The Ashes were inspired by a Victorian joke. The following day, Australia defeated England in a test match at the Oval in 1882. ‘In loving memory of English cricket, which died at the Oval on August 29, 1882, and was deeply lamented by a large circle of bereaved friends and acquaintances.’ RIP. Nota bene: The body will be charred and taken to Australia.
The following winter, England defeated Australia in Melbourne, and some unnamed ladies burned a cricket bail (one of two small pieces of wood that rest on top of the stumps), placed the ashes in a small urn, and presented it to England’s captain, the wonderfully named the Honorable Ivo Bligh.
Since then, Australia and England have battled it out in test matches for the right to keep the Ashes. The original urn, on the other hand, is very fragile and does not leave the cricket museum at Lords where the custodians charge visitors to see it! The urn is simply moved from one trophy cabinet to the next when Australia wins the trophy.
England vs Australia: Test Match, The Oval, 1882
This was only the ninth test match ever played, but it signalled the beginning of cricket’s oldest rivalry: The Ashes. The game itself was extremely low scoring. Australia was dismissed for 63 runs in their first innings, and England fared little better in response, scoring only 101. The Australian second innings total of 122 was low once again, but it proved crucial in the context of the match.
England had only 85 runs to win but were bowled out for 77 runs, with the legendary W.G. Grace top scoring with 32. As a result, Australia won an incredibly close contest by just 7 runs. Australia’s star performer was demon fast bowler Fred Spofforth, who took 14 wickets for 88 runs during the match. The English sporting public was stunned by England’s first home loss to Australia.
England and Australia Ashes Rivalry
Ivo Bligh (later Lord Darnley), England’s captain for the return series in Australia in 1882/83, promised to “recover those ashes,” and then, during that tour, a group of ladies in the state of Victoria, including Bligh’s future wife Florence Morphy, presented him with a six-inch (150 millimetre) terracotta urn, possibly a perfume bottle, sealed with a cork and believed to contain the ashes of a burned bail.
The urn has twice left Lord’s to be taken to Australia – in 1988 as part of Australia’s Bicentenary celebrations to mark the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet of British convict ships in Sydney, and 2006/07, during that summer’s Test series between the two countries.
However, the Ashes urn is not the official trophy for which the two teams compete. Since 1998/99, the MCC has commissioned a trophy that has been used in series between Australia and England. The trophy is a larger version of the urn made of Waterford Crystal.
The Ashes were largely forgotten for two decades following Bligh’s tour of Australia in 1882/83, but was resurrected after the 1903/04 series when Pelham Warner, who captained the England side, wrote a book about the tour called ‘How we recovered The Ashes.’
From then on, the series between Australia and England would be affectionately referred to as The Ashes. The first photograph of the urn appeared in the January 1921 issue of The Illustrated London News, and the words affixed to the urn are “The Ashes,” followed by a six-line verse:
“When Ivo goes back with the urn, the urn;
Studds, Steel, Read and Tylecote return, return;
The welkin will ring loud;
The great crowd will feel proud;
Seeing Barlow and Bates with the urn, the urn;
And the rest coming home with the urn.”
The words are the fourth verse of a song lyric published in the Melbourne Punch on February 1, 1883, from a song called “Who’s in the Cricket Field’.
Before the legend of The Ashes was born, the first 18 series between the teams featured 13 England victories. Australia won eight consecutive Tests in the immediate aftermath of World War One, including the first-ever clean sweep in a five-match series in 1920/21.
The 1932/33 series in Australia saw England reclaim the Ashes with a 4-1 series victory that employed the so-called ‘Bodyline’ tactic, in which England’s fast bowlers frequently targeted the bodies of the Australian batsmen rather than their stumps.
That series victory in 1932/33 would be England’s last until 1953. The period immediately following World War II was one of Australian dominance, which included the 1948 tour, during which Bradman’s side did not lose a single match, winning the Test series 4-0, producing the then-highest run-chase in history by scoring 3-404 at Headingley in Leeds, and earning the nickname “The Invincibles.”
Hutton’s side of 1953 broke Australia’s stranglehold on bragging rights, the first of three consecutive series wins for England. Off-spin bowler Jim Laker took 19 wickets in a single match at Old Trafford in Manchester in 1956, the most in Test cricket history.
England reclaimed The Ashes in 1970/71, captained by Ray Illingworth, in a seven match series. The 1970s featured an iconic series in 1974/75, in which Australia fast bowlers Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee terrorised England’s batsmen before the two sides met for the first time 100 years later in a Centenary Test in Melbourne in 1977. In a remarkable coincidence, Australia’s margin of victory – 45 runs – was the same as it had been in 1877.
Australia got its revenge in the return series in 1982/83, winning 2-1. England’s victory in Melbourne by 3 runs was the closest in the history of the teams’ matches until 2005. Australia ended the 1980s with a 4-0 thrashing of England, kicking off a new era of dominance for the team. Fantastically, Australia won every series between the two teams until 2005, when England won 2-1, including a two-run victory at Edgbaston.
Featured image credit: Australia optimistic ashes