A Most Peculiar Grail

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GIDEON HAIGHThe contest for the Ashes, cindery symbol of Anglo-Australian cricket supremacy, doesn't appear to have much to recommend it. It does not determine cricket's world champion. It is not played for cricket's largest purse, and no trophy changes hands. It is not even cricket's oldest international rivalry: that honor belongs to the U.S. and Canada, whose annual matches date back to 1844. Yet, after 116 years, the Ashes remains cricket's most prestigious brand name, to Australia's captain Mark Taylor the most glittering prize in world cricket. As Australian leg-spinning cynosure Shane Warne puts it: I still think it's the best series to be involved in. There's still something a bit special.In England, which hasn't held the Ashes for almost a decade, fans high and low fantasize about their recovery. The British broadcaster Lord Bragg wrote recently of dozing off at the screening of an Ingmar Bergman film after a particularly galling defeat. Prodded awake, he interrupted Liv Ullmann's monologue with a startled bloody Australians! In Australia, even the most vocal nationalist is mute before the Ashes' apolitical, monocultural might.The origins of this peculiar totem are humble--part journalistic hyperbole, part colonial high spirits. Responsible for the former was Reginald Shirley Watkinshaw, a.k.a. Brooks, a dissolute Fleet Streeter destined to die young from what a contemporary described as the canker of self-indulgence and irresponsibility. In August 1882, when the fifth Anglo-Australian Test ended in a breathless seven-run victory for the visitors, the 27-year-old secured immortality of a sort by inserting a death notice in London's Sporting Times in affectionate memory of English cricket, with the addendum: The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.The high spirits were supplied some months later in Australia by a 23-year-old aristocrat, Ivo Walter Francis Bligh, who had come as captain of an English touring XI. Bligh was a mediocre cricketer, and his performances in the series would be retarded still further by injuries sustained in a shipboard tug-of-war en route. But, on arriving in Adelaide, he referred jestingly to his objective as recovery of the ashes. The notion so captivated some Melbourne society belles that they subsequently awarded Bligh a dark red pottery urn and velvet bag containing something sooty, which since 1927 has remained in the custody of the Marylebone Cricket Club at Lord's.Quaint, really. Yet even in their inception as an incentive for the gentleman's game, the Ashes began a lingering association with controversy. Watkinshaw's whimsicality was still two days away when England's W.G. Grace cunningly ran out Australian Sammy Jones as he strayed from his crease to examine a mid-pitch divot. Teammate Tom Horan expressed the visitors' indignation: I do not think it redounds much to any man's credit to endeavor to win a match by resorting to what might not inaptly be called sharp practice. Six months later, England's Richard Barlow accused Australia's Fred Spofforth of unlawfully putting spikes in his boots to cut up the turf during the Sydney Test. According to the Sydney Sportsman, Spofforth retaliated with a blow which knocked Barlow over the seat.A return to the Spofforth school of dispute resolution seemed in prospect 50 years later when Douglas Jardine's Englishmen took the Ashes from Bill Woodfull's Australians in the so-called Bodyline series. England's Harold Larwood and Bill Voce so inflamed Australian sentiment with their life-threatening speed on a leg-stump line that, had World War II begun six years early, Anzacs might have marched off demanding Jardine's trial for war crimes. For many cricket historians, Woodfull's icy words to England manager Pelham Warner at Adelaide are as familiar as the Gettysburg address is to American patriots: There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket, the other is not. The game is too good to be spoiled. It is time some people got out of it.The Ashes' thrall is mysterious. It can't be anything to do with the physical trophy, a striking case of less being more: the urn is not quite 11 cm tall and labeled with a sorry specimen of Victorian doggerel. It's not even clear of what its sacred soot is composed: bail, ball, stump or firewood.Historian Bill Mandle proposed in his Games People Played that cricket took root in Australia in the later 19th century because it was the only area in which the colonials could match themselves against the mother country--and thus dispel fears of white degeneracy in a country of blackfellows. Advocates of Federation, in their campaign to unite the colonies politically, liked to remind them of their success in combining at cricket. And that Australia could achieve cricket supremacy when so much of its culture was derived and diluted lent the fledgling nation cachet throughout the first half of the 20th century. As novelist and republican gadfly Thomas Keneally has written: Cricket was the great way out of Australian cultural ignominy. No Australian had written Paradise Lost, but Bradman had made 100 before lunch at Lord's.Even more puzzling is why this sporting folie a deux retains its power now that Australian culture has matured, English cricket has ceased to be a benchmark, and tradition is so often seen as an impediment to progress. Perhaps devotees, in an age when sport is rarely afforded the luxury of being just sport, enjoy the permissible anachronism of a contest for the sake of contest. One can't quite tell why it matters. It just does.