From tradition to brand name

A newspaper obituary on the death of English cricket which appeared after England lost the 1882 Test Match against Australia. ‘The Ashes’ originated from this satirical obit.-PICS:GETTY IMAGES

It has been a fascinating journey for the Ashes. And a commentary on society itself. Tradition might be seen today as the last resort of those long in the tooth, but if commerce is the new tradition, then so be it, writes Suresh Menon.

All sports need reminders that they are not trivial, that they have consequences beyond the scores, that they represent something greater and grander than a bunch of grown men chasing a ball or pummeling other grown men into submission in a ring.

“After all, it’s only a game,” is the worst put down for a fan. It is important for fans to feel they are part of the bigger picture too. Hence the need for imposing on events a significance beyond the here-and-now. Sports matter, we tell ourselves. If we denied that, a whole edifice built on the assumption would totter. We need our Ashes, we need our Ryder and Davis Cups.

Thanks to its colonial roots and perhaps to its ready availability of literary myth-makers, cricket has easily taken on the burden of symbolism, of standing for more than itself. It is tempting to dismiss this as the justification of grown men who might otherwise feel silly merely hitting a ball with a wooden stick. But in that case, why did other sports (except in specific circumstances) not also appear as substitutes for nationalism, religion, class, masculinity, fairplay, nationhood, and in the early India-Pakistan series as evidence that one country built the better dams?

What rescues the Ashes from being an artificially imposed marketing ploy of the 19th century is its almost casual creation, thanks to a young journalist — Reginald Brooks — who, in 1882 wrote an obituary in The Sporting Times in “affectionate memory of English cricket” and told readers that “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.” The next time an English team toured Australia, captain Ivo Bligh told the press that he had come “to recover the Ashes.” The jokey obituary and the captain’s extension of the joke caught the imagination of the public.

It had all the elements of future seriousness, though. A romantic beginning, a measure of ambiguity, simplicity and easy pronounceability (as opposed to say, a Ulyett-Spofforth Trophy in honour of successful performers of that Oval Test).

The England team celebrates after winning a thrilling Ashes series in 2005.-

How relevant is the Ashes today? Players from England and Australia might see it as the biggest challenge in their careers, be moved by its history and its association with burgeoning self-worth (the Test which gave birth to the Ashes legend saw Australia’s first win in England). Still, the India-Pakistan rivalry involves greater numbers, more passion, and heavier baggage, political and otherwise. In any case, with IPL and T20 in general gradually making jingoism unimportant — as all sports aspire to Formula One, where the competition is between sponsors’ teams and not countries — how long can the Ashes stay relevant?

Like India, Australia had a cricket team before they became a nation. In 1840, the White settlers persuaded Britain to stop dumping criminals there. In 1877, the first-ever Test was played in Melbourne. Australia won by 45 runs, and soon began to see the game as a means of standing up to the mother country. As the novelist Thomas Keneally was to write decades later, “Cricket was the great way out of Australian cultural ignominy. No Australian has written Paradise Lost, but Bradman had made a century before lunch at Lord’s.”

Australia is no longer a country struggling to come to terms with its nationhood, nor is England the colonial master trying to civilise the world using cricket as tool. Yet, if the Ashes has endured, it has as much to do with nostalgia and habit as with the abstraction of its essence by television and marketing.

The Sky Sports promo of the 2015 Ashes is a delightful take on the Billy Joel classic, We Didn’t Start the Fire. The commentators, David Lloyd, Shane Warne, Nasser Husain, Mike Atherton, Michael Holding sing Joel’s song with replaced lyrics that begin: Donald Bradman, Peter May, At The Oval, Final Day,/ Little Urn, Bob’s perm, W. G. Grace.

The combination of history lesson and sheer high jinks works wonderfully and gives us a clue to a reason why the Ashes will endure.

Signed England cricket bats herald the advent of yet another Ashes series.-

Increasingly in sporting competitions, self-worth, nationalism, religion as the driving forces have been replaced by commerce. Even India and Pakistan no longer play so much for national honour or to express religious superiority as to ensure that sponsors and television channels recover the obscene investments they have made. Commerce trumps all.

From tradition to brand name it has been a fascinating journey for the Ashes. And a commentary on society itself. Tradition might be seen today as the last resort of those long in the tooth, and if commerce is the new tradition, then so be it.

The Ashes, over a century and a quarter old, will remain relevant as long as cricket remains relevant. One good series can overcome the disappointments of many mediocre ones. It is 10 years now since Freddie Flintoff comforted Brett Lee in mid-pitch after England won one of the finest of modern cricket series. The series — and the gesture — continues to be the benchmark.

For decades it was enough if the Ashes was simply a concept. Some ladies are said to have presented skipper Ivo Bligh with an urn containing the ashes of bails or scarves, depending on which account you believe. That remained at Lord’s, more as a curio than a trophy. It was only in 1998-99 that a replica was presented to the winning captain, Australia’s Mark Taylor.

“The aim of English cricket,” wrote Jim Laker, “is, in fact, to beat Australia.” Australian cricket’s chief aim, you might say, is to beat England. It is a relationship made in heaven.