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“t’s the Ashes!” shouted the commentator Brian Johnston on TV as England swept to victory at The Oval in 1953. His excitement probably gave a few people at the BBC heart failure, in an era when the continuity announcers still wore bow-ties, but he summed up the feelings of a nation which had beaten Australia at last after 19 long years. It was much the same in 2005, when one country rejoiced (and another growled and licked its wounds) after the most absorbing Test series of them all.
Just mention “The Ashes” to a follower of cricket and he or she is likely to drift off into a type of reverie, remembering past battles, be it 2005 or 1981 or even the Bodyline series of 1932–33, the one to which almost any devotee would ask to be transported if the Tardis magically materialised outside their door. England and Australia have done battle for the tiny little urn for well over 100 years, each having periods of dominance and each (usually England, admittedly) having periods of despair when another victory seemed about as close as landing a man on Mars.
England v Australia Test series are an ongoing soap opera, with regular instalments (now standardised at every two years or so, but it was even more frequent than that in the 1880s). The cast is refreshed every time, with old favourites being gently pushed aside by new heroes. At the time of writing it seems certain that the likes of Shane Warne, Marcus Trescothick and Glenn McGrath won’t appear in the 2009 series, providing opportunities for newcomers to the pantheon. Stuart Broad? Mitchell Johnson? Ryan Sidebottom? Brad Haddin? Sooner or later, no doubt, one or more of them will carve their name in Ashes history.
The rivalry is genuine and intense, but by and large friendly, with the odd exception like Bodyline, which threatened not only to derail cricket relationships but diplomatic ones, too. The main reason for this, I believe, is the underlying comradeship of the people of England and Australia. Behind all the teasing and name-calling is a long affinity and a long friendship (even the term “Pommie bastard” is affectionate, or so my Antipodean friends assure me). Some of the early reports in Wisdenbang on about the “Mother Country”, and refer to Australia and the Australians as “the Colonies” and “Colonials”. I don’t think this is meant disparagingly, although it might read like that now: it was just the way people spoke and wrote at the time. Remember that Australia didn’t become a separate country until 1901: until then it was a series of colonies, if fiercely proud ones. Cricket’s part in uniting Australia was an important one – and the desire of Australians to beat the “Mother Country” and show that they could stand on their own feet was important, too.
The first Wisdenalmanack appeared in 1864, so it was reasonably well established by the time what has been accepted as the first Test match was played between England
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