A Brief History of The Ashes

Back in August 1882, England lost a low scoring Test match to Australia by 7 runs, and in the ensuing fallout over the next few days an article was written in the the Sporting Times newspaper that would shape the future of this cricketing rivalry, and give this contest the name we know it as today.

 It read ‘In Affectionate Remembrance of English cricket, which died at the Oval on 29th August 1882, the body will be cremated and the ashes taken back to Australia’

A few months later this mocking story prompted a group of Australian women in Melbourne to present the touring England captain, Ivo Bligh (or Lord Darnley as he would later become known), with a small Urn containing the Ashes of either a bail, a veil, or a cricket ball.

It has been widely regarded that it was the Ashes of a cricket bail, but depending on who or what you believe, it could be any one of the three.

Anyway the Urn containing the Ashes of whatever, was presented to Bligh, and from that Urn, the Ashes as we know it today was born.

To the casual cricket follower it can all be a bit unclear. England and Australia have been playing cricket since well back before 1882, there is recorded matches between the two dating back to the 1860’s. What is regarded as the first official Test match, took place in March 1877….. although series between the two nations didn’t adopt the name, The Ashes, until 1902.

To sum it up in a nutshell, the two nations have been playing Test series against each other since 1877, and since 1902, the series have been known as The Ashes.

These days the name is a commercial giant. Everyone connected with cricket knows what it represents, and I’ve noticed that even BSkyB have re-branded their ‘Sky Sports 2’ channel to ‘Sky Sports Ashes’ for the next few weeks, such is the importance they place on the series.

The Ashes has some legendary tales and some legendary characters in it’s rich history. Players such as WG Grace, Victor Trumper, Douglas Jardine, Harold Larwood, Don Bradman, Eric Hollies, Richie Benaud, Jim Laker, Fred Trueman, Ian Botham, Ian Chappell, Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh, Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Andrew Flintoff, Shane Warne, Mike Gatting, Glenn McGrath and Andrew Struass, have all played major rolls in the great history of this prestigious event, both on and off the field in some cases.

Over the years The Ashes has seen many great matches, many special events and has had many contentious issues.

Probably the most infamous Ashes event, or series of all time, was the 1932-33 ‘Bodyline’ series, or leg theory as it was referred to by Douglas Jardine.

Such was the magnitude of events in this series that the laws of cricket were changed, and at one point the Australian Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons had to get involved to end a stand off.

Two Australians, Bill Woodfull and Bert Oldfield both got hurt, with Oldfield suffering a fractured skull. This prompted the Australian cricket board to send a cable to Lord’s, accusing the England team of being unsportsmanlike.

The MCC then reacted with equal hostility, clearly upset at what they seen (at the time) as a slur on the England team. England threatened to pull out of the tour, and the situation was only resolved when the Australian PM got his nations cricket board to withdraw the allegation of unsportsmanlike behaviour, and save the remainder of the tour.

Ironically, the two batsmen hurt by Harold Larwood, weren’t actually hit while the leg theory tactic was in use.

After MCC eventually realised the seriousness of what had happened, the laws of cricket were gradually amended to eventually ensure this couldn’t happen again.

Another contentious Ashes moment has to the most infamous cricket bet in history. In 1981, Australia were smashing England, they were on the verge of winning the Headingley Test match by an innings, and with it taking a 2-0 lead in the series.

Online bookmakers offered real odds back then – in the match situation England were 7 down, and needing around 90 runs just to make Australia bat again – and in the cricket betting, England were available at 500/1.

Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh are supposed to have got a third party – believed to be the team coach driver – to place a £15 bet for them at the odds of 500/1, pocketing them £7500.

There is no suggestion that the two chucked the game, plenty of people who knew the pair at the time find it inconceivable that they could ever sacrifice a cricket match for money, such was their competitive nature. I  also think that if there was any suspicion of this having happened, their less than shrinking violet team mates would have outed them.  

Attitudes to players betting on cricket have obviously changed a lot since those days.

In that same Test match the legend known as ‘Botham’s Ashes’ was born. Around about the time Lillee and Marsh were placing their bet, Botham smashed 149 with support from the late Graham Dilley to help England avoid an innings defeat and at least give them something to bowl at. Bob Willis then was possessed by something, I’m not sure what, and ripped the Australian batting apart with figures of 8/43.

Botham had been sacked, or resigned, as captain after the previous Test match at Lord’s, following a serious loss of form with both bat and ball. In that Test match Botham managed two ducks, he returned to the pavilion after his second failure in the match to an embarrassing silence, with not even a sympathetic glance from any of the MCC members as he passed them heading back towards the long room.

This made Botham’s comeback after losing the captaincy all the more remarkable. He was hopelessly out of form when he hit that 149 at Headingley. He then followed that up in the next Test match at Edgbaston by taking 5 wickets for 1 run in 28 balls (Australia needed a small total of 151 runs for victory), to win the Test match and somehow put England 2-1 up in a Test series they should have been comfortably losing.

On some occasions, rather than a Test match or a series making the headlines, just one single delivery has shook The Ashes and gone down in folklore.

The most famous delivery in Ashes history has to have been in 1948, when the greatest batsman to ever play cricket, Sir Don Bradman strode out to the crease at the Oval in his final ever Test innings. He was given a standing ovation to the crease and he even got three cheers from the England team.

Bradman needed just four runs to retire from cricket with a Test batting average of 100. He was bowled second ball by Eric Hollies for a duck and walked off to a stunned silence, followed by some polite applause, (and a Test average of just the 99.94).

Many years later at Manchester in 1993, the so called ‘ball of the century’ was bowled to Mike Gatting by Shane Warne.

Warne had arrived in England with a reputation of both being a talented cricketer and a bit of a larrikin (to coin an Aussie phrase), but I don’t think anybody (maybe even the Aussies) realised just how talented he was.

He came onto bowl to the unfortunate Mike Gatting. The ball pitched outside Gatting’s leg stump (which Gatting played for), then viciously turned hitting the top of off stump, leaving a stunned looking Gatting walking off in disbelief.

Ever since, Gatting (along with his rotund figure) has been constantly reminded about remarks made in the aftermath of that ball, such as “How anyone can spin a ball the width of Gatting boggles the mind,” and “if it had been a cheese roll, it would never have got past him.” In fairness to Mike, he seems to take it all in good spirit.

In 2005 there was by far the greatest series and arguably greatest Test I have ever seen contested between the two countries.

England fancied their chances pre series against an excellent and widely thought to be unbeatable Australian side. Those hopes were dashed as England were comfortably beaten in the 1st Test at Lord’s. At the time, most believed England’s pre series faith was misguided and that this result was more in keeping with normal service, and that the Aussies would now win the series comfortably.

That all changed as the series kicked into life in the remarkable 2nd Test at Edgbaston, which is by far the best Test match I have seen in my lifetime.

First Glenn McGrath was ruled out of the Test after standing on a cricket ball in the warm up and twisting his ankle. Then Ricky Ponting won the toss, and without his stand out seamer he invited England to bat. England duly responded by scoring 400 runs in the first day (407 all out).

Australia kept themselves in the Test match with 308 in their 1st innings, before Shane Warne weaved his magic taking 6/46 in England’s 2nd innings total of 182.

Australia had a testing 282 to get to win the Test match. They got off to a steady start and were 47 without loss when Andrew Flintoff came on and bowled the over of the series, getting rid of both Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting in the seven balls (there was a no ball in there).

On such fine lines can matches be decided, and it was the seventh ball of the over that Flintoff removed Ponting with. This started off a steady stream of Aussie wickets and by the end of Day 3, after Steve Harmison removed Michael Clarke with a brilliant slower ball (arguably the ball of the series), the Aussies stood at 175/8 and with only Shane Warne, Brett Lee and Michael Kasprowicz left, they were effectively beaten.

On Day 4, Shane Warne and Brett Lee provided what was regarded as some typically stiff Aussie resistance, until Warne departed with over 60 still needed. Surely game over now?

No, then Brett Lee and number 11, Michael Kasprowicz took up the fight and got the Aussies to within 2 runs of England’s score, and 3 runs of victory.

Ironically the ball that finally got Kasprowicz (off Harmison) wasn’t actually out, as replays showed he had just removed his hand from the bat before he gloved the ball through to wicket keeper, Geraint Jones.

As I previously wrote, on such fine lines are matches decided….. and series for that matter, as England went on to win it.

A footnote to that series, and in the interests of balance, that Australian side was brilliant and got it’s revenge 18 months later, hammering England 5-0 in what was to be the final Test match of that vintage team.

The Ashes has a rich history of quality cricket, some of the biggest and best names in world cricket, great Test matches, great characters, and plenty of controversy….. and long may it continue.