By Sham Samaroo
Test cricket might be dying but the true test of cricket remains the battle of the Ashes. It’s a contest that began more than 150 years between Australia and England, and is still seen as the game’s biggest stage.
This week the two teams clashed in the first test at the Gabba in Brisbane after several weeks of mind games and trash talk between the players. And after two days, its remains an intriguing contest much like it was in 1882 when the Ashes was born. So what is the Ashes and how did it come about? Actually, this contest between England and Australia began some twenty years earlier in 1862. Interestingly, back in those days, England would often do a stopover in the USA for a few games on their way to Australia. But in 1862 they did not because it was the time of the American Civil War, and the first Republican President, the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. Yes, regardless of what fake news will tell you, it was President Lincoln and the Republican Party that struck the blow that brought an end to slavery.
England – Australia matches had often been one-sided affairs with England the victors. But that all changed at the Oval in 1882 when England suffered a shocking collapse that handed Australia victory by 7 runs. Chasing an easy target of 77 for victory, England were cruising at 51 for 2 and another victory seemed a formality. But then came the shocker. Fred “the demon” Spofforth, Australia’s first true fast bowler, dismissed England for 69.
Spofforth had match figures of 14 for 90, with his last 11 overs costing only 2 runs. At one point, Spofforth and Boyle sent down twelve consecutive maidens. England’s last 5 wickets fell for the addition of only 7 runs. The English fans and the country were in disbelief. The Sporting Times recalled the tension of the last half hour. “In the excitement one spectator `dropped down dead’ and another gnawed out pieces from his umbrella handle. The lips of one English batsman as he made his way to the wicket were ‘ashen grey’ and `his throat so parched he could hardly speak’. How could this have happened? This was like a national tragedy. The following day, one English journalist wrote a piece for The Sporting Times. It was a mock obituary for English cricket. It read: 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. (NB. – The Body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia). And so began the legend. Since then, Australia and England have played for the “Ashes” – originally an urn about six inches in size with the ashes from the bails at one of the games. The two teams played for this tiny urn until 1990 when the ICC, recognizing that the two teams wanted to play for an actual trophy, decided to commission an urn-shaped Waterford Crystal trophy to be given to the winning captain after each Ashes series. It was first presented to the Australian captain, Mark Taylor after his side won the 1998-99 series.
The Ashes continues to be seen as a battle of national pride much more than any other sporting contest. The last time the two teams met was in 2015 with England winning a crazy home series 3-2. England took the first test by 169 runs only to be thrashed by 405 runs in the second test, at Lords no less. England rebounded to take the third test by 8 wickets and the fourth by 78 runs before losing the fifth by 46 runs. This week the two rivals met in the first test of the 2017-18 five-test series. The opening day was a gripping and engrossing one. England batted resolutely to end it at 196 for 4. On day two, Australia seemed out of options as England dug in for the long haul. They made it to 246 for 4 before that man Starc got Australia the much-needed break through to end an already dangerous looking 83-run partnership. Suddenly from 246 for 4, England slipped to 250 for 7 and were eventually bowled out for 302, the last 6 wickets falling for only 56 runs. The Aussies were back on top. But that did not last too long as they, themselves, slipped to 76 for 4. But skipper Steve Smith and Shaun Marsh steadied the shaky Aussie ship and were still there at the close with Australia 165 for 4. An intriguing third day is on the cards. Steve Smith, easily the world’s best batsman today, is looking ominous and will be the trump card for the Aussies when play resumes on day three. But Jamie Anderson, with 500 test wickets already to his name, might have something to say about it. Stay tuned.