As England and Australia get ready for another Ashes battle this week, HT looks at the history behind the intense rivalry and its ability to capture the imagination of fans world over.
The Ashes series attracts a lot of attention not only because of its long standing history but it also retains an edge, courtesy of the way Australia was born.
The fact that Australia has an ancestry evolving from convicts transported from England is a ready-made motivational tool.
There’s no greater incentive for an Australian team to play at their best than to be reminded of the Englishman who arrived at Sydney airport and the immigration official, after surveying the gentleman’s entry card, asks; “Do you have a criminal record sir?”
The Englishman peers over the top of his glasses and responds in a cultured tone; “I didn’t realise you still required one.”
Former Australian fast bowler Jeff Thomson used to attribute some of his lethal pace to that heritage; “Aw mate,” he used to sigh, “because of our convict background they think they’re better than us and I just like to stick it up ’em.”
Hate and humour
It would be putting too much emphasis on the rivalry to say it was built on hate, especially among the players. There’s a lot of respect between the players of each country and many good friendships have endured a number of torrid on-field encounters.
Nevertheless, hate does occasionally creep into the Ashes language. Former Australian Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies was delivering a speech in 1953 to a black tie audience in a lavish London hotel.
In the gathering were two fierce Ashes rivals, Douglas Jardine, the infamous England captain who orchestrated the notorious bodyline assault and the feisty Australian leg-spinner Bill O’Reilly.
Someone with a devilish sense of humour had seated them next to one another, as Menzies explained to the audience how unpopular he was in his own country. “In fact,” he concluded, “I must be the most hated man in Australia.”
There was a light tap on O’Reilly’s leg and as he turned his head, Jardine whispered: “Bill I fear the man is misinformed. He can only be the second most hated man in Australia.”
Despite all the hype, it would be incorrect not to attribute much of the Ashes aura to the feats of the players.
Outstanding performances like Don Bradman’s mammoth run getting, Harold Larwood’s ferocious fast bowling, the all-round exploits of Keith Miller, Ian Botham and Freddie Flintoff, through to the latter day heavy scorers in Ricky Ponting and Alastair Cook, have all added to the folklore of the series.
My favourite series as a player was in 1972. It not only showcased a hard fought drawn series but also included the individual highlights of Bob Massie’s sixteen wickets on Test debut at Lord’s, along with Greg Chappell’s sublime century, followed by Derek Underwood’s 10 wickets at Headingley, a feat that was then matched by Dennis Lillee at the Oval.
There was also the personal satisfaction of joining my brother Greg in becoming the first brothers to score Test tons on the same day in the final game at Oval.
The best series I’ve witnessed was in 2005, where every match was filled with drama and a high degree of skill. That series will forever be remembered for the heart stopping finish at Edgbaston and the touching photo of Flintoff consoling a distraught Brett Lee after Australia had fallen just two runs short.
The Ashes captures the imagination of fans from all round the cricketing world. That has a lot to do with it being the one remaining contest, which is still regularly fought over five Tests.
There were signs that it was losing its sharp edge in the mid and late nineties when Australia dominated but all that was forgotten following the classic 2005 series. There’s no doubt the contest has been revitalised by England’s resurgence.
For those who relish the five-match contest as the ultimate test of strength, this coming months is a bonanza – 10 consecutive Tests that will test the resilience and relationship between the rivals.
There’s no doubt England deserve to start as favourites. However, just like Basil Fawlty who unwisely implored his hotel staff; “Don’t mention the war,” any English reference to convicts will be a mistake.