Cricket’s oldest rivalry!

Captain Michael Vaughan and his daughter Talulah Grace wave to the crowdas the England Cricket team enter Trafalgar Square as part of the Ashes victory celebration on September 13, 2005 in London, England. Thousands of English cricket fans lined the streets of London to celebrate after England defeated Australia to claim back the Ashes. Performing well in an Ashes series gives a "legitimacy" to your career, said Vaughan.-PICS:GETTY IMAGES

India versus Pakistan may produce the passion, India versus Australia the endless friction, and Australia versus South Africa the high-quality action, but the story of cricket is best told by the Ashes, writes Shreedutta Chidananda.

There’s something about the Ashes. Perhaps it has to do with the sepia-tinted tales of Victor Trumper and Fred Spofforth, Ranjitsinhji and Don Bradman, Keith Miller and Jack Hobbs. Perhaps it is because England and Australia are cricket’s first and oldest rivals, their sustained bilateral engagement a thread that goes back to the beginnings of the sport, like some sort of epic TV series stretching to a million episodes. Perhaps it is because of the nature of the relationship between the two nations, both so different yet inextricably linked. Whatever it is, it has made for an enduring, invigorating rivalry in cricket, matched by no other.

“Cricket has conquered the English-speaking world, maybe,” wrote Neville Cardus in 1930. “But to this day it takes an Australian side to make a Test match with England. Australia still holds the inalienable right to contemplate the majesty of an all-England XI, and to cry out to other ambitious cricketers from across the seas: ‘Hands off; this is mine own enemy!’”

Part of the charm of the Ashes is that the competition has existed for so long. This is a story that goes back 133 years, 68 series, and 320 Test matches, the end of one chapter neatly dovetailing into the beginning of another. In perhaps no other sport has such a serious tradition been nurtured and sustained for so long, on such a scale. In all sport, let alone cricket, there can be few parallels. India and Pakistan, the other great cricketing foes, have played only 59 Tests against each other, the first one in 1952.

The rivalry is also helped by the fact that Australia was able to challenge England from the very beginning. It matters, of course, that Australia was settled, unlike the Asian or Caribbean colonies. Till 1950, with the exception of one match against South Africa, England had not lost a Test at home to any opponent bar Australia. “We must needs continue to stand in mingled perplexity and admiration at the thought that Australia, with a population that could be put into London, has year after year been able to produce cricketers good enough to challenge all comers, from England or elsewhere,” Cardus wrote. (It should be noted, however, that until 1928, England had only ever played Tests against Australia and South Africa. Still, the country’s aptitude for cricket or indeed all sport should not be discounted. Sociologists have spoken of Australia’s birth as a penal colony and a young nation’s subsequent desire to find a way out of that cultural ignominy to explain this.)

By the time other nations had even begun to be able to win Test matches, England versus Australia contests had a history of several decades. It remains a curious rivalry when examined. Despite all that is said, there is, we sense, no vitriolic animosity between the two nations.

During Don Bradman's last tour of England in 1948, English crowds graciously applauded him to the wicket in every match.-

In fact, the 1948 Ashes tour, coming as it did after the two World Wars, saw a general outpouring of love in England for the Australians. That tour, wrote Norman Birkett, the British judge and politician, “because of certain exceptional circumstances, has brought us nearer to each other than ever before.” He added: “The nature of the welcome given to the Australian team in all parts of the country was quite remarkable. Conventional language scarcely does justice to it. It was, I believe, much more than the traditional welcome to our brethren from overseas; it was in some measure a thanksgiving that one of the great institutions of our common life had been restored.”

That tour was also Bradman’s fourth and last to England, and thus held special significance. Everywhere he went, Bradman was applauded all the way to the wicket. Things may be different now, but it is important to note the sentiment when Birkett calls the Australians “our brethren from overseas.” The trouble with an India-Pakistan rivalry, in comparison, is that it takes on a completely different texture and scale, transcending sport.

Then there are the players, to whom an Ashes series is the pinnacle of a career in cricket. Sometimes it seems to them it is the only competition that matters. “It is funny but I retired last Tuesday after 16 years as a cricketer but all I read the following day was that I would be remembered for bringing the Ashes home in 2005,” Michael Vaughan wrote in The Telegraph in 2009. “That says everything about how important the Ashes are. It is as if performing against Australia lends legitimacy and standing to an international career.”

Vaughan continued, speaking of Kevin Pietersen. “I decided we had the bowling unit to put them under pressure but had to find a batsman to attack Shane Warne in the middle period,” he wrote. “That is why Kevin Pietersen was identified and came into the squad. And there is no doubt that his success that summer has made him the superstar he is today. Just ask him why the Ashes are so special.”

India versus Pakistan may produce the passion, India versus Australia the endless friction, and Australia versus South Africa the high-quality action, but the story of cricket is best told by the Ashes.