Graphics departments from England’s biggest papers emblazoned their sports pages with images that featured country, captains and fire. It is called The Ashes. I will give them that.
In fact, both countries can be forgiven for the hype that has accompanied the latest installment of the Ashes. Between now and the beginning of January, England and Australia will have contested 10 test matches. Normally that number is five, but with officials from both countries looking ahead to future scheduling concerns, namely the 2015 World Cup that Australia will co-host, they decided to bite the bullet and move the return leg up 12 months.
The glut of matches hasn’t dissuaded fans from attending. Tickets have been sold out for several weeks, indicating the casual hatred that embodies this rivalry isn’t fading away anytime soon.
So why The Ashes? After Australia defeated England at the Oval in 1882, a weekly British newspaper wrote a scathing mock obituary that pronounced English cricket dead. The satirical article stated ‘the body’ of English cricket would be cremated and taken back to Australia. Naturally, English captain Ivo Bligh vowed to return The Ashes to England when they faced off weeks later in Australia. With that, a rivalry of the most symbolic nature was born.
Since then much has happened. In the 30s England tried the counteract the batting force that was Donald Bradman with bodyline bruising, a technique that would later be banned.
In the early 80s Ian Botham relinquished the English captaincy after a disastrous start only to return from purgatory and lead one of the greatest all-rounder performances in test cricket history. Botham became a national hero and later, one of the game’s leading commentators. For a time, Botham could’ve recited the phone book to a crowded Brixton Academy.
Andrew Flintoff would have his own Botham moment in 2005, when England beat Australia for the first time in 15 years. During the series Flintoff bowled what some–biases aside–deem the greatest over ever. The test at Edgbaston itself was considered one of the best ever witnessed.
Throughout a run that saw Australia dominate England, a multitude of stars emerged, those generational talents that just happened to come about at the same time. The McGraths, the Waughs, the Pontings, the Warnes–he of the ball of the century. But even with these stars the Aussies built a reputation on resiliency.
England heads into the 2013 installment of The Ashes as the favorites, on the backs of captain Alastair Cook and bowler James Anderson. While Australia boasts some formidable players of their own, including captain Michael Clarke and perennial destroyer of balls Shane Watson, they are up against it.
For test cricket itself, the winner doesn’t really matter. With the prevalence of one-day internationals and shorter, faster competitions including T-20 dominating the calender, keeping new viewers engaged is challenging. British television giants have upped the ante. Sky Sports has created an ashes channel, which will be solely devoted to cricket for the summer.
For all the bluster of ‘fast’ cricket, the purists will remain. Casual fans in both countries will be glued to their television sets when play begins today at Trent Bridge. The ratings will be an afterthought when James Anderson bowls out Michael Clarke for naught at the second test in Lord’s.
The Ashes has remained relevant because of the seminal moments it has produced. This year should be no different, and while it would foolhardy to neglect the financial importance of this series, it really is the cricket we’re after.
Drinking some beers and watching The Ashes–preferably the latter tests if you’re a drama junky–should be on the checklist for any sports fan. You will not regret it.