was in the blood of Englishmen to win at cricket. They had invented it, after all. To win was theirs by Divine Right almost. Anything else was, quite simply, unthinkable.
Prior to 1882, there had been a few skirmishes in a war which was not a war. England had always been the victor. The universe was following its proper course.
Came the fateful year, however, and Englishmen were to find out that perhaps the universe was not always run for their benefit.
In that year, a single Test match, so-called because these contests formed a test of each side’s abilities, was played in England at a ground in London called the Oval.
It was a low-scoring game and England had, as a result, a target which seemed eminently reachable in order to demonstrate their natural superiority. The crowd was really only there to ensure that the rituals were properly observed.
However, the unthinkable occurred! The natural order of things was overthrown and the colonists won. The margin of victory was incredibly narrow; one of the narrowest ever, in fact. But it seemed mountainous to those present.
So unaccustomed and overwhelming was the sense of despair and defeat that, not long after, an obituary notice appeared in a sporting magazine. The fateful words read as follows, “In affectionate remembrance of English cricket which died at the Oval on 29th August, 1882, deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. R.I.P. The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”.
Thus began the connection between Ashes and Cricket.
The precise nature of that relationship was, in 1882, yet to be defined.
At first, a few references were made to ‘going to get the ashes back’, but nothing really came of it. Ashes, of course, need a receptacle, an urn to hold them. That addition to the story came, possibly, in the following year. Nobody is really sure. Contradictory ideas, dates and places abound. What can be said with certainty, however, is that in the ancestral home of cricket; the Marylebone Cricket Club at the Lord’s Ground in London, there stands a small terracotta urn, barely six inches in height. It is not the only urn containing ashes of something of other given to (predominantly) Australian cricketers, but it is now the only one associated with the modern game.
Pasted on the front, for some unknown reason, is a bit of verse about early cricketers. It’s not even certain what the urn contains. Some say it is the ashes of a bail (a bit of wood used as part of the wicket the batsman defends), others that it contains the ashes of the outer covering of a cricket ball. In 1998, to further confuse matters, it was positively stated that it contained the ashes of a woman’s veil.
Whatever the contents, it seems that the urn was a family gift, presented to Lord’s in 1927 after the death of the captain to whom it was given in Australia (of the location, there is no doubt).
Because it was put on public display, it was assumed (wrongly) that it was some sort of trophy and became associated with the biennial matches between England and Australia. These matches gradually became known as ‘The Ashes’ tests or series. In fact, there was no trophy at all, until the 1998-99 series! (The tiny urn, possibly a perfume bottle originally, was considered too fragile to be transported back and forth across the globe and, anyway, the family of the original recipient said it was only given into the safe-keeping of Lord’s and remained family property.)
Therefore, if looked at down the distorting lens of history, the following can be seen: The Ashes cricket series gets it name from the English disillusionment of losing to Australia back in 1882; the matches between the two countries are played for a trophy which isn’t a trophy, but is possibly an old perfume bottle; the trophy might or might not contain something to do with the game of cricket; the victors of each series don’t actually get to take this (non) trophy with them; and, strangest of all…neither side cares about this… they just want to win!
Such a glorious muddle of facts and emotions, of history and opinion seems somehow appropriate for a game with such a long history.
A small, unprepossessing terracotta urn on public display in a glass case at the home of cricket in England is really nothing more than an excuse to play fiercely competitive cricket matches against each other every other year. The modest grey receptacle on view is really only a reminder of a time when England really did believe they had a right to win at ‘their’ sport; a view which has been completely and utterly destroyed (and happily destroyed at that) by successive Australian teams.