Monday morning the first thing to pop up on my computer screen was a news alert from the BBC: England had won the Ashes! I have never hit a cricket ball, but when I lived in England I watched many league cricket matches (and ate many cricket teas), and I love the game. The Ashes is one of the odder aspects of it. Here’s a BBC article about this summer’s triumph, after 18 years, and the link below will take you to the short article I wrote for our new Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport on the history and meaning of “The Ashes.”
“Ashes, The” from the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport
Symbol of global rivalry, and a colonial relationship fraught with ambiguous feelings, the Ashes tour is a major sporting event: the biennial cricket competition between Australia and England. The Ashes themselves truly are ashes-the cremated remains of a cricket bail or stump, placed in a small brown urn and preserved and cherished in the museum at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London.
The Ashes is cricket’s oldest international contest and has its origins in the third Australian tour to England. The visitors horrified the host nation (and thrilled their country’s people) by beating England in its own green and pleasant land on 29 August 1882.
The Australians had won four out of seven matches before the Test Match at the Oval cricket ground in south London. This in itself was considered humiliating by the English, who commentators say were determined to teach the Aussies a lesson, presumably about proper filial behavior. (England was known as the “mother country.”)
The defeat at the Oval was made even worse because the Australians came from behind to devastate a confident English team at the last moment. The following mocking obituary was published the next day in the Sporting Times:
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.
N.B. The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.
When the English team next toured Australia, its captain, Ivo Bligh, stayed in a home in Sydney, where one of the young ladies of the family suggested she make a velvet bag in which he could store the imaginary ashes of English cricket. This brown velvet bag, embroidered with the year 1883 in gold thread, still exists, but it was quickly deemed inappropriate for the storage of the Ashes. Supposedly the ladies of the household then burned a bail, one of the small wooden bars that rest on top of the three vertical stumps that stand behind a batsman. When the bails fall, the wicket is lost (a “wicket” is an “out”).
Florence Morphy of Melbourne, Australia, is credited with having provided the brown urn in which the Ashes now rest. Bligh himself married Florence Morphy and settled in Australia, and after his death she presented the urn to the Marylebone Cricket Club. They have been on permanent display ever since, and a substitute is the Ashes trophy, which moves between England and Australia, depending on the results of the latest tour.
The original Ashes returned to Australian only once, for the country’s bicentenary celebrations, flown by RAF aircraft and moved under police escort to and from Lord’s.
The Ashes Tour
The England-Australia series was rechristened the Ashes tour, and is played every two years, alternating between England and Australia. Because it is played in two hemispheres, some of the series are listed by two years, played in the Australian summer season.
The “Bodyline” Assault
Americans associate cricket with the English, and a privileged, leisured way of life. But cricket has been for well over a century an intensely global competition, a venue where the complex emotions of colonial relationships are played out. In the 1932-1933 series, a new edge was added to the legendary rivalry, when England’s captain, Douglas Jardine, decided to implement a tactic that was not forbidden in the rules but which was aggressive and dangerous.
For the Australians, winning at cricket was about beating the English at their own game. For the English, the country’s and the Empire’s honor was at stake. But this was a new era, in which the British government was negotiating for a Commonwealth constitution with the Dominion governments (including Australia) that would assure loyalty to the Crown yet recognize Dominion autonomy. In this politically charged time, the British government wanted to avoid anything that would cause Australians to feel ill-will toward Britain.
One player said, when he heard that Jardine had been named captain, that England would “win the Ashes-but we may lose a Dominion.” Jardine has been credited with the strategy known as the “bodyline,” but it was only possible because he happened to have four star fast bowlers. The star of the Australian team was batsman Donald Bradman, known as the “Don,” who took England’s traditional spin bowling in stride but showed some uncertainty when faced with ace fast bowlers like Harold Larwood.
Jardine took advantage of this and ordered his bowlers to the attack, placing their balls in such a way that it would bounce right in front of the batsman and jump towards their heads. The bodyline itself was a line-up of fielders placed closely round the batsman, instead of spread over the pitch. The batsman was forced to respond defensively, and the ball would go straight into the hands of one of the close quarter fielders.
Like baseball, a catch is an out, and that batsman never comes back to bat. A technique that could knock out a player like the Don, who might get 200 or 300 runs, was of considerable value. But, as the crowds roared, it was not sportsmanlike. It was not cricket.
A diplomatic crisis ensued, with telegrams crossing the globe. An Australian player was quoted as saying that Jardine’s tactics were unsportsmanlike, an insult so breathtakingly offensive that the British government demanded it be withdrawn. The crowds were wild, especially when several players were struck in the head and one Australian batsman sustained a fractured skull.
The 1984 Australian miniseries Bodyline: It’s Not Just Cricket dramatized the legend. Jardine was portrayed as a sportsman not just obsessed with winning but as a sadistic Englishman who had to prove his superiority over the colonials. It was highly popular in both England and Australia.
In recent decades, fans have talked about England’s cricket performance in a way akin to Americans talking about the Chicago Cubs or the Boston Red Sox (though there was no known curse on England). The 2004-2005 Ashes tour, however, revived English hopes of regaining the Ashes.
As it happened, Larwood, the star bowler of the bodyline series, settled in Australia and became something of a hero. And in an ironic twist of modern commercialism and globalization, the Oval, where English cricket supposedly died in 1882, is now called the Foster’s Oval, under the sponsorship of the Australian beer.
ABCs of cricket: The Ashes. (2004). Retrieved March 28, 2005, from http://www.abcofcricket.com/A_Legend_Is_Born/a_legend_is_born.htm
Cricket: The Ashes tour. (2003, January 25). Retrieved March 28, 2005, from news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/cricket/the_ashes/history
Guttmann, A. (2004). Sports, the first five millennia. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Holt, R. (1989). Sport and the British. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Lord’s: The Ashes. (2002). Retrieved March 28, 2005, from