Unique rivalry of blood, fire and bails

The Ashes: Boundaries of conflict between England and Australia are rooted in history and extend far beyond the cricket field
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The longest-running grudge match between the same two countries, the Ashes, are physically represented by a small wooden urn, believed to contain the remnants of a bail burnt in 1883. A unimposing trophy, its banality belies the magic with which it has touched generations of people all over the cricketing world.

The concept of the Ashes, rather than the contest, was first coined in a mock obituary for English cricket by The Times, after Australia beat England at The Oval in 1882. Since then, anyone experiencing even the slightest tangential brush with cricket knows the score: the Ashes are a matter of pride that go far beyond the mere winning and losing of a game of cricket.

But what of those who have played in the contest? For most, the first awakening begins in childhood. Of the current Australian team the Waugh twins and Brett Lee have spoken of "Ashes" Tests played in the backyard with brothers and friends. But if that explains the institution, sports psychologists, especially those given to analysing Steve and Mark Waugh, would probably like to know which sibling represented the Poms.

For Ian Botham, whose heroic deeds in the 1981 series were aired on Channel 4 last night, Ashes Tests are simply the ultimate. "It is the origin of Test cricket," he said recently. "The rivalry is in the blood. Nothing equals them home or away and they get the adrenalin going more than any other contest." The combination certainly lit Botham's wick for he never burned quite as bright against other sides.

His great friend and rival, Allan Border, agrees. "The Ashes are the pinnacle of every Australian cricketer's career and what you dream about from a young age. When I first played Test cricket, the old traditions were rammed home by senior players like Dennis Lillee and the Chappells. 'It's one thing to lose to Pakistan,' they used to say, 'but you don't lose to England'."

Jeff Thomson, who bowled the fastest recorded ball in history, remembers something similar, recalling that it was the senior blokes who got him revved up and pointed in the right direction as England were blown away in 1974-75.

Yet Border did lose, in England during 1985 and again in Australia in 1986-87, when Mike Gatting's side won the series 2-1. The resulting flak, much of it directed at his friendliness with the England players, caused him to rethink. Adopting a more ruthless approach, Border won them back in 1989, since when Australia have had sole property rights.

No Aussie side has held the Ashes for more than six successive series, but that could fall if Steve Waugh's side wins this time. By contrast, England, except in the 19th century, have never held them concurrently for more than three series. But are these clusters just statistics playing tricks, or do real differences in wanting to be top dog exist between the countries? Since its inception in 1882-83, the Ashes have been an outward expression of rivalry between the mother country and its upstart colony. According to historians though, the fierce jingoism it has sometimes been known to invoke, was a product of the Great War, when nationalism sprang from the scarred earth like mushrooms.

Among the public, cricket as a barometer for national identity probably reached its apogee in the Bodyline Tests of 1932-33. A controversial series from the outset, feelings between the countries were further soured when the Australian Cricket Board made public a telegram it had sent to the MCC, which stated that it regarded "Bodyline bowling as unsportsmanlike".

In response, the MCC, worried over the accusations that it was not "playing the game", threatened to cancel the tour. A compromise was found, but with a debt crisis over agriculture already plunging Anglo-Australian relations to a low ebb, it needed to go all the way to Cabinet level before it was resolved.

England's captain at the time was the austere Douglas Jardine. In league with Harold Larwood, a fast bowler of great athleticism, Jardine dreamed up Bodyline – bowling at the head and body to mainly leg-side fields – as a way of neutralising Don Bradman, the game's greatest run-scorer.

The Winchester and Oxford educated Jardine was everything the Aussie public loved to hate in an Englishman, but that was only half the story. On hearing of his appointment to the captaincy, one of his former masters at Winchester had remarked: "Well, we shall win the Ashes, but we may lose a dominion." In the end, Empire did prove more important than the Ashes and national competitiveness, along with Jardine and Bodyline, were reined in once the series had ended 4-1 in England's favour.

Since then, Australians have become far less prissy. According to Botham, Australia could whistle up 11 blokes from Bondi beach and still give you a game. "It's in the nature of the beast. They don't hold all those World Cups for nothing," he said.

Graham Gooch, who launched his Test career with a pair at Edgbaston against the Aussies in 1975, also speaks of a culture clash. "Those two Tests I played in '75 were a real eye-opener," he said. "Their fierce, competitive nature was unlike anything I'd encountered. It wasn't just cricket and you could tell there was a long history of needle there. It was like England and Scotland at football."

On the field there is an extra dimension to Ashes games which only the West Indies sides of the Eighties came close to matching. During my Test career I played five Tests against Australia, losing two, drawing two and winning one – the sole victory coming in the fourth Test in Melbourne during the 1982-83 tour, when we squeezed home by three runs.

It was there that I saw what the Ashes meant to Australians at large when 20,000 turned up to watch the final day. With Australia's last pair needing 37 runs for victory it might have lasted one ball, but the Ashes were at stake and people wanted to be there.

That they got within one decent hit of regaining them (something they eventually did by drawing the final Test at Sydney), played havoc with my emotions. In the space of 50 minutes, growing confidence had turned to utter despair, before the ecstasy rush that came with Botham's fluky dismissal of Jeff Thomson, caught off a rebound by Geoff Miller at first slip.

People talk of time being slowed down and I remember the edge hanging in the air for what seemed an age before "Dusty" [Miller] stooped to conquer. Botham, living up to his claim that there is no better feeling than beating the Aussies in their own backyard, made a rhino charge towards the dressing-room with a team of jumping jack flashes in pursuit.

Left to my own thoughts for a moment I then did something utterly ridiculous. I turned to the home crowd in the infamous Bay 13 area and gave them a protracted V-sign to make up for the incessant abuse we'd suffered over the previous four days.

Although Steve Waugh was right to make a fuss over the beer can thrown at Lord's recently, back then, the denizens of Bay 13 lobbed anything that came to hand, none of them compliments. A rendezvous for bikers, the ammunition was mainly bolts and washers. Oh, and as one fielder found out when he picked the remnants out of his hair, meat pies.

Despite my first taste of this unique contest coming a month earlier in Perth, the full-frontal assault of an Ashes campaign Down Under had only just hit home, hence my puerile reaction. After all, I was fresh out of university where cricket was run with amateur charm on salad-only lunches and I was simply not used to propaganda on this scale.

As Keith Fletcher recalled on England's 1974-75 tour, a series that matched the physical savagery of the Bodyline trip 42 years earlier, you did not just play the team. "It was you versus the country, the press, and the flies," said Fletcher. "When they play at home, objectivity doesn't come into it. You're crap and they're great. End of story."

Today that fervour is maintained by the media, who with TV ratings to earn and papers to sell, hype it to the limit. Australia will begin the series as clear favourites and are expected to win, but they are not infallible.

To stand any chance of creating an upset England will have to be able to hit back after defeat. Even with the Ashes at stake, this Australian side do not do caution, and only rain will bring the draws that most sides need in order to fight another day.