Two simple words which, for cricket aficionados at least, always get the heart pumping. Two simple words that reference highly anticipated international matches between England and Australia.
It all begins back in 1882, when, at the The Oval, a famous ground in south London, the hosts lose to the visitors. The Sporting Times, a weekly tabloid perhaps best known for printing on salmon-coloured newspaper, then carries a mock obituary of English cricket. The article concludes that “the body will be cremated, and the ashes taken to Australia.”
And so, a fierce and hostile rivalry is born. Immediately, a tiny little urn, only four inches in height, comes to be strongly associated with the Ashes.
There have been numerous famous battles along the way, in series varying in length from one to seven matches. Otherworldly performances in the competition, particularly in a winning team, can make a career. Players quite literally become national heroes and global superstars; their legacies defined.
Consider names such as Don Bradman, the greatest player of all time and scorer of over 5,000 Ashes runs, fearsome fast bowler Dennis Lillee, the renegade leg spinner Shane Warne and his endlessly replayed “ball of the century”.
On the English side, look back on 1933 captain Douglas Jardine and his Bodyline bowling tactics. Remember equally the iconic Ian Botham and current batting sensation Ben Stokes.
In terms of results, the two sides are very evenly matched. Home field advantage in the Ashes usually proves significant. Overall, Australia leads narrowly, 34 wins to England’s 32. With six draws.
Very significantly, cricket is a sport always at the mercy of mother nature. Any match not completed due to inclement conditions is deemed a draw. While, in a drawn series, the holder of the precious urn automatically retains it.
Summer 2023. The 73rd edition of the Ashes series, the 37th to be played in England, gets underway. Five matches in total, each scheduled to run five days. The excitement palpable. A deep and talented Australia side, the current holders, face off vs “Baz-Ball,” the captivating, attacking “swing for the fences” approach of the hosts.
The series has it all. Brilliant individual performances. Along with an edginess. A tension. Disputed catches, crucial umpire reviews. Unimaginable, unsavoury, and wild scenes in the Long Room at Lord’s following the controversial second test runout of England wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow. There, in the members enclosure, a verbal, almost physical altercation takes place between home supporters and visiting players.
There is so little to choose between the teams. Each of the hotly contested games features regular shifts in energy and impetus. Swings and roundabouts, highs, and lows, everything in between. Australia, thanks to a sterling run chase, capture the first test, then go up 2-0 with a second narrow win. Undeterred, England then fights back, recovering for a three-wicket victory to narrow the deficit.
Better yet comes a subtle, then dynamic shift in momentum. Now brimming with confidence, England dominate proceedings in the critical fourth test in Manchester. Guns blazing, led by a stunning innings (189) from Zak Crawley and an unbeaten 99 by Bairstow, the hosts take a 275-run lead.
Australia is an unrecognizable shambles, suddenly under serious pressure in all phases of the game. By comparison, England bats with swagger and bowls with telling accuracy. A victory all but assured. A mouthwatering “winner takes all” fifth test a deserved and fitting end to a compelling series.
Alas, the weather gods intervene. Dark, sullen clouds gather ominously over the Old Trafford ground. The fourth day sees less than two hours of action. Day five is even more gloomy, play abandoned completely, pounding rain the spoilsport.
Australia, thanks to the poor conditions, thanks to the rules, manages a great escape. Secures a draw and an unassailable series lead. Retains the Ashes.
So, on to an anticlimactic final match. Apparently, there is much to play for still, as two proud teams prepare to finish on a positive note. England hoping to avoid an out and out series loss. Australia hoping to seal an outright series win. Knowing that, regardless, the coveted urn will head back Down Under.
And so, not surprisingly, reaction is mixed. Depressing even, like air slowly seeping out of a punctured tire. Players, coaches, pundits, and fans reflect on an unfortunate situation. Debate the what ifs and if onlys, speak of emotions, of tough pills to swallow. There is relief for some. Bitterness, irritation for others. One mentions a rain-soaked fiasco, England the better side, a farce Australia ending up on top. In contrast, a rival argues there is no such thing as a moral victory in top level sport.
The fifth and final 2023 Ashes test will shortly take place, as is customary, at The Oval. Likely, given the circumstances, celebrations will be muted.
Such a glorious opportunity goes abegging. For who would not want to watch a decisive, winner take all deciding match? So much more than just a game. Rather a gripping contest, a potential showcase for the ages.
In the same way the heavens open above Manchester at just the wrong time, one wants to weep.
Instead, all one can do is take solace and look ahead to the next series. Two and a half long years from now. Australia, at home, once again set to defend the Ashes.
Even if, this time, in the eyes of many, just the "raining" champions.
Editor's note - England win the 5th test at The Oval by 49 runs.