The King is dead! Long live the Queen!
Arguably not since the Great War Australia has been stumped by an almost eternal question: where next? As the country becomes gradually more assertive in its sphere of influence the question grows ever more pertinent. Does it align itself with a quasi-NATO Western alliance, does it lean closer towards the Far East or a mixture of the two.
Superb. Absolutely superb. Saw it and everyone was shaking hands, swearing oaths and proposing toasts. Sad Aussies were cheered up with free pints before being ribbed mercilessly. A splendid and highly competetive Ashes Series! See you all in 18 months! Haha!
Ah, what a dream the summer of 2005 was. The weather was perfect and the sport? Well, the tales of that summer speak for themselves.
Throughout those glorious weeks I saw grown men cry while others hugged and back slapped with excitement. Many shook hands, congratulating each other on a job well done and the odd one simply sat back and afforded themselves a rare wry smile.
Many stayed home while many went out to the nation’s parks where big screens had been erected while others sought refuge in the pubs and cafes. Yet more enjoyed prolonged lunches happy in the knowledge that the ultimate arbiter of justice in the workplace was sitting next to them, supping pints and cursing the dreaded Antipodean menace. Those stuck in cars or even worse, at work, found solace in the familiar words of those marvelous men who have made Test Match Special one of the most famous sporting programs in the world since Monday Night Hockey in Canada.
It was a strange summer, it was a joyus summer but it will always be our summer. The summer where England recaptured the greatest sporting prize of all time: The Ashes.
Now, many of you will be looking at me blankly and probably as if I’ve lost my mind. What about the Stanley Cup? The Vince Lombardi Trophy or even the World Cup? I hear the cries of indignation and of course you are very well in your rights to disagree but I can argue with a significant degree of confidence that none, not even Lord Stanley’s superbly crafted piece of silverwear, has either the heritage or sporting pedigree of one of Sports longest ever running rivalries.
The Ashes is Cricket’s centre piece. Once every 18 months, the cricketing world (that is Australia, England, India, Pakistan, South Africa and the West Indies) stands still while two of the sports greatest goliaths slug it out.
It started in 1882 when Australia sent a team to play England at the Oval which is in South London. There England suffered the ignimony of losing to Australia for the first time and so bouyed were the Australians in their triumph that an satircal obituary was placed in The Sporting Times stating:
In Affectionate Remembrance
which died at the Oval
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.
This national sporting disaster caused a stiffening in English resolve. Oaths were sworn to regain this treasure and in Ivo Bligh’s return tour of 1882-3, England beat Australia 2-1. After the series had been sewn up, Bligh was presented with a small urn which the Australians said containted the Ashes of either cricket stumps or of a ball although the true contents of the urn is a matter of hot dispute.
The term “Ashes” did not really catch on until the early 1900s by which time the regular 18 month series (18 months the time for a touring side to travel from one side of the globe to the other by ship, conduct a proper “tour” and return home to prepare for the next series) was a regular fixture in the summer sporting calendar.
From then on, the cause to “claim” the Ashes became an almost single minded fasination of both cricketing nations and over the 130 years of competition the prized urn has swapped hands so many times that everyone has lost count.
The number of incredible series, incidents and occassions of sporting drama is what seals the legend of The Ashes. From when legendary Australian batsman Don Bradman exploded onto the Ashes scene in 1930 to his elimination as a threat in the 1932/33 “bodyline” series which caused a diplomatic crisis and set the benchmark for Anglo-Australian relations from that point onwards. There was Ian Botham’s incredible heroics in 1981 where Australia, thinking that they had the Test Match at Headingley won, sent the driver of the team bus to the Betting Shop to put a £10 and £5 on the game only to see England perform one of the most stunning comebacks in Ashes history.
I could talk about Shane Warne’s “ball of the century”, a delivery which would put any Baseball pitcher to shame for the sheer brilliance and physics bending attributes of making a ball turn, as if on command, at right angles and into the stumps. I could also speak when rain had caused the outfield at The Oval to become waterlogged on the final day of play the crowds of people who took it upon themselves to mop up the excess water and thus enable England to bowl out Australia and win.
Finally, I can talk of the 2005 series of Shane Warnes 40 wicket heroics over the course of the five test matches, of big Freddie Flintoff hammering Australia Captain Ricky Ponting over the course of 5 balls of such intensity, pressure and excitement that there was only going to be one outcome: Ponting walking back to the Pavilion. I could talk of the huge cruise missles unleashed by Welsh paceman Simon Jones, the devestating barrages that Kevin Pietersen, a man with three lions tattooed on his arm, unleashed upon an unsuspecting public with his bat.
(Edit: I managed to find the video of Flintoff torturing Ponting and it brings the memories flooding back. Turn up the volume and listen to the atmosphere. I garuantee you that you’ll never find an occassion so intense and on fire as an Ashes test. Period.)
But, alas, the history of The Ashes is so long and rich and varied, the events so many and the legends from both sides so great in number that this tribute would be many many pages more than I’d want. I’ll let the urn speak for itself.
The sight of so many millions of English and Australians transfixed for a period of weeks during the summer (or winter in the Northern Hemisphere if the series is played in Australia on the return leg) is the subject of much bemusement and bafflement from outsiders. I’ve been asked multiple times by my friends on the Continent and in America about the sport, the rivalry and why grown men weep over an old Victorian urn.
I smile and simply say “because we love beating the Aussies” and probably somewhere in the world, an Australian is saying “because we love beating the Poms.”
The atmosphere can be a wee bit stormy at times though, to promote the 2005 series, British TV broadcaster Channel 4 ran a series of adverts of legendary Victorian English cricketer WG Grace dancing on the “grave” of Australian cricket to the tune of “Spitfire” by The Prodigy. The guy spent the rest of the summer haunting Australians by appearing out of nowhere in the stands to hurl abuse at the Aussies on the field.
At the same time however, an Ashes test match can be the place to be if you want the relaxation and fun that comes from watching a fascinating game of cricket with 19,999 other people. There are usually food fights between Aussie and English fans with sandwich crusts flying and when professional trumpeter/bugler Bill Cooper suddenly sounds the charge for the Barmy Army (England’s official fanclub) cheers erupt from all corners.
This is why The Ashes trumps everything, everywhere between the months of June to September. Nothing else can match it. No number of jaded rock stars in the half time show can edge it for intensity and showbiz value and no amount of choking by the Lakers can beat it for drama and no amount of Brazillian football magic can mask the sheer class and beauty of seeing a batsman hold the attention of millions across the globe in the palm of his gloved hand nor the sheer intense brutality of a bowler entertain like they know how.
Nope. The Ashes is the pinacle, the benchmark, the sporting rivalry to end all sporting rivalries and it is the bottom line when it comes to sport.