This is my second blog on the mysterious and intriguing sport of cricket. On Outta the Park Episode 30, Barry suggested that the greatest rivalry in all of cricket was between India and Pakistan. My assertion is that this is false, and that the most intense rivalry in cricket — and possibly all of sport — belongs to England and Australia.
There’s no getting away from it – India and Pakistan have a hugely powerful rivalry renowned the world over. Mention of the disputed Kashmir region can spark almost immediate incendiary debate. So it’s no surprise that when the two great nations meet on the cricket field, it’s a big deal. The massive populations of the two countries, and the diasporas that exist in other countries, mean that India v Pakistan matches are among the most watched sporting events on the planet outside of global events such as the Olympics or Football (Soccer) world Cup.
So how can I make a case that England v Australia is a bigger rivalry?
The answer? History.
The India national cricket team was formally established as a Test team in 1932, and it took almost 50 years for the team to be a consistent winner of Test series. Pakistan entered the fold in the 1952, on India’s recommendation. So that’s over 60 years of playing between the two nations which, even in baseball terms, is a long time (assuming you reset the clock when a franchise moves).
However, England and Australia’s rivalry goes back even further. The first ever Test match was contested between England and Australia in 1877, and since 1882, whenever the two sides meet, they are literally playing for the heart and soul of English cricket.
In 1882, Australia were in England contesting a Test match (the highest level of Cricket) and so comprehensively beat the English—for the first time on English soil—that the media mourned the “death” of English cricket and went so far as to publish a mock obituary:
In Affectionate Remembrance
which died at the Oval
29 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.
When England went to Australia that winter of 1882/83, they were on a quest to recover those ashes. It took a few years for the concept to catch on, but eventually it became embodied in a tiny urn which—legend has it— contains the cremated remains of a piece of the wicket (the wooden stumps and bails the batsman stands in front of to protect from the bowler). The urn itself is all of 6 inches tall. But it’s what that urn represents that’s the important thing: English cricket.
Imagine Canada playing a gruelling hockey series every two years since 1900 for an embodiment of the very spirit of Canadian hockey – that’s what the Ashes represents to the English, and why the Australians delight in being able to get one over on the Poms – they symbolically own English cricket itself.
Over the years, there have been plenty of momentous occasions:
Bodyline — in the 1932/33 series, the English developed a highly controversial bowling technique – Fast leg theory. Whilst being legal at the time — although of questionable sportsmanship in such a gentlemanly game as cricket — fast leg theory involved pitching a fast ball short down the pitch, with the intention of directing the ball into the batsman’s body. The hope was to get a deflection off the bat as he defended himself, allowing a close fielder on the leg side to catch the batsman out. So controversial was the practice that a diplomatic row between the two countries ensued, and the placement of fielders to allow this practice to occur was outlawed.Sir Don Bradman — widely acknowledged to be the greatest batsman ever, Don Bradman was to retire following the 1948 Ashes. Prior to the last match, his individual batting average (number of runs per out) was above 99, and he needed only four more runs to end with an average of 100.0. He did not manage to score, and ended up with an average of 99.94 runs per out. To put this in context, the next highest average for players of at least 20 Test matches, is 61.87.2005 Ashes series – between 1989 and 2005, Australia had dominated the Ashes, winning or drawing (thereby retaining the Ashes) every series. England had been woeful in the 1990s and early 2000s, so were long due a run of form. The 2005 series ended up being one of the closely-fought contests in living memory. Australia romped to victory in the first test, giving England fans a sad sense of déjà vu. However, as the series progressed, the pendulum swung between the two teams, with England ultimately being victorious for the first time in 16 years, bringing the Ashes home at long last.
On 23 November, the 2017/18 Ashes series will begin in Brisbane, Australia. The two nations will contest five 5-day Test matches. That’s right, a total of 25 days of cricket to determine the winners of the 70th Ashes series. With so much lore tied up in The Ashes, it can’t be doubted that it’s the biggest battle in world cricket. The teams tied on 32 series wins apiece and five series drawn (The Aussies have won more matches). Each series always completes every matches, giving the opportunity of a 5-0 sweep, or “whitewash” in cricketing nomenclature. When England were last Down Under in 2013/14, Australia whitewashed them 5-0. England will be looking to avenge that humiliation. Australia will seek to regain the Ashes they lost back in England in 2013 and stick the knife into English hearts.
Does it get any bigger than this?