“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. RIP
NB - The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”
It was Reginald Shirley Brooks’s mock obituary in The Sporting Times that gave rise to the birth of the Ashes, an enduring tradition that continues tomorrow when England and Australia lock horns in the first Test at Brisbane.
Brooks, a boozy journalist with a penchant for gambling and pursuing women, articulated the anger of a nation stunned by Australia’s seven-run victory against a full-strength England side in south London, one that included WG Grace and Yorkshire left-arm spinner Ted Peate.
The Honourable Ivo Francis Walter Bligh, a tall and forceful right-hand batsman who played for Kent and Cambridge University, was tasked with leading the England team that travelled to Australia that winter looking to restore the balance of power.
“We have come to beard the kangaroo in his den,” Bligh told a dinner audience in Melbourne, “and to try to recover those ashes.”
The kangaroo was not for bearding in the first Test at Melbourne, where Billy Murdoch’s Australia followed up with a nine-wicket victory.
But Yorkshire’s Billy Bates, a Huddersfield-born off-spinner, achieved the first Test hat-trick by an England bowler in the second Test (also at Melbourne), returning 7-28 in the first innings and 7-74 in the second – to go with 55 with the bat – as England won by an innings and 27 runs.
In the deciding Test, played at Sydney, England won by 69 runs, and although a fourth game was tagged on after the series and won by Australia, Bligh’s men were the first official holders of the Ashes.
England kept tight grip of the urn for another seven series between 1884 and 1890 until, in 1891-92, WG Grace’s side were beaten 2-1 Down Under and the rivalry assumed less of a lopsided air.
If Alastair Cook’s England prevail in the next few weeks, it will be the first time England have won four successive Ashes campaigns since those historic days of Grace and Bligh, Peate and Bates.
To be fair to Cook and his team, the comparison needs to be put into context; England’s run of eight series wins in a row in the 19th century occurred before five-Test rubbers became the norm.
There was only one match in the 1887-88 “series”, for example, and only two in those played in 1886-87 and 1890.
Success this winter would more accurately see English cricket break new ground as opposed to just follow in the footsteps of Victorian forefathers.
Cook is conscious of that chance to create history.
“As a side, we have a chance to win four Ashes series in a row – the first time since 1890 that’s been done,” he said before flying to Australia.
“Speaking to the lads, that is something that everyone is excited about.
“We have an opportunity to do that, and we’re desperate to take it.”
After Bligh and his boys took their chance 131 winters ago, England followed up with a 1-0 win in the three-Test series of 1884.
Old Trafford immediately established its reputation as the rain-centre of English cricket when the opening day of its first Test match – the first of the series – was washed out.
“The Australians hit with more vigour and confidence than their opponents, and McDonnell, Murdoch and Midwinter, contributed capital innings,” said Wisden of a low-scoring draw.
England won the second Test at Lord’s by an innings and five runs before the third Test at The Oval was drawn, Australia captain Murdoch recording Test cricket’s first double hundred in a match in which every member of the England team bowled – including the Honourable Alfred Lyttelton, the wicketkeeper, who took four wickets with his lobs while WG Grace donned the gloves.
When the teams reconvened in Australia that winter, playing cricket’s first five-match series, and the only one of England’s eight-in-a-row sequence, the tourists won the first two games at Adelaide and Melbourne, lost the next two in Sydney and won the last in Melbourne by an innings.
England, captained by the great Nottinghamshire batsman Arthur Shrewsbury, fielded an unchanged side in all five Tests – one that included four Yorkshiremen in the aforementioned Bates, all-rounder George Ulyett, wicketkeeper Joe Hunter and left-arm spinner Bobby Peel.
Peel, who was suspended by Yorkshire in 1897 for turning up drunk to a game at Bramall Lane, was England’s leading wicket-taker in the rubber with 21 at 21.47.
Bates topped the bowling averages with 10 wickets at 14.80, while Ulyett took 14 wickets at 21.07.
Back in England in 1886, the home side performed a whitewash in the three-match rubber.
George Lohmann, the Surrey pace bowler, made his debut in the first game at Old Trafford and captured only one wicket in a four-wicket win and none at all in an innings victory in the next game at Lord’s.
This was striking as Lohmann took 112 wickets in just 18 Tests at 10.75, statistics that make this long-forgotten bowler comfortably among the greatest of all time.
Lohmann took 12 wickets in an innings win in the last Test at Lord’s, where WG Grace’s 170 eclipsed Shrewsbury’s 164 in the previous match as the then highest individual innings in Test cricket.
An infamous feature of this game was the slow scoring of Grace’s opening partner, William Scotton, who had made just 34 out of a total of 225 when he was dismissed.
Scotton’s performance contrasted wildly with the free-flowing Grace and the attacking strokeplay of Scotton’s Nottinghamshire team-mate Walter Read, who thrashed a quickfire 94 when Scotton was out, prompting Punch to mock:
Block, block, block at the foot of thy wicket, O Scotton!
And I would that my tongue would utter my boredom.
You won’t put the pot on...
One hour of Grace or Walter Read were worth a week of you!
Scotton played only one more Test – the second of two games in Australia in 1886-87 when the Ashes were retained. Both matches were played at Sydney, England winning the first by 13 runs and the second by 71 runs.
Bobby Peel took 10 wickets as England won the solitary fixture of the 1887-88 Ashes by 126 runs at Sydney, and the Yorkshireman was again England’s most successful bowler in the three-match home series of 1888, the year when ‘Jack the Ripper’ began his grisly work.
Peel captured 24 wickets at the remarkable average of 7.54 as England recovered from a 61-run defeat in the first Test at Lord’s to win the second at The Oval by an innings and 137 runs and the third at Old Trafford by an innings and 21 runs.
An eighth successive Ashes series victory was secured in 1890 when England won by seven wickets at Lord’s and two wickets at the Oval.
But Australia broke the stranglehold in 1891-92, winning the first Test at Melbourne by 54 runs and the second at Sydney by 72 runs before England won the third and final Test at Adelaide by an innings and 230 runs.
Since then, the rivalry has fluctuated this way and that with England lately enjoying the upper hand.
The question now is: can they make it four in a row?