In the long room at Lord’s, which displays a collection of around 2,000 paintings, someone has mischievously hung Sir Donal Bradman’s portrait directly beside Douglas Jardine’s. When Jardine died aged only 57, in June 1958, Bradman was asked to provide a few perfunctory sentences about him for posterity. With Bodyline still a sore on his flesh, Bradman gave a terse ‘No comment.’
There are some sporting rivalries that go beyond the realms of a sport and sportsmen. They take a place in some underground vault, carving their own course. For instance, England-Argentina in soccer. Maradona's one genius head, and one godly work, gave it an altogether different meaning, circa Mexico '86.
In tennis it was Bjorn Borg and McEnroe fighting out on French clay and English grass. Fans sighed.
The rock star Borg had females bating. The hippie headband and sweaty forearms had them swooning all over. McEnroe had a temper and personality. Contrasting styles, great tennis for fans. The rivalry was called 'Fire and Ice' by the aficionados.
India-Pakistan in cricket had its moments but is now mired in politics. The rivalry is less sporting, and more political. For one reason or another, the cricket always takes a backseat, the pressure shows on players and they’re unable to perform to their best abilities.
But then there is the Ashes – tradition, stories, folklore, enemies, pals.
There is something when England and Australia meet. On a first day of the first Test at Edgbaston or Brisbane, the rivalry has the purists and the atmosphere abuzz.
Everything takes a backseat. Cricket is all what matters. A bouncer is hurled, a hook is returned, a menacing glare follows. The Barmy Army sings – “The Ashes are coming home.”
The urn that they fight for so fiercely, may be tiny and rather inconsequential in size, but carries the weight of a century and more. Of sweat and squabs; of long sea voyages in the early 20th century; of Bodyline and Jardine; of Bradman and Jim Laker; of Botham at Headingly and Warne at Old Trafford.
The Ashes Story
The story goes back a century and a quarter. A mock obituary carried by a British newspaper in 1882 after Australia’s victory at The Oval, stated that English cricket had died, and that the body would be cremated and Ashes be taken to Australia. The legend was thus born.
The foes have met in many epic battles since. When the English steamship docked on Australian shores in the winter of 1932-33, the press was buzzing with news about the unstoppable Don Bradman who had averaged 130 in the previous Ashes.
England was under pressure. However, Douglas Jardine, their captain, born in the British Raj of India had a plan. His tactics included Larwood – who is said to have never bowled a wide in his career – to bowl fast on the rib cage, with seven fielders on the leg side. It worked. England regained The Ashes.
Wisden calls it the most unpleasant series. On one occasion Australian captain Bill Woodfull was left down on the ground after being struck just above the heart by a Larwood bouncer. The Australian crowd booed. Though that wouldn’t change much in the stoic Jardine. Moments later, he called out to Larwood: "Well bowled Harold," and set the fielders again in the hated Bodyline formation.
Police had to be deployed on the boundary. The next day, the Australian captain in perhaps one of the most famous words ever spoken in sports, retorted angrily, “There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket and the other is not.”
Ashes: A Battle With High Stakes
At the height of Vietnam War in the 60s, a young US marine James Stockdale was captured by the Viet Cong and sent to the infamous Hanoi torture centre. He was interrogated, beaten and tortured. Stockdale spent seven years in prison, and could have easily avoided abuse by somewhat cozying up to his tormentors. An occasional anti-American statement and they would have treated him like any other ordinary inmate. Yet it never crossed his mind. He willingly gave himself up.
As he later explained, it was the only way he could maintain self-respect. He didn’t do it for the love of his country. Nor was it about the war. It was purely about not breaking down inside. He did it solely for himself.
Sometimes, I wonder how many English and Australian players think this way when it comes to the Ashes: Of not breaking down, for there is so much at stake.
A part of that credit must also go to the writers, who have weaved remarkable stories about The Ashes. Cricket is one of those few sports that gives scope for writing and the likes of Neville Cardus, CLR James, Mike Coward, Peter Roeuck have over the years given it a gourmet treatment for reading aficionados.
My First Brush With the Ashes
My first brush with The Ashes was in ’93 when an Allan Border-led Aussie side routed an insipid English team led by the groucho-moustached Graham Gooch.
England in those days of misery, forever changed their XI (in the previous Ashes of ’89, English selectors lead by Ted Dexter had used as many as 29 players throughout the series). From that bright summer I spent in Kashmir, the romanticism of Ashes stuck to me forever.
With the advent of internet still a good decade away, those days the only means of keep tracking of the series was through the newspaper sports page, which would arrive in the afternoons, and a weekly magazine – which I read with great enthusiasm (especially the tour diaries of Mike Coward).
In the following winter, with enough time time to kill during the winter school break, my cousin brought some VHS cassettes from his Delhi trip for me, sensing my love for the game. Two of those cassettes included, That Man Botham and Richie Benaud Presents.
One of the most visible memories from it remains Richie Benaud in his soft mellifluous tone speaking about the 1974/75 Ashes played in Australia. Those were the times when young people had started experimenting with LSD, free sex and personal freedom. Shackles were breaking. Students rose up in Paris one morning with placards of revolution.
Cricket, the game of nobles was finding its hippie fad too, ready to break the norms: Named Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. When they ran fast, sending bullets to batsmen on other end, crowds roared – Aussie kill, kill.
Those days any footage from Australia used to be a rarity. I remember being totally mesmerised by the whole atmosphere. Sunny Australian summers, sun-kissed bodies, bouncy pitches, good coverage and sea gulls, and top of that, some great aggressive cricket.
Fast bowling is usually associated with West Indian quicks of the 70s and 80s. However, the actual pioneers were Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, and the 1974/75 Ashes their bastion. Their fast bowling was frighteningly quick and England by the end of it were bruised and hurt: Both physically and psychologically. Lilliee and Thomson took 25 and 33 wickets, respectively. ‘I thought, stuff that stiff upper lip crap. Let’s see how stiff it is when it’s split,’ Jeff Thomson had said in a post-match press conference.
The English side were so plagued by injuries that they needed to call in reinforcements from home; one of them being the 41-year-old Colin Cowdrey. In what may be called a futile exercise in the midst of a bloody war, Cowdrey’s inclusion had little impact on the series. Australia trounced England 3-1. Post the series, writer and historian Gideon Haigh wrote about the fearsome duo. ‘[Dennis] Lillee and Thomson remain a combination to conjure with, as sinister in England as Burke and Hare, o Bismarck and Tirpitz.’
1981: A Remarkable Ashes Win
With Packer’s circus taking over cricket in the late 70s, cricket in England was losing its popularity, till THAT MAN BOTHAM popped up one English summer, arguably producing a feat that remains unparalleled. A sense of occasion is important in cricket. The ’81 story is the stuff of legends and plots related to it seem like carefully crafted Erich Segal fiction.
England, captained by a young 24-year-old Botham, were down 1-0 when the third Test at Headingly began. Beefy relinquished his captaincy after the second Test. His form had dropped and according to David Gower, when Beefy was out for naught in the second Test at Lord's, almost sealing his fate as captain, even a hair strand dropping would have broken the silence that descended in the England dressing room.
English cricket had plummeted to a low. Mike Brearley, the 38-year-old professor of philosophy, was rather hurriedly summoned and appointed as the captain for the third Test. England’s fortunes, however, didn’t turn. They were annihilated in the first innings and asked to follow-on.
At 130/7 – still about a 100 runs short of making Aussies bat again – Botham and Graham Dilley, in a remarkable turn-around and back to the walls blitzkrieg, added 130 odd for the 8th wicket.
Bouncers from Lillee and co were smashed without regard by the mercurial Botham to all corners on a cold July English afternoon. But even with such rear-guard action, Australia only required 130 runs to win on the final day. By now, the clouds had given way to bright luminous sunshine. Sun-kissed bodies at Leed's ogled as Australia looked well on course at 56/1, when Mike Brearley in one stroke of brilliant astuteness changed Bob Willis' end and asked him to bowl down the hill.
Result: Australia were bowled out for 111 and England had fashioned one of the most remarkable feats in cricketing history.
With the momentum and impetus well rooted with the English, they went on to win the next Test at Edgbaston where Australia yet again failed to chase a low target. For now it was Botham's turn to light up the magic with the red cherry. In a hostile spell of fast bowling, he returned with figures of 5 for 1 and England went on to win the Test by 29 runs.
In the fifth Test at Old Trafford, Botham hit arguably the greatest century scored on English soil. Replete with marvellous square drives and swaggered hook shots, Botham brought the Manchester crowd to its feet with a more-than-a-run-a-ball century. England won the Test, and the Ashes was eventually regained with the final Test at The Oval being a draw.
The 1981 Ashes gave Britain its first sporting hero since Bobby Charlton, in Ian Terence Botham. Australian captain Kim Hughes’ remarks post series perhaps described their frustration aptly, ‘this series will be remembered in a hundred years. Unfortunately.’
Post ’81, Beefy’s popularity rose so much that he was called the fifth Beatle. His life off the ground always kept him in the news.
During the ’89 series, Allan Border’s side was dismissed by the English press as the weakest to have toured England. Four months later, David Gower’s side had lost the series 4-0 by the end of summer. After the series ended, Border explained how he had very clearly asked his side to not be friendly with the English.
David Gower recalls Border’s behaviour as strange. They were good friends off the field, however cometh the Test match, at toss, Border would just shake hands with a glum face, without any pleasantries, and run back to the pavilion. Border was preparing himself to be ruthless to England. Mind games have always played their part in Ashes and added to the whole mystique.
While English cricket in the 90s fell from one low to the other, Australia produced some champion players in that era, with Shane Warne’s first Ashes delivery called as the ball of the century. That classic leg spinner’s dismissal – ball pitching outside leg and clipping the left bail. The ball missing the girth of Mike Gatting is as mind boggling to me as Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time.
Episodes and decisions can catch astronomical proportions. Ask Nasser Hussain. There have been volumes written on his decision to ask Australia to bat after winning the toss at Gabba in 2002. The scorecard at the end of first day read – Australia 364/2.
Derek Pringle, former England medium pacer and now a well-known broadcaster wrote, “In earlier times, inserting the opposition and seeing them finish the day on 364 for two would have been enough for a captain to summon his faithful hound, light a last cigarette and load a single bullet into the revolver.”
In moments of my procrastination, which by the way are in abundance, I picture my best experiences. A 10-year cruise through Caribbean or backpacking in the tropical forests of Brazil or a drive in a 1965 Chevy through the ochre landscape of south Spain or a Ashes Test at Lord’s. And if a dazzling fairy like the ones in Aesop fables asks me to choose one from this wish list, I would hands down choose the last one.
Artists go to Italy to pay homage to great masters like Raphael and Michelangelo, as pilgrims go to Jerusalem and Mecca, or as students in the middle ages went to pontiffs and chief seats of learning where science and philosophy had made a mark. Orientalists in 18th and 19th centuries travelled far in search of the ‘exotic East’. I think the romanticism of a puritan Ashes fan belongs in the realms of such mystical.
(Faheem is an IT engineer based in Dubai, with interest in travel, history and culture. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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