Between the bizarre and mythos

Read the original article «Zwischen Skurrilität und Mythos» by Claudia Rey published in German on the Neue Zürcher Zeitung Online website which also appeared in the sport section of the NZZ print version on Thursday 12th September 2019.

This article was translated into English for Cricket Switzerland by Alexander Mackay.

The players wear white knit sweaters with cable pattern, instead of breaks there is Tea-Times: The cricket tournament "The Ashes" looks bizarre, but for Englishmen and Australians it means everything

The cricket tournament "The Ashes" is a serious matter: in the thirties it almost triggered a diplomatic crisis.



Claudia Rey


More than two million Englishmen and women sat in front of the television on Sunday to watch the penultimate match of the duel for perhaps the smallest trophy in the world. It is 11 centimetres tall, but means the world for England and Australia.

The minuteness of the trophy is not the only thing that sounds bizarre at the legendary cricket tournament "The Ashes": The athletes wear white knit cable patterned sweaters. The teams are always the same: England and Australia. Instead of breaks, Tea-Times are held. The games are called Test, although they are not test matches, but real internationals. They last up to five days and take place in five different cities. There are no rules, but laws - and these are so complicated that hardly anyone outside the Commonwealth understands them. Only the score irritated: On Sunday the game ended in Manchester 497-8d (126) & 186-6d (42.5). This is a disaster for England, but more about that later.

"The Ashes" fascinates the English and the Australians alike, the myth keeps the tournament alive: It all started on 29th August, 1882. Back then, England lost a home game of cricket against Australia for the first time ever. The sports newspaper Sporting Times published an obituary notice the next day. It read: «In loving memory of English Cricket, which died on August 29, deeply mourned by a large circle of friends and acquaintances. Rest in peace. The corpse is burned and the ashes are transferred to Australia.»

The home defeat against the former penal colony, against descendants of thieves and scoundrels, was a fiasco for the English. Australian cricket player Tom Horan later recalled in a column he wrote for the newspaper Australasian: «The strain on the audience was so great that one fell dead and another gnawed parts of his umbrella with his teeth.»

A diplomatic crisis

The English swore revenge and travelled to Australia a year later to make amends. In fact, they won the revenge. The Australians, blessed with British humour, presented them with a tiny urn at the award ceremony - in what they said was the ashes of English cricket. Scientists later found out that it was a cremated cricket equipment. From then on, Englishmen and Australians met at least once every four years and played around the small urn with the ashes - "The Ashes" was born. To this day, the tournament triggers great emotions and plunges the loser into a deep crisis.

In order to ensure victory, in the thirties the English dispersed with their good manners. At that time, Australia dominated thanks to the outstanding Don Bradman - the English seemed to have no chance and therefore considered a ruse: they bowled body-line against the Australians. That was not forbidden, but was considered extremely unsportsmanlike. Two Australian players were injured. The Australians were so indignant that they considered stopping the series. This, in turn, heated the spirits of English politicians: they threatened to boycott Australian goods and shut down Australia's economy if Australians did not reflect. A diplomatic crisis started. Only the Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons could finally settle the dispute. The tournament was finished. England won 4: 1.

The ashes are lost

The English experienced the next crisis between 1989 and 2003. Australia won eight times in a row, and the English were ridiculed by their own fans. Outstanding for the Australians was Shane Warne, the bad boy of the Australian cricket.

Warne smoked, ranted & raved, and with his countless affairs repeatedly provided the tabloid media with fabric for headlines. In 1998 he was involved in a betting scandal, and in 2003 he was convicted of doping. Nevertheless, he was always allowed to return to the national team and led this from one victory to another. And, as if all this had not annoyed the English enough, he then became engaged to Liz Hurley, the popular English actor. Only when Warne and some other Australian cricket players resigned did the English win again. Today, the balance is even: Australia have won 33 times, England 31 times, 5 times "The Ashes" ended in a draw.

The final game of this year's tournament starts on Thursday - game five out of five. For England it's only about the honour. Since last Sunday's defeat they are 1:2 in deficit and at best can only draw the series. Australia has already retained the ashes as traditionally the last winners take the Ashes home.