Have you ever wondered why any time that England plays Australia at a sport, it’s immediately billed as The Ashes? You haven’t? Well, this article will explain the story.

From 1877, England had gone on tours of Australia, with the games being fairly competitive, much to England’s surprise. The game was popular due to the fact that Australia was a British colony at the time. Attempts to play the game in North America were put “on hold”, and the Australians were England’s principle rivals. It was a surprise when we discovered that the Australians were more than a match for us – indeed they won the First “Test Match” ever in 1877. The name was derived from the fact that it was described as a “test of strength and competency”.

As time progressed, eventually Australia toured England. Early Test Matches had unrepresentative sides however, with many players opting not to travel to the other for five months of the year. The 1882 tour however had a full strength England side and England were fully expected to win. The only Test Match of the summer was scheduled to be held at Kennington Oval (known as The Oval), in London on August 28, 29 and 30.

In those days, cricket was a very different game to today. Nowadays, there are six-ball overs, but in 1882, there were only four ball overs. Nowadays, the game last a lot longer, too. Pitches are prepared such that teams look to score 400 in an innings. Batting averages of 40 and bowling averages of 30 are considered good. However, in 1882, a batting average over 20 was excellent, and a bowling average under 15 was good. Batting orders were weather dependent. If it rained, the pitches were uncovered, so when the game resumed, the pitch was impossible to bat on until it dried out for a while. Therefore, bowlers would be sent in to bat for a period of time until the pitch dried out. With covered pitches these days, this is no longer the case. England provided both umpires, these days, there are no home umpires. People were more trustworthy. In fact, it is universally acknowledged that Pakistani umpires ended that arrangement. They were famously impartial when it came to umpiring. Generally in those days, fewer bowlers were needed. However, nearly anybody could be called upon to bowl. There was little definition as to who bowled and who batted.

The star of the England side was WG Grace. He is famous for his selfishness. When he was out once, he said to the umpire, “they’ve come to see me bat, not you umpire.” He replaced the bails, and continued his innings. Grace had a batting average of over 40, and a bowling average of 25. He had been the leading batsman in England for almost his entire career. He was the man who sold cricket. The star of the Australian side were AC Bannerman, who had hit 165 in an innings in the first ever innings in Test cricket. It was the highest recorded Test score at the time.

Australia won the toss and chose to bat, but RG Barlow took 5 wickets for 19 runs (5/19) and E Peate took 4/31. In two and a quarter hours, Australia had made a dismal total of 63. England then responded and were coasting at 57 runs for 2 wickets (57 for 2). However, there was then one of the great spells of bowling in early Test Match cricket. FR Spofforth had already taken two wickets, but in his next spell he took five, ending with 7/46. England collapsed from 57/2 to just 101 all out. England did lead by 38, but it wasn’t as much as it should have been.

The second day was much more of a challenge for the England bowlers as Australia batted for the second and final time. Thanks to defence from Bannerman and an innings of 55 from HH Massie, Australia moved to 66/1, a lead of 28. However, Peate went on to take four wickets in the innings, and Australia ended up being scuttled out for 122. There was some bad taste in it though, involving WG Grace. Wisden recalls:

"At 114 Jones was run out in a way which gave much dissatisfaction to Murdoch and the other Australians. Murdoch played a ball to leg, for which Lyttleton ran. The ball was returned, and Jones, having completed the first run, and thinking wrongly, but very naturally, that the ball was dead, went out of his ground. Grace put his wicket down, and the umpire gave him out. Several of the team spoke angrily of Grace's action."

England needed only 85 runs to win, on a pitch which was getting better for batting all the time. Australia meanwhile, were crestfallen. Their captain, WL Murdoch instilled belief in his team, and took to the field urging them to continue to fight, if only because of Grace’s action.

England started shakily, moving to 15/2. However, England then reached 51/2, needed only 34 more runs to win the match. Spofforth hadn’t given up though. He took the wicket of G Ulyett, but then HF Boyle took the key wicket – that of Grace for 32. England were wobbling again at 53/4. All seemed well when England had reached 66/4, just 19 more runs needed. At 66/5, England’s captain, Hon.A Lyttleton, was out for 12. More about him later. No England batsman then went on to get more than 2, as Spofforth ended up with 7/44. England were all out for 77, and Australia had won by 7 runs.

The English were horrified with the result. The Times then wrote a fake obituary:

In Affectionate Remembrance

                   ENGLISH CRICKET
                WHICH DIED AT THE OVAL
                  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 story does not end there, however! That winter, England went to Australia to try to regain pride, and win the series against the Australians. Ivo Bligh captained the team, and frequently spoke of retaining “the ashes”. The Australians caught on. The story then goes, that after another loss to Australia in Melbourne, two ladies took to the pitch and burnt a bail. They placed it in a small urn, and presented it to the England team as “The Ashes of English cricket.” The urn is at the MCC (the Marylebone Cricket Club, in London), to this day. The name didn’t catch on for another twenty years or so, but the term “The Ashes” now is used whenever England play Australia in Test Cricket – the next meeting will be in 2009 in England. However, the term has now been extended to other sports, too.

Anyway, back to old Hon.A. Lyttleton! His great nephew went by the name of Humphrey Lyttleton. He was famous as a jazz musician, and as host of the iconic Radio 4 show “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”. He sadly died this year. It was probably the best radio show on British radio.

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