The History of the Ashes

Australia and England first met in Test match cricket in Melbourne in 1877, but the legend of The Ashes, the symbolic trophy the two teams play for, only began in 1882.

Ashes UrnCricket Australia

Australia and England first met in Test match cricket in Melbourne in 1877, but the legend of The Ashes, the symbolic trophy the two teams play for, only began in 1882.

It was 1882 when at the Oval in London, Australia won its first test match on English soil, beating its hosts by seven runs in a match that spanned two days in late August.

Four days later a mock obituary, lamenting the home side’s loss, appeared in a newspaper, The Sporting Times, written by Reginald Shirley Brooks.

It read:

“In Affectionate Remembrance of English cricket, which died at The Oval on 29 August 1882. Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances RIP. NB – the body will be cremated and the ashes takes to Australia.”

Ivo and The Ashes, Paradie Regained (1883) by UnknownMelbourne Cricket Ground

England’s captain for the return series in Australia in 1882/83, Ivo Bligh (later Lord Darnley), promised to “regain those ashes” and then, during that tour, a group of ladies in the state of Victoria, including Bligh’s future wife Florence Morphy, presented him with a six-inch (150 millimetre) terracotta urn, possibly a perfume bottle, sealed with a cork and believed to contain the ashes of a burned bail.

Later in the tour, Mrs Ann Fletcher gave Bligh a velvet bag to keep the urn inside. Bligh subsequently wrote to Mrs Fletcher thanking her for the “pretty little bag” in a letter now held at the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) Museum at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London.

Photograph of the Ashes urn with explanatory text, c1930Melbourne Cricket Club

Lord Darnley died in 1927 and his widow presented the urn to the MCC. It was first displayed in the Long Room before it was moved to the Museum in 1953.

The urn has twice left Lord’s to be taken to Australia – in 1988 as part of Australia’s Bicentenary celebrations to mark the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet of British convict ships in Sydney, and 2006/07, during that summer’s Test series between the two countries.

However, the Ashes urn is not the formal trophy played for between the two sides. The MCC commissioned a trophy that has been played for in series between Australia and England since 1998/99.

That trophy is a larger replica of the urn in Waterford Crystal.

LIFE Photo Collection

The matter of The Ashes was largely forgotten for two decades after the tour of Australia by Bligh’s side in 1882/83, but was revived after the 1903/04 series when Pelham Warner, who captained the England side, wrote a book on the tour called ‘How we recovered The Ashes’.

From that day forward, the series between Australia and England would be famously, lovingly known as The Ashes.

The Ashes by Getty ImagesCricket Australia

The first photograph of the urn appeared in The Illustrated London News of January 1921 and the words stuck to the urn are “The Ashes” followed by a six-line verse:

“When Ivo goes back with the urn, the urn;

Studds, Steel, Read and Tylecote return, return;

The welkin will ring loud;

The great crowd will feel proud;

Seeing Barlow and Bates with the urn, the urn;

And the rest coming home with the urn.”

The words are the fourth verse of a song lyric published in the Melbourne Punch (February 1, 1883) from a song called ‘Who’s in the cricket field’.

Donald Bradman's Bat & Baggy Green (2016) by Getty ImagesCricket Australia

The first 18 series between the teams, before the legend of The Ashes was born, featured 13 England wins.

In the immediate aftermath of World War One, Australia won eight Tests in a row, including the first-ever clean sweep in a five-match series in 1920/21.

The 1932/33 series in Australia saw England regain The Ashes courtesy of a 4-1 series success that featured the so-called ‘Bodyline’ tactic, with England’s fast bowlers often targeting the bodies of the Australian batsmen rather than their stumps.

England’s captain Douglas Jardine developed the approach as a means of lessening the effectiveness of Australia’s greatest player, Donald Bradman. His fast bowlers, principally Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, were able to deliver the strategy extremely effectively.

Watercolour, L Hutton (2002) by Robert IngpenMelbourne Cricket Club

That 1932/33 success would be England’s last series victory until 1953.

The period immediately after World War Two was one of Australian dominance and featured the 1948 tour when Bradman’s side did not lose a single match; winning the Test series 4-0, producing the-then highest run-chase in history by scoring 3-404 at Headingley in Leeds, and becoming known as The Invincibles.

Australia’s stranglehold on bragging rights was finally broken by Hutton’s side of 1953, the first of three successive series wins for England.

In 1956, off-spin bowler Jim Laker took 19 wickets in a single match at Old Trafford in Manchester, the best figure in the history of Test cricket.

Dennis Lillee statueMelbourne Cricket Ground

Australia regained The Ashes in 1958/59 in a series marred by controversies over the legitimacy of bowlers’ actions. The team then protected The Ashes throughout the 1960s in a period that was characterised by defensive cricket, with three of the five series during that decade ending in stalemate.
England stole back The Ashes in 1970/71 under the captaincy of Ray Illingworth; a series that featured seven Tests. The seventh was added to the schedule when one Test in Melbourne was abandoned due to rain after the toss and was replaced by a one-day match between the sides. This became the first-ever One-Day International.

The 1970s featured an iconic series in 1974/75, in which Australia fast bowlers Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee terrorised England’s batsmen before, in 1977, the two sides contested a Centenary Test in Melbourne, 100 years after the first meeting.

In a remarkable coincidence, the margin of victory for Australia – 45 runs – was the same as it had been in 1877.

Watercolour, D Randall & R Marsh (2002) by Robert IngpenMelbourne Cricket Club

The 1977 match was an animated one.

It included 11 wickets for Lillee, a brilliant 174 from England batsman Derek Randall, 110 not out from Rodney Marsh, the first Australian wicketkeeper to score a Test hundred against England, and an unforgettable cameo from Australian batsman Rick McCosker, who returned to the crease to partner Marsh to his hundred despite suffering a broken jaw earlier in the match.

The 1977 series between the two sides in England, known as the Centenary Series, was won 3-0 by England and was the last before the onset of World Series Cricket; a rival competition to official internationals.

It was created by broadcasting magnate Kerry Packer. He had many of the world’s best players take part in matches on his television channel after he failed to secure the broadcasting rights for Australia’s home international matches from the Australian Cricket Board (ACB).

Both England and Australia opted not to select their World Series players during the stand-off between official and unofficial cricket and, when an agreement was reached between the ACB and Packer, it was marked by a three-match series in 1979/80.

Because of the shortened nature of the series, the MCC decreed that the Ashes were not at stake.

Australia won it 3-0.

Botham Resurrects England (2013-07-22) by Cricket AustraliaCricket Australia

1981 saw another iconic series for England, inspired by all-rounder Ian Botham and fast bowler Bob Willis, fighting back from 0-1 down to win 3-1.

Botham scored hundreds at Headingley in Leeds and Old Trafford in Manchester and took five wickets for one run to secure victory at Edgbaston in Birmingham, while Willis took a career-best eight wickets for 43 runs to win the Headingley match.

Australia got its revenge in the return series in 1982/83, winning 2-1. England’s victory at Melbourne by a margin of just three runs was the narrowest in the history of matches between the teams until 2005.

Remembering the 2005 and 2007 Ashes Series (2009-06-24) by Cricket AustraliaCricket Australia

Australia ended the 1980s by crushing England 4-0, which signified the start of another period of dominance for the team. Remarkably, Australia won every series between the two teams until 2005, when England triumphed 2-1, including a two-run victory in the second match at Edgbaston.

That marked a volatile period of results, with Australia securing 5-0 whitewashes in the home series in 2006/07 and 2013/14.
The former series saw the retirements of bowlers Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, who took 352 career England wickets between them.

England claimed victorious in 2009, 2010/11, 2013 and 2015; the 2010/11 success including three innings victories.

Australia’s series win in 2017/18 meant the Aussies moved ahead of England in total series honours (33 to 32), and the team is well ahead of England in Tests won – 144 to 108, with 94 drawn.

Watercolour, D Bradman (2001) by Robert IngpenMelbourne Cricket Club

Only five players have scored more than 3000 Test runs in Australia – England Tests:

Donald Bradman (Aus) 5028

Jack Hobbs (Eng) 3636

Allan Border (Aus) 3548

David Gower (Eng) 3269

Stephen Waugh (Aus) 3200

From the vault: Warne's 8-71 at the Gabba (2015-09-12) by Cricket AustraliaCricket Australia

20 bowlers have taken 100 or more wickets in Ashes contests.

Unsurprisingly, Warne sits at the top of this list:

Shane Warne (Aus) 195
Dennis Lillee (Aus) 167
Glenn McGrath (Aus) 157
Ian Botham (Eng) 148
Hugh Trumble (Aus) 141
Bob Willis (Eng) 128
Monty Noble (Aus) 115
Ray Lindwall (Aus) 114
Wilfred Rhodes (Eng) 109
Sydney Barnes (Eng) 106
Clarrie Grimmett (Aus) 106
Derek Underwood (Eng) 105
James Anderson (Eng) 104
Alec Bedser (Eng) 104
George Giffen (Aus) 103
Bill O’Reilly (Aus) 102
Charlie Turner (Aus) 101
Bobby Peel (Eng) 101
Terry Alderman (Aus) 101
Jeff Thomson (Aus) 100

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