Tuesday, 28 December 2010

It's Cricket: Just a Little Bit about "The Ashes"

[From The Sporting Times, the obituary marking the "death" of English cricket --
this death having been highly exaggerated]

As a (rather newly minted) cricket fan, The Idle Historian has thrilled to the test match action in Australia, culminating today with the England team retaining the Ashes (as they had won the last test series in the UK, played in the summer of 2009). It is a somewhat lonely condition being a cricket fan in Canada -- those who understand the game, or are even remotely interested in it, are few and far between. One must feed on the enthusiasm of one's "twitter friends" in England (if you aren't a follower of the Idle Historian, you should be: @IdleHistorian), and friends and expats of varying cricket-playing nationalities, both near and far.

Cricket, as an ideal, is instantly recognizable even to those who could not tell an innings from an over (the group I erstwhile belonged to). Cricket entails a strong and singular cultural undercurrent: "fair play," and the ideals of sportsmanship and gentlemanly behaviour. It is the game of public schools, august playing fields, and nineteenth-century Boy's Own Paper fantasies. It is traditional, yet resonant today -- the five-day all-day test matches with lunch and tea breaks perhaps highlighting a vision of leisurely sport that we innately miss. It is Home Counties village greens and pitches far-flung across the British Empire. Imperial and simultaneously localized, it is both Englishness preserved and also diffused among large swathes of the globe (though, sadly, not very much in Canada). Everyone understands what the phrase "it's just not cricket" denotes, and by implication its inverse purports to be something very special indeed.

I will refrain from comment about how the game is played -- the laws of cricket. Just touching on this subject would require multiple, and lengthy, blog posts. Even after a general immersion in the game, it is so complex and intricate that one still feels utterly inadequate to the task. As this is an historical blog, however, I will give a brief history of "the Ashes" and the events that led to the eventual naming of this intense rivalry between the two nations.

Australia was the first country accorded the right to play test cricket against England, in 1877. (Though, interestingly, the first international test match was between Canada and the United States in 1844!) The 1882 series, in which Australia toured England, produced a shocking result at the Oval in the single test played. England, within less than 100 runs of a win, suffered an unexpected "collapse" at the hands of the Australian bowlers -- in the immortal words too often seen since across London on Evening Standard newsboards and the like (in the days of the paid ES), in reference to cricket: "ENGLAND COLLAPSE."

The shock of losing a cricket match to mere colonials was immediate and long-lasting. Yet demonstrating that fine "black humour," which is one of the finest British contributions to the world, mock obituaries appeared in sporting publications. The first read:

The second, and more famous, "obituary" was published in The Sporting Times [picture of the original piece at the top of this post]:

In Affectionate Remembrance
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.
The legacy of the term "the Ashes" is highly complex -- the upshot being that its application to the England-Australia test series was not immediate. Though the next tour to Australia was dubbed "the test to regain the Ashes," it was not until the 20th century, and the publication of an English book How We Recovered The Ashes about England's 1903-4 tour of Australia, that the term was more generally used.

And, yes, there is an urn [pictured below]. The exact story of how it came to be, and what it contains (reputedly the ashes of a burnt cricket bail) is somewhat murky and inconclusive. But whatever the truth, it is perhaps secondary to the urn as symbol and myth. Particularly for England, the retaining, or regaining, of the Ashes evokes long-standing passions. England has won fewer series than the Australians, including a long drought throughout the 1990s through to 2005 -- when England won the Ashes on home soil. The Idle Historian was present in England during the series (and suspects this presence must have somehow weighted the balance of luck) and for the celebrations in Trafalgar Square. I am rather less familiar with the Australian perspective, but no doubt their own mythology about the test series fills an equally large cultural space. The battle of the gentlemen on the pitch endures, the Ashes always somehow rising above ordinary sport into the realms of legend.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils


vir beātum said...

Splendid. You have clearly gleaned a great deal. If I may be permitted to add something on the ethos of the game: beingmanly: valiant draw
Let's have a cricket party in Canada some time. The Telegraph and a Fortnum's hamper would be mandatory.

IdleHistorian said...

Your Being Manly piece on cricket is indeed excellent. One is always ready for a cricket party in Canada -- most certainly with The Telegraph and a Fortnum's hamper!

perkinsy said...

I can contribute an Australian perspective. I am currently reearching the history of teaching reading in Australia and was in the archives when to my surprise I came across a minute of the New South Wales Council of Education in 1876 agreeing to allow their clerks half a day off work to attend the New South Wales vs England cricket match. Cricket was a very important sport back then. Like Idle Historian I was inspired to write a post about it.

It is great to see England back in the game after the vicissitudes of the 1990s and early 2000s. Even though Australia was winning during this time, I did not enjoy seeing England being humiliated. Of course it was frustrating watching the trouncing of the Australians during this series, but England were deserved winners of the Ashes.

IdleHistorian said...

Thanks for your comment from an Australian perspective, and I enjoyed your post about time off for cricket in 1876. Very interesting!

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