The Ashes is the story of antagonism. The itching, grating, sandpaper-underwear tension between colony and coloniser, between a perceived dominion and those who thought they could rule it.
It’s a contest born 20 years before the modern nation that makes up one half of it. This is only a partial version of Australia, the version made up by white settlement built on dispossession. Between this version and Britain, there was more in common than not. But commonality spawns dislike. We clash with divergent cultures, but perhaps brawl most readily with the similar. They’re so close that differences are taken as insult, a perceived rejection of what we value in ourselves.
The tribal loyalties of nation or religion shrink in ever-decreasing circles: rivalries between cane toads and cockroaches, Melbourne and Sydney, sides of the river, Magpies and Tigers, Nikki and Cardi, state school and private, Gandalf and Dumbledore, Masterchef and MKR. In 2013, Cam the Cameraman and I took an Ashes break to film some football videos for The Roar. What stayed with us was Manchester, a town in red and blue binary, hearing City and United ultras tell of battles in the streets where both lived. With the same lack of awareness, each side told us theirs was a family club, a close-knit community, while the other was a mob of lunatics without honour. Swap the jersies for civvies, and they’d be comfortably leant up against the same bar.
As with most jests, The Ashes reflected the serious – a sense of national pride was pinned to the contest in a manner more wholesome than the military clashes Britain treated with the same jingoism.
Cricket in the 1800s was ad hoc, but what we now call the first Test match was held between the Ashes nations in 1877. It wasn’t an Ashes Test, because the concept didn’t exist. That started with the standalone affair of 1882. Australia won it, prompting the funeral notice from which the name and trophy grew. As with most jests, it reflected the serious – a sense of national pride was pinned to the contest in a manner more wholesome than the military clashes Britain treated with the same jingoism.
After Australia’s opening win, the home of Empire exercised its dominance. England won eight in a row before the colonies hit back. Cricket, then, became pre-federation Australia expressing its identity, even as political struggles raged with London. Through Bradman’s 1930s, it was Australia breaking free of Dominion, a resentment of Empire that had hurled colonial soldiers into Gallipoli’s debacle and the mire of the Western Front.
There is also, as I’ve seen on three tours of England, affection and goodwill aplenty. Almost without fault, English fans and press have been generous hosts. Even the cricketers at times have shown each other mutual respect and fondness. The Oval crowd sang that Bradman was a jolly good fellow moments before they cheered his last dismissal.
Loyalty remained when tested. When Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced in 1939 that Britain and Germany were at war, it was treated as a given “that, as a result, Australia is also at war.” The countries fought, then joined in the Victory Tests. But we began to go our separate ways. Australian citizenship came along in 1949, and by 2017 dual British citizens are being chased out of Parliament like possums from a ceiling cavity. These multicultural nations, to the chagrin of conservative politicians, are more different than ever.
Since that war, the Ashes less represented relations between the countries, and more the phases of cricket and its host societies. The ‘50s were post-war drudge. The ‘60s flirted with Benaud’s joyfulness, before folding back into conservative resistance of an era of change. We had the ‘70s primacy of masculine mythology, then its slow and painful disassembly from Kim Hughes to Phil Hughes. There is a way yet to go. England re-emerged as a credible sporting power from 2005, and Ashes lore is densely packed into the dozen years since.
Of course, there is friendliness in the antipathy, but some of the antipathy remains. The British press scolded David Warner in recent weeks after his comments about treating cricket as war. “You have to delve and dig deep into yourself to actually get some hatred about them,” he said. A few days after the admonishments, The Cricketer magazine ran a front page with giant block letters saying “Let Battle Commence”.
Douglas Jardine would have backed Warner, even as they glared at each other with loathing: “We have to hate them,” said England’s captain in 1932. “It’s the only way we’re going to beat them.” Jardine, of course, did more to bring hatred to the contest than any, masterminding the Bodyline tactics that brought Bradman from deity back to the realms of brilliant mortal. Jardine both hated and beat the Australians, though he became a pariah after the fact.
Along with him, W.G. Grace and Warwick Armstrong stand as twin sources of dislike. One from each country, their captaincy stints some 30 years apart, they were like for like in spirit and in form: enormous men of equally proportioned stubbornness, competitive to a double fault, willing to use their figurative heft to bend cricket’s rules into unrecognisable shapes. As it began, so it goes on. If Ben Stokes joins this summer after his drunken haymaker spree, you can bet that Australians will have plenty to say.
Of course, mostly it’s pantomime. But nastiness and stereotyping are abcesses: under a bit of pressure, that stuff finds a way to ooze out. There are still English minds that turn to convicts and criminals, incivility and bestial natures, ragged edges and lack of class. Australians cite an obsession with class, pomp and pout and deluded superiority, hereditary privilege and closed-mindedness, snottiness and self-regard.
Most of those things have some truth, and most are also evident in the other’s culture, even if in less recognised. Australia’s self-facing myth of egalitarian ideals and larrikin resistance to authority is comforting fiction. England’s self-image of being a civilisational cradle often proves to be veneer. When you’ve popped an especially excrescent cyst, it pays to wipe the mirror. Once that’s done, it doesn’t hurt to have a good hard look at your reflection.
“The Ashes is the story of fast bowling,” I wrote for All Out Cricket magazine in the middle of Mitchell Johnson’s summer. The thread is strong. It’s Demon Spofforth (his parents called him Frederick) who we have to thank for the Ashes in the first place, his 14 wickets at The Oval a surprise torpedo as Grace and company sailed blithely toward a target of 85.
The Demon’s match figures remain the second-best by an Australian to this day, behind Bob Massie’s Ashes haul of 16. Spofforth fuel-injected the rivalry, having stormed into England’s change rooms after play to give Grace an absolute blast after the game’s most famous cheat had run out an Australian player who was patting down the pitch. Spofforth used his rage to good effect the following day. He wasn’t as fast as his nickname suggests, more a bowler of precision, but as the writer Rob Smyth puts it, he “started the tradition of Australian fast bowlers using the moustache as an intimidatory weapon.”
Thirty years later, Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald began the lineage of intimidation for real. One brawny and slingy, one lithe and subtle, they took apart everyone they saw in the first Test at Nottingham in 1921. “The first fast bowlers to mow down opponents in tandem,” as David Frith has it, would change the way that cricket was played. Nowadays the new-ball pair is conventional wisdom; in that age, Armstrong would sequester the new ball for his leg-breaks. His pacemen’s supremacy forced even his giant ego to take a rest.
England never recovered. “These two great Australians created an absolute panic,” said captain Lionel Tennyson. The cricket writer Ronald Mason recalled, “it was Gregory and McDonald who shot away the tenuous foundations of any English courage and consistency that may have been there at the start; and in the serene recollections of half a century it is still the demonic image of this great pair of fast bowlers that rises instantly to the memory and rekindles the undying sense of apprehension.”
Publishing a cricket essay without a Neville Cardus quote can get you expelled from the guild, so let’s hear the great scribe on McDonald. “I cannot find language yet to describe the awe-inspiring and mingled speed, power and effortlessness of his attack. Rhythmic, tawny, acquiline. The silent curving run of McDonald. Stumps flying like spears. It was bowling of havoc but also of rare beauty. It was bowling which seemed to become ignited from the burning sun above.”
Gregory, in contrast, “a giant of superb physique, ran some twenty yards to release the ball with a high step at a gallop, then, at the moment of delivery, a huge leap, a great wave of energy breaking at the crest, and a follow-through nearly to the batsman’s doorstep.” Bradman described his bowling as “positively violent in its intensity.”
The equally great quick Harold Larwood placed Gregory “just a little ahead of his great opening partner because he was a man of more terrifying appearance,” while their wicketkeeper Bert Oldfield would “unhesitatingly hand the palm to McDonald as the greater because of his versatility and remarkable stamina.”
Gregory and McDonald proved one more thing: legendary fast bowlers don’t need longevity. The pair played eight Ashes Tests together, all in the first eight months of 1921, starting in Sydney and finishing at the Oval. They didn’t dominate every game, but when they got a run on, they won the Ashes.
That’s all that pace needs. For five Tests in 2013-14, Mitchell Johnson terrified the English to end with 37 wickets. It will remain vividly remembered although it’s the only time he truly hit that peak. Perhaps it is remembered more so for its brevity. Out, brief candle, and all that. Or something more perfect, a moment where the heavenly lights aligned.
Larwood and Bill Voce were the instruments of Bodyline: bowling at the body with catchers on the leg side. While it was decried as unsporting, it only worked when it was fast enough to impair judgement and accurate enough to prevent scoring. It wasn’t easy, explained Larwood: “Bradman would murder you if you gave him any stuff that was slightly loose.” Australian spectators were concerned with Larwood murdering Bradman. The bowling pair did their job across four Test matches, and never played together again.
The next time England won down south, it was Frank Tyson. The Typhoon destroyed Australia at the MCG just after the New Year celebrations of 1955, rocketing down pace that no one could deal with. He took 7-27 in the innings, and nine for the match. With a ten-wicket haul the previous game in Sydney, then six more in Adelaide, he won England three in a row. Rain came in the last and the typhoon blew itself out. He would barely trouble the statisticians again.
“Bradman would murder you if you gave him any stuff that was slightly loose,” Larwood said. Australian spectators were more concerned with Larwood murdering Bradman.
Then Typhoon to Snow, as England’s next away win came in 1970-71. John Snow certainly found Ashes hostility, when spectators leaned over the fence to punch and pelted him with full beer cans in the second of two SCG Tests. This came after he whacked Terry Jenner in the head with a bouncer, but the build-up had come from a long series of hostile bowling. It worked: the first Sydney Test, he’d taken 7-40 in the second innings, part of 31 for the series.
Snow wasn’t a one-hit wonder: he bowled beautifully in England in 1972, as the Australians split the series 2-2, but was left off the 1974-75 tour. Designated a bad influence or some other such Kevin Pietersen-style nonsense, his absence meant England had no answer to the menace of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.
“For two and a half series,” wrote Greg Chappell, “they were the most lethal bowling combination that I have ever seen.” Enough has been written about them to prop up the wonky leg on every desk in the world, so there’s no need to add much here. Suffice to say terrifying pace destroyed England, who had to rely on Tony Greig’s insane counterattacking bravado and an un-retired Colin Cowdrey swaddled in rubber padding.
As with stories of Ashes pace, it didn’t last – the pair went to England and did it once more, but Thomson busted his shoulder and was never the same piece of mediaeval siege weaponry. England up its own multiple pace threats in 2005, when Freddie Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Simon Jones all screamed the ball around approaching 150 kilometres per hour.
True pace used well intimidates, and as soon as a couple of players in a team feel it, you know they’ll spread it to the rest. Once a certain momentum gets up, your work is done. Case in point: did Mitchell Johnson say anything to Jimmy Anderson after ripping out his middle stump in Adelaide in 2013? “I thought about it. I didn’t need to.”
The Ashes is also the story of spin. That might not be the first thought that leaps at you, but give it a second and you’ll hear it rustling in the undergrowth. For all the sticky-dog hundreds and movement off the seam, picture a leg-break delivery, whirring with its revolutions, arcing out of the Manchester mist, across the pitch to the leg side, then cutting violently back like a streaker evading security. Heading for the gate, then veering around the outer post. Knocking the top of off stump. Shane Warne’s Ball of the Century was named The Guardian’s No.1 Ashes Moment. His MCG hat-trick was slotted in like a Marsh brother at No.6.
Yes, spin. Not the first weapon but often the last. Sydney Barnes was one of the first, and surely the greatest of them all. He is listed here rather than under pace bowlers at his own insistence: while he bowled at velocity, they were still leg-break and off-break deliveries, and he responded to suggestions he wasn’t a spinner with a vehemence that leaves me fearing a haunting.
When Johnson was rocketing up the list for most wickets in a series, the dizzying peak was Barnes against South Africa: 49 of them at less than 11 runs each. Even crazier, he refused to play the fifth Test after arguing with management. Probably about whether or not he was a spinner. Include his club and county career, and he took over 6000 wickets at an average of eight. That’s a lot of people to convince that you’re not a seamer.
For Australia, Warne was the latest in a proud succession of leg-spin. There was the cunning and indefatigable Armstrong, who bowled such prodigious numbers of overs that he once fooled the umpires into letting him have two in a row. Bill O’Reilly’s ten wickets in Bradman’s first Bodyline match, hauling back the game after Bradman was bowled for a duck. Richie Benaud bowling Australia to victory out of the rough.
While Barnes bowled at velocity, they were still leg-break and off-break deliveries. He responded to suggestions he wasn’t a spinner with a vehemence that leaves me fearing a haunting.
There was the joyful Arthur Mailey, who “tossed it up as an experiment in the science of spin, with disdain for the probable hits for boundaries and beyond.” His haul of 36 wickets in the 1920-21 whitewash stood as a series record for another six decades. There was the more sardonic Clarrie Grimmett, the greatest of the art for my money, who started late and should have continued even later. In 22 Ashes Tests, he took 11 five-wicket hauls and 106 wickets, delivering every conceivable variety, a wiry balding man clicking the fingers of his left hand on delivery to disguise his flipper.
It was a leggie who defined an Ashes in his absence, following the injury of the great paceman Glenn McGrath – in 2005 England was at sea against leg-spin, conceding Warne 40 wickets, but Stuart MacGill spent the series on the bench. What’s to say a contrasting style of wrist-spin wouldn’t have done damage? Too conservative for anything but three seamers, selectors first hung on too long to a crocked Jason Gillespie, then subbed in a barely-used Shaun Tait. Ricky Ponting was probably able to get a refund on the latter.
England’s history revolves around orthodox spin. It must be said those spinners most often influenced a series after some sort of intervention – whether divine or diabolical rather depends on one’s outlook. In the first game of 1894-95, Australia needed 64 on the last day with eight wickets in hand, but an overnight storm turned a batting track into a mire tailor-made for Bobby Peel’s left-arm spin. That win enabled England to take a classic series 2-3.
Such was Peel’s context-specific success that the 1896 decider in London also had its pitch drenched before Australia chased a small target on the last day, although in this case overnight rain was not recorded anywhere else in Kensington. The captain, of course, was Grace, and Peel did the fourth-innings job again.
Deadly Derek Underwood’s fusarium pitch in 1972 featured a fungus that magically killed the grass on the playing strip, with the same uncanny 22-yard accuracy as 1896’s rain. More conventional precipitation helped Underwood in 1968, when he ran through Australia after a storm with two overs to spare. Hedley Verity was unplayable on a drenched track at Lord’s in 1934, with 14 wickets on the final day out of his 15 in the match. Lock and Laker won the decider on a dusty track after the draw-fest of 1953. At Old Trafford in 1956, the pitch was shaved like a navy recruit before Laker’s 19 in the match. But the feats remain astonishing even if you’re bowling on bluestone.
As for Wilfred Rhodes, the great left-armer who taunted even the great Victor Trumper, Cardus is again worth the ink: “Flight was his secret, flight and the curving line, now higher, now lower, tempting, inimical; every ball like every other ball, yet somehow unlike; each over in collusion with the others, part of a plot. Every ball a decoy, a spy sent out to get the lie of the land; some balls simple, some complex, some easy, some difficult; and one of them – ah which? – the master ball.”
Of course the Ashes, as all cricket, is also the story of the bat. You may be detecting a theme. But that’s not a subject I can delve into here, for want of space and time. Bradman remains the most famous, and his career was an Ashes series – more than 5000 of his 6996 famous runs came between the sides. Nearly a thousand of those came in one series, the 1934 tour of England where he made 309 in a day and set the then-highest Test score of 334 the next morning.
While it’s easy to look back at Bradman’s feats as inevitability, they were often anything but. He was sorely tested during Bodyline, was ill and out of sorts in 1936-37, lost six fine years to the war, and was past his prime in 1948. He captained the only team to come back from a 2-0 deficit, making 270, 212 and 169 in the process, and won the “sensational battle of tactics” at the MCG by reversing his batting order, after he and Gubby Allen both declared early on a horror pitch.
Trumper, Bradman, and Charlie Macartney remain three of the five to have scored a hundred before lunch to open a Test. Between games on the 1921 tour, Macartney whacked 345 against Notts in a day. Despite being out well before stumps, it remained the most prolific batting day in first-class cricket until Brian Lara’s 390 on his way to 501 not out. On that 1921 tour, Macartney amassed 2317 runs from 31 games.
There is nothing new under the sun. People say that Adam Gilchrist revolutionised Test batting – restraining him was key in 2005, but he rained destruction on England in three other series. But players like those mentioned above already knew how to open the throttle. Stan McCabe did in his incredible Bodyline counterattack. Neil Harvey did with Keith Miller on debut. Trumper could do so at any time, but could also play the most masterful innings of defence on the most difficult wickets.
In the decider of 1894-95, with England poised to lose, Jack Brown battered 140 to take them home with wickets to spare. His 50 in 28 minutes remained the record for another 112 years. Or if Gilchrist was anything, he was the latter coming of Gilbert Jessop, the Croucher, who waited low at the crease and laid balls high in the sky.
Jessop made a Test ton at the Oval in an hour and a quarter, a county 286 in less than three hours, and rained shots around the ground in the days when everything was counted as four unless it exited the premises. Legend has it that in Adelaide he once cleared the pavilion and put a ball in the river. Rob Smyth’s excellent Gentlemen and Sledgers digs up the following verse from American author Ralph Delahye Paine.
At one end stocky Jessop frowned,
The human catapult,
Who wrecks the roofs of distant towns
When set in his assault
There are quite literally too many great batsmen to mention. But in the ever unequal struggle between bat and ball, it pays to remember that bowlers win Test matches. Batsmen just help.
The last few Ashes years have been packed. From 2007 to 2017 we’ve had Warne’s whitewash, two Ponting-led implosions, the 2013 back-to-back, Johnson’s whitewash, Australia’s victorious Tour of London and unsuccessful Tour of the Midlands. The series has ended captains Flintoff, Ponting, and Clarke, while seriously damaging Cook. We had the delightful footnote of Ashton Agar, the triumph of Bell, the beginnings of what would become the wonder-run of Smith. Three times in that span, a single Stuart Broad burst has won a trophy.
That’s what excites for this series – dozens of performances that may soon pass from memory, but one or two that may stake their place forever. Two youngish captains who’ve never squared off, just as Allan Border and David Gower were in 1985. Gower got the first win, Border got the last laugh in 1989 and 1993.
In the ever unequal struggle between bat and ball, it pays to remember that bowlers win Test matches. Batsmen just help.
By January, I will have covered 22 Ashes Tests across seven series in four and a bit years. The women’s version has gained visibility to a degree unthinkable in 2013, while the men’s is remarkable in how much attention it can still draw. Even a packed modern world with no time for Test cricket, as we keep being told, can make it for this.
It all comes down to that same old charisma. The struggle between two countries that carry some genuine dislike for one another, but a lot of affection all the same. The feeling of history and of being part of it, adding brick by brick to an edifice that only becomes grander.
We’ll feel it when nearly 100,000 fill the MCG and roar down the stands with each wicket. We’ll feel it when England try to escape the oppressive threat of Brisbane. We’ll feel it in the new day-night format at Adelaide, with seamers relishing the chance of a green pitch. And we’ll feel it when the famous WACA strip gets tested for the last time. By Sydney, if our luck is in, things might still be in the balance.
For now, it’s time to start.