THE `Ashes' — a tiny urn in a velvet pouch containing the burnt remains of a bail — are permanently on display at Lord's. The match that inspired the prize in contests between England and Australia was the shocking defeat of the mighty English team at the hands of Australia at the Oval in August 1882.
The result saw a distraught home supporter Reginald Brooks print a mock obituary in The Sporting Times newspaper lamenting the `death' of English cricket, ending with "NB: The body will be cremated, and the ashes taken to Australia."
There have been many versions since of its origin but the most popular revolves around the visit of an English team to Australia later that year. The captain, Ivo Bligh had said tongue-in-cheek on arrival that he had come to bring back the Ashes. That led a young group — one of whom Bligh would eventually marry — to apparently burn a bail, place it in the tiny urn and present it to the English captain.
That match in question, the second Test to be played on English soil (the hosts had won the first also at the Oval two years earlier) and following on five years after the inaugural Test at Melbourne, is still considered one of the most nail-biting of all time.
The on-going Ashes series in England saw 17 wickets fall on the first day. But back in 1882, it was even more remarkable. Australia collapsed for 63 (Dick Barlow five for 19) and then Australia's fast bowler Fred Spofforth shot England out for 101 — 20 wickets on the first day!
Spofforth, the first bowler to take a Test hat-trick, grabbed seven wickets for 46 runs including that of England's champion W.G. Grace for four and top scorer George Ulyett for 26.
But going into the second day England was confident that a lead of 38 runs in such a low scoring game could make all the difference.
It had rained heavily just before the beginning of the Test and now rain once again saw play start 35 minutes late. It only meant the pitch would be even more treacherous for the hapless batsmen who were once again at the receiving end.
But the early Australian batsmen weathered the storm well, led by a quick 55 in just 45 minutes by opener Hugh Massie.
Skipper Billy Murdoch, who had done his side the first favour by winning a crucial toss, showed his batting skills in the second innings. The Aussie total had already crossed that of their first innings before the fall of the second wicket.
But from 70 for two, it was a procession with only Murdoch showing stout resistance with a defiant 29. He was one of just three batsmen to reach double figures, the last eight wickets falling in a heap for a mere 52 runs.
England's target was 85. It brought some warmth to the crowd of 25,000, huddling in the bitter cold. Surely England would romp home.
But though he top scored for his side with 32, it was a graceless act by `WG' that proved the catalyst for another fiery spell by Spofforth, Test cricket's first bowler of extreme pace and hostility.
Grace had run out tail-ender Sammy Jones as he stepped out of his crease to do a spot of `gardening,' harmlessly prodding the pitch. It was a typically sharp act by the pioneer of gamesmanship but particularly incensed Spofforth as he had sportingly declined an opportunity to do the same to England captain A. N. `Monkey' Hornby the day before.
Now pumped up, Spofforth urged his team-mates on in the pavilion before coming out to fire on all cylinders. He convinced them that victory was still possible, despite the tiny total they were forced to defend. "This thing can be done," he urged them on — and proceeded to be as good as his word.
Hornby and Grace opened the batting. But Spofforth shook them up as he bowled both the captain for nine and then Barlow first ball. Suddenly England was 15 for two and Australia had clawed its way back into the game.
But Ulyett and Grace batted calmly to stem the tide, at least temporarily. They added 36 runs and with the score moving past 50, the crowd once again found their voice. Surely it would now be only a matter of time before their team romped home.
It was not to be as Spofforth came back time and again to snuff out England's hopes.
But it was medium pacer Harry Boyle who forced open the floodgates. He had Ulyett (11) caught behind by Jack Blackham and then just two runs later grabbed the prized scalp of Grace, caught by Alec Bannerman at mid-off. The two had added 36 invaluable runs but their departure in quick succession broke the back of England's batting.
Still, with six wickets in hand and only 32 runs needed for victory, England must have fancied its chances. However it could not negotiate Spofforth, dubbed forever afterwards as `the Demon,' the first in the long and distinguished line of ferocious fast bowlers from Down Under.
Tension mounted as Boyle and Spofforth bowled 12 maiden overs (each over consisted of four balls) on the trot to Alfred Lyttelton and Alfred Lucas. The runs had seemingly dried up and the pressure on the batsmen kept increasing with every over bowled. Just one single accrued and then another four maidens followed.
Spofforth prised out Lyttelton at 66 for five and still the odds and logic favoured England. But cricket has not always been strong on logic and so it proved this time around.
Lucas got a streaky four through the slips before Spofforth picked up two wickets in one over, Allan Steel caught and bowled and John Read bowled, both without scoring. The score: 70 for seven.
Next man in Billy Barnes was a good batsman to come in at number nine, having scored over 1,000 runs the previous year in county cricket. Barnes on-drove for two and then three byes followed which once again tilted the scales. But Spofforth came roaring back. He bowled Lucas for five and then had Barnes caught for two.
It was left to Boyle to deliver the coup de grace, bowling last man Ted Peate to bring the innings to a shuddering halt at a miserable 77 all out, the last eight wickets crashing for 26 runs.
The tension proved too much for one spectator who died in the pavilion; another had chewed threw the handle of his umbrella without realising it!
Spofforth was carried shoulder high by his ecstatic team-mates. His match analysis of 14 for 90 remained the best for Australia for 90 years. Thus was born the legend of the `Ashes'.
(This article was first published in The Sportstar magazine dated August 6, 2005)
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