The Empire Strikes Back
Few sporting events can rival The Ashes for intensity and emotion, and few sporting events can rival its history; it is a history that defined two nations and their people. And that is simply the start of it.
The history behind The Ashes is well documented. In 1882 after England lost the only Test match at the Oval, a satirical obituary was printed in the Sporting Times and gave birth to the legend of the Ashes. A small urn was presented to the English captain by a group of women from Melbourne, and its contents were the ashes of a bail and that moment of humiliation started the Ashes tradition. Symbolically the urn has represented the Ashes, but in truth the Ashes means much more than just a little urn. It is the battle for respect; as one person put it so well it is actually the convict's revenge.
Australia will always be known as little England. It was the world's largest prison and for them to even look their masters in, the eye was a social event. The identities of the two countries are intertwined in such a way that when they play each other at any sporting event it is sure to be a spectacle, full of fire and brimstone. But the defining moment between them as sporting nations is the cricket. Over the decades it has sparked many a row between the two nations as well as bringing them closer than any political alignment ever will.
The English are calm and unperturbed, the Australians are aggressive and brash, these are just a few of the cliches to come out of the Ashes, and since then they have been generalised and accepted around the world. While the cliches are just the tip of the iceberg, the fierce rivalry has left the world with some memorable quotes. Famously the English sides of the mid 80's were called a team that “can't bat, can't bowl and cant field”. During the Lord's Test it is customary for the queen to be introduced to the touring Australians, a slightly tipsy Dennis Lillie addressed her by saying “G'day Queenie” and proceeded by asking for her autograph. These little treasures only add to the spice of the contest but when the laughter dies, there is only one thing on a cricketer's mind, that is, to retain the ashes at any cost.
For the Australians the Ashes means so much more because of their colonial past, a past that is bound to “the old country”. Generations of children have grown up in Australia dreaming of toppling the so-called snobs, deep within their racial unconscious they harbour mixed feelings about the nation they left behind and the nation they began to call home. Their cricket was always played to prove a point, to stick it to the Pom's, and from this win at any cost mantra they set in stone their image of aggression and bravado.
The English for many of their early tours were all players of prominence, lords and aristocracy; they played the game in an aloof and gentle-manly manner and thereby were considered haughty. These little stereotypes stuck with both teams for quite some time, but then came a series when the roles were reversed, the 1932/33 tour was better known as the Bodyline series and its effects can still be felt to this day.
England arrived for the '32/33 series in Australia with revenge on their mind. The preceding tour they were beaten by Don Bradman, only this time around they had a plan to foil the great batsman. It was called leg theory (which was later to be known as Bodyline) and it was basically bowling fast short pitched balls into the body of a batsman, with a number of fielders close on the leg side. To say the results were brutal were an understatement, the Australians were battered and bruised and Bradman was brought down to size. But the public uproar could not be silenced so easily, Australia claimed it was against the spirit of the game and it caused serious bodily harm to a number of Australian players. The entire series was played in bad spirit; and there was much debate about whether the tour should be abandoned. In modern terms it was a PR nightmare, a great rivalry was taken just a bit too far. England comprehensively won the Ashes, but at an astronomical price. As one commentator said, “England may have won the ashes but they have lost a territory”. Relations between the two nations hit an all time low, and by the time the tour was over there was a fierce political battle between the two nations, with England trying to prove all they brought along with them was winning spirit, while Australia bemoaned the lack of sporting behaviour. As the old saying goes “it's just not cricket”.
While those wounds may have healed, the scars still show. But it's not all that bad; relations have improved and since then there have been a few incidents but none as nation- shaping as the Bodyline series. The spirit and rivalry of the occasion was possibly best seen during the last Ashes, when after almost two decades England regained the Ashes. The series was an epic; England came from behind to win one of the greatest series of all time. It was played in great spirit and produced some breathtaking cricket, aside from that the players were well- acquainted with each other and the atmosphere around the series was of overwhelming friendliness. So much so that the Australians were blamed for being too friendly with the English, a fact which many people attributed to loss of the series.
After all is said and done, England versus Australia will forever be the greatest rivalry in cricket, the history and tradition behind the Ashes is legendary. There is also an interesting facet to the plot -- the fact that as a former colony, every time Australia regains the Ashes one might be tempted to say the empire strikes back.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006