The Ashes Down The Years
This brief history puts the world’s greatest Test Match series into perspective, with regard to the passionate and enduring competition between England and Australia ever since 1882.
When The Sporting Times newspaper in London published a mock obituary in memory of English cricket, which ‘died on 29th August, 1882’ following a first ever home defeat to Australia, few would have predicted the events that followed.
The obituary went on to say of English cricket ‘… the body will be cremated and the ashes taken back to Australia’, thus prompting a group of Australian women to present England’s captain, the Right Honourable Ivo Bligh, with an urn the following winter containing, symbolically, the ashes of a bail.
Ever since that 1882/83 tour, Test series between England and Australia have been played for the Ashes.
One hundred and thirty years later the competition remains fierce, forged on many great Ashes battles that remain at the heart of Anglo-Australian sporting rivalry.
England won 11 of the first 12 Ashes series played between 1883 and 1896 and it was only after the turn of the century that Australia began to challenge consistently.
Australia won four successive series in the early part of the 20th century before C.B. Fry’s team redressed the balance with an epic series win shortly before the outbreak of World War I.
Following the World War I, Australia maintained the upper hand, achieving a first series whitewash in 1920/21 and winning 12 Tests to one in recording three successive series wins.
Percy Chapman captained England to back-to-back victories at the end of the 1920s but the emergence of Donald Bradman during the 1928/29 series—which England won 4-1—was to have a profound effect on both team’s fortunes over the ensuing years.
The ‘Bodyline’ series
Bradman’s brilliance was such that England, under the captaincy of Douglas Jardine, employed an infamous tactic known as ‘Bodyline’ for the 1932-33 series. The tactic was built around fast bowlers aiming the ball at the batsman’s body, with a leg-side field, in the hope of snaring a catch. England won the series, with Bradman relatively subdued, but Bodyline threatened diplomatic relations between the two nations and left a bitter taste which, some argue, lingers to this day.
1930s, ’40s, and ‘50s
That 4-1 series win proved a lone success for England in the 1930s until Len Hutton inspired them to victory shortly before the outbreak of World War II.
The ‘Invincibles’ tour of England in 1948 saw Australia, on Bradman’s last tour, claim a crushing 4-0 victory and they continued to dominate into the 1950s, despite the retirement of the world’s greatest ever batsman.
Hutton’s England reclaimed the urn in 1953 with a 1-0 series win, beginning a run of three successive series triumphs which included Jim Laker’s magnificent achievement of taking 19 wickets in the match at Old Trafford in 1956—and 46 in the series.
Aussies on top
Richie Benaud’s Australians wrestled the urn back in 1958/59 and England were unable to reclaim them for the whole of the 1960s.
Ray Illingworth finally won the Ashes back when his side triumphed 2-0 in 1970/71 before the emergence of fast bowling duo Geoff Thomson and Dennis Lillee once again saw Australia gain the upper hand.
The Kerry Packer era weakened Australia’s national side in the late 1970s, while the emergence of Ian ‘Beefy’ Botham provided England with a talisman capable of striking fear into his opponents.
‘Botham’s Ashes’, as the 1981 series became known, saw England fight back from 1-0 down to claim a 3-1 series victory. Botham would go on to play a pivotal role in Ashes contests throughout the 1980s, and he was at the heart of England’s triumphs in 1985 and 1986/87.
As Botham’s powers began to wane, so too did England’s. Allan Border’s team arrived in 1989 and proceeded to obliterate a shell-shocked England 4-0.
Waugh and Warne
Twenty-year-old batsman Steve Waugh played a huge part in Australia’s back-to-back series wins before Shane Warne’s first Ashes appearance in 1993—marked by the ‘ball of the century’ to Mike Gatting in the first Test—coincided with an unprecedented period of Australian dominance which saw them win eight successive series wins.
That run was broken by Michael Vaughan’s team in 2005 when, just as in 1981, England fought back from losing the first Test to claim the series. Again their triumph was built on the shoulders of a world-class all-rounder, Andrew Flintoff, who emulated Botham by inspiring the nation.
Ricky Ponting’s men produced one final herculean effort in 2006/07, completing a 5-0 whitewash before the likes of Warne and Glenn McGrath hung up their boots, and England have won the last two series.
Alastair Cook’s men go into this summer’s series as favourites, but as countless previous contests have shown, the odds count for nothing in the heat of an Ashes battle.