The dark side of the Ashes

There's no rivalry in sport like the cricket contest that brings together England and Australia. Rooted in the nations' colonial past, it's always been about so much more than mere victory on the field of play. Little wonder that its history is littered with skulduggery and gamesmanship. As the latest series gets under way, Ed Caesar relives the incendiary moments that make the Ashes the ultimate grudge match
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Born in 1867 in Sydney, and brought up in Somerset, Sammy Woods was a rare sportsman. Not content with playing for both Australia and England at cricket, Woods also represented England at rugby union. Consider Woods' predicament then, when, in his role as secretary of Somerset County Cricket Club, he was called upon to umpire the game between his adopted county and his mother country. Woods soon put the gentlemen of either side at ease, assuring them: "I will cheat fair."

There, in the quip of an Anglicised Australian, is the nub of the oldest, most celebrated contest in cricket. Although, in its heart, cricket is a game played between gentleman with utmost respect for the laws of the game, the Ashes is something else. Indeed, nothing much has changed from the time when Woods was throwing down his unplayable "yorker delivery" all those years ago, to today, when, in the dying hours of a dank British winter night and the fiendish heat of a late morning in Brisbane, the battle for the Ashes resumes.

The banter, the animosity, the tricks and the gamesmanship: there is nothing like an Ashes series for stoking up the fires between the old colonial master and its uppity nephew. Sure, we all remember the contest's great moments of sportsmanship - Freddie Flintoff and Brett Lee's embrace on the Edgbaston wicket last summer is unrivalled - but, as Jim Laker once remarked: "The aim of English Test cricket is, in fact, mainly to beat Australia." Australians, he should have said.

The seeds of animosity were sown early. In Australia's first innings in the 1882 Test at the Oval, the ludicrously hirsute WG Grace, standing at point, fielded the ball. One run was scored, at the end of which the Australian batsman, SP Jones, left his crease, thinking the ball was dead. WG thought otherwise and whipped off the bails. Jones was given out, sparking cries of foul play among the Australians and fuelling their grand resistance to England's final run chase.

The Australians won the thrilling match, and afterwards Reginald Brooks, an English wag, wrote a newspaper obituary "in affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket, which died at the Oval... NB The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia." Out of WG's early gamesmanship, the Ashes was born.

The rivalry has never let up. "By Jove, we did like beating them!" said the great English narcissist, CB Fry, in 1933. The feeling has always been mutual. Australians love nothing more than to stick one over the Poms. And, when it comes to the Ashes, the Australians' desire to win is best described as violent. Never was this more evident than in the build-up to the 1974-75 Ashes series. Before the first Test in Brisbane, Jeff Thomson, the Australian fast bowler (perhaps the fastest bowler of all time), wrote a newspaper article warning the touring Englishmen that he enjoyed "hitting a batsman more than getting him out. I like to see blood on the pitch.'' True to his word, Thomson, along with his partner in crime, Dennis Lillee, bounced and battered England, and Australia won the series overwhelmingly.

So, if history teaches us anything, it is that while the Ashes contest is always gripping, it's not always pretty. Australia's hunger to win the 2006-07 series is, if anything, more ravenous than normal after England's dramatic victory in 2005. They have been whipped up even further by Ian Botham's imprudent comments that the Australians are a bunch of "geriatric colonials". Prepare for more murder in the sun.

Low blows

It just wasn't cricket. The 1932-33 Bodyline series, still the sport's most infamous controversy, confirmed that the Ashes far exceeded the boundaries of sport. By the end of England's tour to Australia, relations between the two countries had soured so much that trade relations were affected and diplomats became embroiled.

"There are two teams out there," said Australia's captain Bill Woodfull during the acrimonious Adelaide Test. "One is trying to play cricket and the other is not."

At issue was England's - in particular, their Scottish captain Douglas Jardine's - aggressive tactic, named Bodyline, or "fast leg theory", in which a fast bowler would aim a delivery hard into the batsman's body, while fielders crowded on the leg side waiting for a catch. The ploy was considered highly dangerous to batsmen who, before the era of near full-body padding, were liable to break a few bones.

Jardine had, with his fiercely quick bowler Harold Larwood, conceived the tactic when he noticed that the great Don Bradman jumped when faced with lifting deliveries into his ribs. Bradman had scored hundreds of runs against England two summers before, and Bodyline had been conceived specifically to counter his threat.

It worked. England won the series, albeit amid such acrimony that the Australian Cricket Board fired off a cable to the MCC, stating that Bodyline "is causing intensely bitter feeling between the players as well as injury. In our opinion it is unsportsmanlike. Unless stopped at once, it is likely to upset the friendly relationships between Australia and England."

The MCC responded with: "We, Marylebone Cricket Club, deplore your cable," and more. The row rumbled on for years, occasioning many changes in the Laws of cricket and informing the rivalry still so evident in Ashes fixtures.

***

Nothing has matched the Bodyline series for controversy, but tempers have often flared. In Tony Lock, for instance, England had a slow left-armer with a reputation as a "chucker" - one who threw rather than bowled the ball. In the 1953 Ashes, the Australian wag Lindsay Hassett fought back; for the first ball of the over, Hassett would call "strike one", for the second "strike two", and so on.

***

Dennis Lillee's use of an aluminium bat in the Perth Test in 1979 was completely within the rules of the game, if a touch odd. Lillee's friend Graham Monoghan had developed the bat with a view to selling it in schools as a cheap replacement for willow. And, at the start of the second day at the West Australian Cricket Ground, with Lillee not out overnight, the fiery Australian strode out to the middle with his lump of metal under his arm.

Off the fourth ball, Lillee clanked a shot for two runs. In the view of his captain, Greg Chappell, it would have reached the boundary had Lillee not been using his newfangled device. Chappell told the 12th man to take Lillee his usual bat, but the bowler refused it. All the while, the England captain, Mike Brearley, was complaining that the aluminium bat was damaging the ball. After long discussions, an irate Lillee was prevailed upon to abandon his space-age club. He did so by hurling it 40 yards towards the pavilion.

***

In 2005, England unveiled their secret weapon, a substitute fielder from Durham, called Gary Pratt. His big moment came in the Trent Bridge Test, when he ran out the Australian captain Ricky Ponting in what proved a pivotal moment in the match. Ponting was furious. He felt England had used a "supersub" by replacing a tired bowler with an exceptional fielder. Ponting made his feelings clear in a four-letter tirade at Duncan Fletcher, the England coach.

Pratt became a hero to England fans but, to prove there is no justice in this world, his contract was not renewed by Durham. He now plays minor league football near Newcastle.

A touch of the verbals

Sledging, banter, or whatever one calls the abuse that fielders dish out to batsmen, and batsmen return with relish, may not be a modern phenomenon - Fred Trueman was a master at the acid-flecked remark - but, in the increasingly permissive past two decades, the insults have intensified.

The wit of Ian Healy, the Australian wicket-keeper, is well recorded. Michael Atherton remembers a warm-up game between England and Queensland in which Healy declared that he would like to place a fielder "right under Nasser's nose". Hussain has a prodigious conk, and it came as no surprise when Healy positioned his team-mate six yards away from the batsman.

***

Merv Hughes, the legendary Australian fast bowler, and a man whom Javed Miandad accurately nicknamed "the fat bus conductor", was no stranger to a spot of sledging. During one fiery exchange at Lord's in the 1989 Ashes series, Robin Smith played and missed at a Hughes delivery. "Hey, Smith," said Hughes. "You can't fucking bat." Smith proceeded to hit him for four runs. "Hey, Merv," responded Smith. "Make a good pair don't we? I can't fucking bat and you can't fucking bowl."

***

Generally, though, it is the Australians who have perfected the art of sledging. Indeed, they are more than happy to hand out advice to their opponents. Graham Gooch, for instance, was batting beautifully in the Melbourne Ashes Test in 1980, and was on course for his maiden Test century, when, on 99, he ran himself out. Later, as a dejected Gooch led the team into the pavilion for tea, Australia's Ian Chappell approached him and asked, "What, don't you like scoring centuries or something?"

They'll drink to that

Tales of bad behaviour are by no means restricted to the pitch. Anyone who saw Andrew Flintoff's grand stagger through London (pictured, below) after the Ashes win of 2005 will know that cricketers enjoy a beer or two. The odd celebration apart, these are more professional days for the international cricketer, and they are more likely to hit an ice bath than an iced Scotch after a day's play.

It was not ever thus. In 1921, the two teams shared a ship between Sydney and Portsmouth. It sounds like a hell of a party. "Warren Bardsley was the champion at quoits," said Charles Macartney. "Makepeace as a pirate, Hendren as Tarzan of the Apes and Fender as Rasputin excelled at the fancy dress ball. [The Australians] were well represented, too, with Bardsley as a mixture of WG Grace and the Ancient Mariner, Johnny Taylor as a Chinese mandarin, and myself as a young lady."

***

The rite of passage for Australian legends, though, has always been the flight between Australia and England, during which records for cans of lager drunk are fiercely attacked. In 1985, Doug Walters' record was shattered by Rodney Marsh, as Dennis Lillee recalls: "I acted as a pacemaker on the first leg then others helped out on the last two stretches. When we got to London, Graeme Wood and I were fresh enough to help him off the plane. The man needed some help after 45 cans!"

But Marsh's effort was made to look amateurish by the amply gutted David Boon, who is reputed to have drunk 58 cans on the flight home from England. Still, he didn't impress everyone. "In my day," said Ian Chappell, "58 beers between London and Sydney would have virtually classified you as a teetotaller."

***

It was left to the English, then, to provide a little discernment in their choice of refreshment. Jardine, in the fourth Bodyline Test at Brisbane in 1933, received a tip from the manager, RCN Pailaret, that, in the searing heat, England's bowlers should take "half a dozen sips of champagne". He added: "The less use made of stimulants in all sport the better, but on this occasion the champagne proved an unqualified success."

David Gower had no such thoughts of stimulation in mind when David Boon found him enjoying a lunchtime glass of bubbly during the (disastrous for England) Old Trafford Test of the 1989 Ashes series. "I'm having a toast," he announced, "to the first English wicket for a day and a half."

The taboo-busters

The national relationship between England and Australia, born as it is out of old ideas of empire and colony, has been known to fray during Ashes encounters. This friction was never more evident than during the Bodyline series, when Douglas Jardine would spice up an already combustible situation with comments such as: "All Australians are an uneducated and unruly mob."

Since, and perhaps before Jardine's degradation of all things Australian, the Ashes countries have held little respect for each other's hallowed institutions. Glenn McGrath's match-winning bowling performance of 8-38 at Lord's - the home of cricket - during the 1997 Test, for instance, was marked irreverently on the honours board by the Australian coach Geoff Marsh.

"I still get goose bumps," recalls McGrath (right), "when I remember how [Marsh] beat the ground's signwriter to his job straight after we dismissed the Poms for a measly 77 by scribbling my name on a piece of scrap paper and plastering it to the board."

***

Her Majesty's press corps has fared little better with Australian players over the years. When asked, in 1993, why he was not talking to English journalists, Allan Border replied: "Because they're all pricks." Jeff Thomson took a similar line with an English reporter. "Are you one of those Pommie bastards who've been writing all that shit about me?" he enquired. The terrified hack made a swift exit.

***

But Australians haven't had all the fun. In the 1950s, Fred Trueman, bored witless in Sydney by endless questions on what he thought of "our bridge", replied: "What do I think of 'your bridge'? Your bridge? Our bloody bridge, you should say - bugger it, a Yorkshire firm, Dorman and Long, built it - and you bastards still ain't paid for it."

And the crowd went wild

There are times, particularly after lunch, when one might question the wisdom of crowds at Test matches. Harold Larwood remarked, for instance, that a tour of Australia would be "the most delightful period in your life - if you were deaf". But, very occasionally, a moment of repartee emerges between the fans and a player that goes down in the cricketing annals. England's clownish left-arm spinner, Phil Tufnell, recalls how, during one disastrous Ashes tour to Australia (as they all were in the 1990s), he had an entire beef and onion pie deposited on his head by one latter day Oscar Wilde. Another wit in the crowd was more refined.

"Hey Tufnell," he cried out, "lend us your brain. I'm building an idiot."

Alan Knott, the great English wicketkeeper from the 1970s, recalled how crowds at the enormous Melbourne Cricket Ground could be forthright in their opinions. When a catchable chance flew past his team-mate Colin Cowdrey during the Boxing Day Test Match, one spectator invited him to "Shake your head, Cowdrey, your eyeballs are stuck!"

***

The Aussies are not always so polite. On the infamous "Hill" at the Sydney Cricket Ground, all manner of lager-induced "wit" has been hurled at visiting players. Foul words they can generally cope with, but in 1971, Ray Illingworth, England's captain, was forced to lead his players from the field when the crowd was on the brink of violence.

The trouble centred on John Snow, the England fast bowler, who had gained notoriety with his frequent short-pitched deliveries. During the Sydney Test, the Australian umpire Lou Rowan had already warned Snow about his barrage of bouncers, when the bowler hit a Terry Jenner on the head with another short one. Jenner was a lower-order batsman, ill-equipped to deal with such bowling, and in Aussie eyes Snow had broken an unwritten rule.

When he went to field near the boundary, the crowd made their displeasure clear by reaching over the picket fence and grabbing hold of him. With that, the England team walked off. Illingworth would later return with the English players to win the Test match by 62 runs and retain the Ashes. He later explained his decision by saying: "I've seen people hit by bottles and it makes a bloody mess of them."

***

English fans, and in particular their official fan club, the Barmy Army, tend for less direct statements of intent, normally in the form of fancy dress. It is not unusual to see grown Englishmen - one dressed as Michael Jackson, the other as an infant, and the third as Pope Benedict XVI - taking light refreshment on the terraces, before indulging in the 328th rendition of "Barmy Army" that day.

At least one English supporter, though, managed to encapsulate the feelings of every English fan last summer. "That Glenn McGrath," said Mick Jagger. "What a bastard."

Comments