The Ashes is one of the oldest and most compelling competitions in sport. Cricket’s famous test series is drenched in 137 years of history and predates the foundation of the English Football League, the Masters, and even the modern Olympics.
This summer’s edition of the Ashes is the 71st between England and Australia, with the latter leading the series by just 33 wins to 32, while five have been drawn. Over time, the two countries have created one of the most enduring and transfixing rivalries; filled with drama, controversy and sledging.
But how did it all come into play and which incidents in particular have contributed to stoke the fires - which on occasions have spilt into serious bad blood? Below we take a look at the evolution of the most famous rivalry in cricket.
Origins of a Rivalry
Cricket has its origins in 16th Century England. Over time, the sport spread globally and it was introduced to Australia in 1788 when the first fleet of British ships arrived during the Colonisation period.
In 1868, an Australian Aboriginal team toured England, during which they played 47 matches spread out over a six-month period (W14 L14 D19). Nine years later, in 1877, the first test match between Australia and an England touring team took place at Melbourne Cricket Ground, which was won by the hosts. Five years later the Ashes was created…
Foundation of the Ashes
On August 29, 1882 Australia beat England in a single test in London at the Oval. It may not have been a high-scoring affair but it was a real nerve-shredder. In the first innings, Australia were bowled out for just 63 while England carded 101. Australia responded with a score of 122, then bowled the hosts out for 77 to win by seven runs.
The Aussies were overjoyed at their triumph - their first on English soil - in stark contrast to England who were left absolutely crushed at the defeat. The Sporting Times journalist Reginald Shirley Brooks was so mortified he published a mock obituary, in which he labelled the loss as "the death of English cricket" and that "the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia"
And so began the oldest international sporting rivalry on the planet.
England, captained by Hon. Ivo Bligh, vowed to bring the "Ashes" home. He stayed true to his word as England came from behind to beat their rivals 2-1 to claim the very first Ashes series.
A Melbourne woman named Florence Morphy - who would later become Bligh’s wife - reputedly filled a tiny perfume jar (urn) with the ashes of the burnt bails, and presented it to Bligh in a red and gold velvet bag on Christmas Eve 1882. The concept of the iconic urn grabbed the imagination of the public and replicas have since been awarded to each winner, while the original now resides at the MCC Museum at Lord's cricket ground in London, and is believed to be the smallest trophy in sport.
Unsporting Tactics: Bodyline Bowling
The moment the rivalry began to move away from its ‘Gentleman’s Game’ origins - and really spark into life - can be pinpointed back to the 1932/33 series.
It was a series shrouded in controversy as England resorted to ‘Bodyline bowling’, an intimidating tactic devised to combat the skills of the legendary Australian batsman Don Bradman, who scored 974 runs in the previous series between the sides.
England captain Douglas Jardine instructed his bowlers fire down deliveries at the body, far from the ideals of a ‘Gentleman’s Game’, with the unsportsmanlike act unsurprisingly sparked ill-feeling, and Australia’s captain Bill Woodfull would famously say:
“There are two teams out there on the oval. One is playing cricket, the other is not."
Aluminium bats, the spirit of cricket, and fist fights
In the first test of the 1978/79 series Australian fast bowler Dennis Lillee strolled up to the crease clutching an aluminium bat, much to the confusion of the England players. It was actually legal, but after much persuasion, Lillee continued with a normal wooden bat. Shortly after he was dismissed. The rules have since been changed.
In 2005 Australia captain Ricky Ponting fired expletives towards England coach Duncan Fletcher for his liberal use of substitute fielders - Ponting was famously ran out by sub Gary Pratt.
The Aussies were also left fuming on the third day of the first test in the 2013 series, when Stuart Broad refused to walk out despite clearly edging Ashton Agar's delivery to first slip. They had no reviews left so were unable to overturn the decision of the umpire, who bizarrely didn’t show Broad the door, and England went on to secure a controversial 14 run victory.
The spirit of cricket was subsequently called into question, while Australian coach at the time, Darren Lehmann, said:
"I hope the Australian public give it to him right from the word go for the whole summer. And I hope he cries and goes home. I don't advocate walking, but when you hit it to first slip it's pretty hard."
In the build-up to that particular series we also had THAT incident between David Warner and Joe Root, when Warner punched his fellow batsman at Walkabout bar in Birmingham.
Australia would also launch a stinging verbal attack on England: “Get ready for a broken f***ing arm," Aussie captain Michael Clarke fired at Jimmy Anderson.
Meanwhile, Jonny Bairstow allegedly head-butted Australia batsman Cameron Bancroft ahead of the 2017 series.
These are just a selection of recent incidents which have all combined to add extra spice to proceedings.
Cambridge Dictionary Definition of Sledging: The act of one sports player insulting another during a game, in order to make them angry.
Volcanic verbal barbs have been used to devastating effect during Ashes tests. Most are humorous, some are savage, while others are career-ending. Even the crowd has also played its part in the shenanigans: “Oi, Tufnell! Can I borrow your brain? I’m building an idiot,” roared an Australian fan to Phil Tufnell.
Here is a selection of some absolute gems - click here for more.
Merv Hughes to Graeme Hick
Hughes: “Mate, if you just turn the bat over you'll find the instructions on the other side.”
Mark Waugh v Jimmy Ormond
Waugh: “There’s no way you’re good enough to play for England.”
Ormond: “Maybe not, but at least I’m the best player in my own family.”
Shane Warne to Paul Collingwood
Warne: “You’ve got an MBE, right? For scoring seven at The Oval? You’re an embarrassment.”
Meanwhile, former Australian opener Shane Watson perfectly summed it up:
“It’s as simple as us Aussies hate losing to the Poms. It runs so deep, deeper than I could ever imagine. That gives you that extra edge to your performance.”
Amidst all the sledging, controversy, and unsavoury incidents the rivalry has also produced moments of heartwarming sportsmanship. The most famous of which came during the 2005 series, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever, when Andrew Flintoff commiserated with a crestfallen Brett Lee after a dramatic two run-victory to level the score at 1-1.