For any cricket tragic—and I definitely count myself amongst that number—it doesn’t get much bigger than the Ashes. The only rivalry in cricket that can come close is India–Pakistan but, while that has a deep well of passion to draw on, for sheer historical weight it is hard to go past the recurring contest between Australia and England.
All the traditional parts of the lead-up to the actual first match are falling into place. We have had our first selection controversy, and at cricket I heard the well-worn jokes about how anyone who took wickets or made runs might expect a call-up to the national squad.
Mitchell Starc has fired the first salvo in the usual war of words, naming the opposition players he will be targeting, following in the footsteps of Glenn McGrath. I haven’t heard yet whether he will also be tipping a five–nil result in Australia’s favour, which McGrath would have done no matter what the circumstances—probably even if it was a four-match series.
Considering the millions in both viewers and advertising dollars that the series will attract, and the fact that most players will consider it the pinnacle of their careers even in this age of T20 spectaculars, it’s perhaps a little strange that—while not the official trophy—the contest is symbolised by a fragile urn. Filled with the ashes of a bail burnt in a mock ceremony to symbolise “the death of Australian cricket”, it’s the result of a joke, playing on Australia’s first-ever victory being called “the death of English cricket” and England captain Ivo Bligh vowing to reclaim its ashes.
Bligh obviously took the presentation of the urn in good humour, as he ended up marrying Florence Morphy, one of the women involved. And, its adoption as the symbolic heart of a sporting contest that has seen drama and excitement and passion almost unrivalled in modern sport seems appropriate given the mocking, yet at heart affectionate, relationship between the two countries when it comes to cricket—no matter what we might say about the opposition you can’t ever imagine one without the other.
You also can’t imagine that Florence Morphy could have possibly dreamed that her little joke could have turned into a tradition that is still going strong more than 130 years later, and continues to capture the imagination of millions. It’s a reminder that even our smallest actions can have consequences that last far beyond the moment, and have an impact that we could never envisage. We can only hope that ours bring as much joy to others as Florence’s did—one thing that maybe even English and Australian cricket fans can agree on.