I know it's completely the wrong time of year - and I might re-post this when the time is right - but when Sunny from Cricket for Dummies admitted, in a right shameful display of cricket ignorance I must say, that she didn't know what the "Ashes of English cricket piece from the 1880s" was, I was inspired to write this (and to send bunnies to her home to pelt her with peanut shells as she tries to sleep).
In light of the fact that we seem unable to beat anyone other than Bangladesh these days, it seems fairly appropriate to remind ourselves of a time when we could win. And so, without further ado, here is my memory of that first Ashes test, it may be a little faulty (and yes, I really am that old):
Twas the unseasonably warm summer of 1882; the sky was blue, the wee little pigeons were swooping all over the ground at Kennington Oval ( Oval, then catch the half-hourly stagecoach right to the ground entrance) and the car park was full of horses and their excrement. Only one test is to be played in this exciting cricket competition between the English gentlemen and those upstart convicts and this be the third day of it.
To begin at the beginning, Australia had won the toss and chosen to bat, but ‘twas a fairly poor decision as they were duly cleaned up by a Yorkshireman on a mission and bowled out for 63. Aussie legend, and arguably the man who set the trends regarding ‘taches in Australian cricket for a century to come, Freddie Spofforth was not best pleased and helped himself to seven wickets as his side bowled England out for 101. Batting for a second time, Australia were slightly less shit but were annoyed by that same bloody Yorkshireman again. This time they went for 122 runs, leaving England needing only 85 runs for the win.
Grace had been cheating, as only Grace knew how (because all the umpires were bloody scared of him and did as he told them to), and Our Freddie – he o’ the tache – was determined that Australia would not go down without a fight.
And so we come to day three. With days one and two having gone in favour of the English, the crowd on day three was larger than ever as the locals suddenly took an interest. The small cluster of giant green and gold foam hands, attached to loudly singing and drunken Aussies, was drowned out by long-coated men with monocles and pipes saying “tally-ho, old chap” every two minutes.
Barlow and Grace, the English openers, emerged from the pavilion and the crowd went even wilder. The “tally-ho”s were truly deafening. W.G. pranced about, swinging his stovepipe hat and pipe all over the shop, working the crowd. At one point, he even picked up the ball and bit into it! Such a thing will surely never be seen again. He was behaving like such an obnoxious twat that one frustrated crowd member, with an Aussie flag in one hand and a can of Fosters in the other, rushed over the field and rugby tackled W.G. to the ground. The gentleman players from both sides responded immediately by gathering around him and beating him senseless with their dandy walking canes. The crowd was shocked and every newspaper present refused to publish any sketches of the incident for fear it would set a poor example – an Aussie in London drinking British brewed Fosters is so shameful, we don’t ever want to see it again.
Fortunately, this fan was not the only one who had been riled by the antics of the great Dr Grace. Our Freddie was also a touch pissed at him. Legend has it that, while the above was going on, Spofforth declared to his compatriots that “this thing can be done” and walked out with a determination that Kim Hughes, a hundred years later, could only dream about (and probably did). He took out Hornby and Barlow, bringing the score to 51-2 but Grace still stood proudly at the crease. It was only when he, too, went that the Aussies really started to feel they had a chance.
Spofforth and Boyle then took twelve maiden overs one after the other and for England’s last five wickets the home side managed only 7 runs. Our Freddie – who was henceforth known as “The Demon” – refused to be denied his victory. In total he took 7 wickets for only 44 runs. He bowled a total of 28 overs and in his final 11 he took 4 wickets and let through only two runs.
This historic match had become so exciting that the heart of one man in the crowd failed and he did not live to see that England was bowled out for only 77, giving Australia the win. The monocles and stove-pipe hats were strangely quiet and left the ground saying to each other “One day we’ll win a competition of much shorter cricket that no one cares about” and “we think test cricket is dead anyway”.
A few days later a mock obituary was published in the Sporting Times that went like this:
In Affectionate Rememberance
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.
Surely a fairly hopeful passage, in light of the fact that Australia were bowled out in that first innings for so little, but there you go.
A few months later England captain, Ivo Bligh, took his team to Australia to, as he claimed, “recover those ashes”. England ultimately won the series and, while celebrating with the Australian team in Melbourne, was gingerly approached by a group of local women.
Florence Murphy, one of that group, had been given a horrible little brown urn for Christmas by her elderly aunt and was keen to be rid of it so she concocted a plan to palm the hideous thing off on the England cricket team. Her and her gal pals burnt something – although history has forgotten exactly what – and put the ashes inside the urn. They ceremoniously presented it to Bligh at the victory celebration, claiming it was the ashes of English cricket and that he may have them back.
The urn became an icon; the competition became a regular event and now it had a name – The Ashes. Unfortunately, dear Florrie was stuck with the ugly urn after all because she married Bligh and returned with him to England, becoming Lady Darnley in 1800 when Bligh succeeded to the title of Lord Darnley.
It was not until 1927 that the urn was handed to the MCC and put on display at Lord’s, so presumably Florrie had to dust the awful thing for the remainder of her days. Oh well, at least Aunty Mavis was pleased when she came for a visit.