Turning Points

Rise of the Ashes

From a burnt bail to the biggest crowds, the highest ratings and the tallest hoopla

Christian Ryan
Christian Ryan
"In Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket, which died at the Oval on 29th August 1882, Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances / R.I.P. / N.B. - The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia." The Sporting Times, September 1882

The obituary that gave life to the Ashes  •  Getty Images

They began with a shock Australian victory and a bail burnt in horror. But only by their very narrowest definition are the Ashes about a sporting contest or the spurious contents of a miniscule urn. For 50 years their appeal was plain: a chance for Poms to flex colonial muscle, and for Australians to prove that being shipped to an empty land did not empty one's brain and body too.
Today the primacy of the Ashes is tougher to explain. To suggest it is about avenging Gallipoli or Bodyline is too romantic. Over much of the last 40 years England and Australia have not played each other as the world's best teams; in terms of relevance the Border-Gavaskar Trophy has often eclipsed it. And yet it is the Ashes that generate the biggest crowds, highest ratings, tallest hoopla - more so, in Anglo-Australian households, than even the World Cup. In a world where results can be fixed and TVs know better than umpires, the Ashes remind us why we fell for cricket to begin with. Partly, then, it is about tradition; mostly it is unexplainable. Long may it remain so.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket, published in March 2009.The Turning Points series was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2003