Friday, November 19, 2010

Ashes to Ashes

I'm going to resist the temptation to blog about the recently announced Royal Wedding. The world does not need any more detail on the union of Prince William and Kate Middleton; between now and the day itself we are likely to drown under a deluge of it. My only observation is that at least Kate knows what she's getting - William is practically bald already, so no secrets there.

No, there are far more interesting things ahead. Not least the upcoming cricket series between England and, wait, come back! Honest, it's interesting, even if you think cricket an unfathomable bore, because the relationship and rivalry between England and Australia, still a colony, is a fascinating one, which has been played out on the cricket field for decades now.

The team play for The Ashes, surely the most underwhelming trophy in international sport on first glance. It is a tiny brown terracotta urn said to contain the ashes of a burnt cricket bail (no one dare open it and see, for fear it would disintegrate). It was presented to to the England captain Ivo Bligh in 1883 when he took an England team overseas after Australia had won its first ever game on English soil the previous year. In  response to this shocking defeat - remember Australia had been 'founded' as a penal colony only 100 years or so before - the Times ran a mock obituary, 'In affectionate remembrance of English Cricket which died at the Oval on 29th August 1882, deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. R.I.P. N.B - The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.

So, from the pen of one wit a celebrated sporting rivalry was born. Bligh went to Australia vowing to regain 'the ashes.' Continuing the gag - those Victorians eh? - a group of Melbourne women presented Bligh with the urn when England won, and he took it to back to England where it has resided since. Even when Australia win they never get the Ashes themselves, merely a replica, which is held up rather meekly by the captain to celebrate their victory, in striking contrast to the usual show of triumph in other sports where they hold vast trophies aloft. That wouldn't be cricket, though.

Ever since that time Australia and England Test matches - usually a five match series, each game lasting for up to five days - have been known as The Ashes. Few other sporting rivalries match it for intensity and competitiveness. In 1932 diplomatic relations between the two countries were almost severed when Douglas Jardine - in Australian eyes, a sort of uber-aristocratic crafty Pom (the word Aussies use to describe us Englishmen, usually preceded by the word 'whingeing') - took a team Down Under to play against an Australian side featuring the best batsman of all time and Australian folk hero, Donald Bradman. To stop Bradman, Jardine ordered his fastest bowlers to bowl at the batsman's body, a tactic which became known as Bodyline. It worked. Bradman prolific run-scoring dried up, and England won. However, the crowds were disgusted at the tactics, began to voice their displeasure, and when Aussie batsman Bert Oldfield was hit in the head there was almost a riot. Terse telegrams were exchanged between Sydney and London and a crisis was only narrowly avoided. Jardine remained unrepentant. He had gone to win and win he did. But Bodyline was made illegal and he has entered into infamy.

It gave, if it were possible, more spice to the encounter. From the Second World War onwards each series appeared to grow in importance. In the latter end of the 20th century, and early years of the 21st, Australia, as they did in many sports, excelled at cricket, building a team for the ages, who at times seemed simply unstoppable. Anyone who has been there will marvel at the marvellous climate, the wide open skies and rich natural resources, and understand why sport plays such a defining role in the national psyche. Stuck away on the far side of the world, with little global influence, it was as if becoming great sportsmen and women was the way they could make an impact. I have played cricket with and against many Australians and there is one shared characteristic; a joy of competing, playing to win, and then shrugging it off afterwards and sharing a beer (or several) with the men and women with whom you did battle.

They take great pride in representing their country, of which they are very proud. In England we're all bit tired and jaded; patriotism is a wee bit tainted, and maybe we've become a bit blase about such accolades. Allied to the fierce competitive nature and a desire to stick one up the Mother Country - or Old Dart as some Australians know us - it is no surprise that for many years The Ashes became very one-sided. It usually began with a few English hopes being raised, and then crushed mercilessly under the Aussie jackboot. The imagery is crass but more apt than you might think - the only country who seemed to beat us at sport with such regular monotony was Germany.

Despite the rivalry, the relationship between England and Australia is more fraternal than some would have you believe. Many thousands of English people have emigrated to Australia, seduced by the climate and those big skies and the promise of a new start. Meanwhile, even more young Australians flock to the UK each year, many of them holding dual nationality passports, attracted by the proximity of so many European countries to visit, and friends and relatives to see. Many end up staying for far longer than they planned, taking jobs, marrying English men and women. London is populated by thousands of Australians (I once read that in London you were never more than three metres from a rat or an Australian...) and we all live in close harmony, sharing much friendly banter. This extends to the stands during matches. The travelling band of England fans who follow the cricket team all over the world - known as The Barmy Army- have a reportoire of songs with which they like to try and wind up the opposition, 'God Save Your Queen' being one, while several others include the word 'convict.' For their part the Aussies take it in good heart, easier to do when your team is whipping the other out of sight and you're laughing your head off. An Australian friend of mine opined that the Aussies domination on the cricket field was revenge for a combination of things: an age-old inferiority complex, the removal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the Queen's Governor General, Bodyline, and the massacre at Gallipoli in World War 1 when thousands of young ANZAC soldiers died, so the story goes, at the hands of English incompetence, and the fact we English still viewed the place as some sort of colony for undesirables, the unwanted and the uncilivised (Sample joke: English man at passport control in Sydney. Immigration officer asks: 'Do you have a criminal record?' Man: 'I didn't realise you still needed one.') He didn't have much time for my theory they were just better than us at cricket.

But it felt rather sweet for many Australians. For many years their culture was a second-hand English one. TV, films, theatre, literature and music were often pale imitations of existing English programmes, movies, plays, books and songs, bowing down to the artistic output of the mother country and looking upon their own with some embarrassment, strange as it might sound now when so many Australian writers, musicians, actors and other artists are making their mark. 'The cultural cringe' as it was known. In England, awed by their prowess on the playing field, we adopted a 'sporting cringe' to mirror it. We would never be as good as them again, we thought.

Of course, such fatalism turned out to be misguided. We won the Ashes back in 2005 amid scenes of national jubilation rarely seen for a sporting event (thousands turned out to see the team ride an open topped bus through London to Trafalgar Square). Twenty years of hurt and humiliation ended. Now The Ashes are a contest once more. All great eras end and the Australian team is in a rebuilding period, while England have a settled and talented side, marginally the favourites. The forthcoming series is being held in Australia, which means it will be screened through the night. Despite the needs of work and family, I will be unable to stop myself staying up all hours to watch, so if the next few weeks of blogs are rather garbled then don't blame me, blame The Ashes.


Dan - Friday


  1. Thank you, Dan. As one of those cricket-challenged Americans, I finally have some genuine context to go with that Ray Davies lyric about cricket:

    "It has honour, it has character, and it's British."

    Which he sang, of course, in his best mock-posh accent. And which comprised approximately 87% of my information on the subject.

    When the royal nuptials finally do erupt, I hope you will save us with distracting dissertations on other great British sporting traditions like marrow-dangling and rhubarb-thrashing.


  2. As a citizen of another country that views Oz with intense rivalry, I loved your comment that in London one is neverfar from a rat or an Aussie. I remember, many decades ago, playing cricket against an Aussie touring side in Johannesburg. We eventually beat them, but for the two days, I never understood a word they said. I should have taken a course in 'Strine first. Howzatt? Stan

  3. William's balding already? How's that crown ever going to stay on?


  4. I knew the meaning of "playing for the ashes" because Elizabeth George wrote and Inspector Lynley mystery entitled PLAYING FOR THE ASHES.

    Reading mysteries is educational.


  5. Lenny, I also have wellington boot throwing and dwarf tossing in my locker. Though I refuse to write about morris dancing...

    Cara, bald as a coot. I speak as a fellow baldy. He doesn't have to worry about the crown yet; his grandma and dad have to have their reigns before he takes the hot throne.

    Stan, most of the Aussie verbals I've encountered on a cricket field begin with 'F' and I don't mean fiddlesticks.

    Beth - I must check that story out. I dream of writing the authoritative cricket mystery.

    For a true taste of Anglo-Aussie rivalry we need an Aussie to come and here and stick it to me a bit. Do we have any Aussie followers? They're not usually backward in coming forwards...