It was 29th August 1882 when the mighty Aussies tasted their first victory on English soil against a full strength England team in the Ashes series. And this inspired a young London journalist to write this mock “obituary” which appeared in the Sporting Times.
Coincidentally even before England lost to Australia, arrangements were already made for an English team to tour Australia. Three weeks later a team led by Hon. Ivo Bligh (later Lord Darnley) set out for Australia, with an aim of bringing back the Ashes. England did lose the first Test by 9 wickets but made a comeback by winning the next two Test matches and as the legend has it, they brought the Ashes back.
This unusual tale, not only gave rise to one of the biggest rivalries in world cricket but also to a series where cricket has witnessed some of the most fierce battles between the bat and the ball, some outstanding performances, unexpected comebacks, gruelling batting, and fiery bowling spells. Ashes didn’t remain just a series rather it became a tradition, one of crickets constants which raised the bar every time it was played. We witnessed the Bradmans, the Hobbs, the Bothams, the Lillies and the Borders create magic on the field and embed their names into the record books as one of the greatest ever. And it only got better as we entered the generation of McGrath, Flintoff, Petersen, Waugh and Warne. Yes the way cricket was being played did change, technology was quietly merging into cricket’s blood stream but it only seemed to bring more life to the game, providing it immunity against errors.
Here we are in 2017, soon we will be celebrating 135th anniversary of the Ashes and in these 135 years a lot has changed. Cricketing shots have moved beyond textbooks into unorthodox ways, the bats have become bigger, pitches have become flatter, bowling mechanics seemed to have changed, and playing conditions have transformed from challenging to ideal. And the technology which once seemed to be giving more life to cricket has become its controversial best friend, it is everywhere from spider cams to the DRS, from bat trackers to win percentage calculators, and from flying drones to sniffing mics who record even the tiniest of creeks.
But this isn’t there’s something more to this juggernaut of change, the Ashes spirit seems to be dying. The Ashes which once was looked upon as Test crickets life line seems to be searching for a life line of its own. Yes those fierce on field battles still do take place but more so in the form of sledging and verbal spats rather than as a contest between the bat and the ball, the spirit of the Ashes urn of making the crowd proud seems to be disappearing. The decorum of respect for an elegant drive or an unplayable bouncer has vanished; claps of appreciation seem to have been replaced by abuses and ignorance.
This era is widely believed to belong to the T20s, the era of young and the dashing, and in this time Test cricket seems to be fading. Among the numerous T20 leagues the Ashes seems to be like an ill grandfather needed to be rushed to an intensive care unit.Having lost his touch, that charm it carried it isn’t the same anymore. The current day Ashes is just a remnant of the original one, an over hyped phenomenon living on the reputation and popularity created by its predecessor, and it almost seems like a case of nepotism. Sure we do have Alastair Cook, probably the last batsman of a generation of players who lived by the Ashes motto, but how much can Cook alone do?
We can argue about the existence of Starc, Warner, Root and Stokes to take the tradition forward, but we did believe the same for players before them too, to do the same, has it real worked out?
If you look at the Ashes record from 2010 to 2015, apart from the 2015 edition none show a true fight being fought and out of five editions, there have been two white washes one belonging to each England and Australia on their home soils, in two consecutive editions of 2013 and 2014. This too speaks volumes of the two teams’ ability to show domination over the other in comfortable home conditions but failing to conquer or even throw a fight in conditions which belong to the opponent. In the last 5 editions except for the 2010-2011 editions, each has been won by the hosting team itself. This leaves a big question mark over where the course of this great tradition seems to be heading. A series which began on the backdrop of a story where the visitors thumped the hosts in their home, and challenged their authority has now reduced to one where tailored pitches and favourable conditions automate the home team’s victory.
Isn’t the Ashes being over hyped? When was the last time we witnessed the spirit which once existed? Or a modern day batsmen give a performance in unfavourable conditions which made us stand on our feat and applaud? When was it that a bowler cracked the opposition out to save the team? When was the last time that Ashes really felt like Ashes and not just another test series?
Whether you agree of not the over hyped new generation Ashes is only killing the old man who raised cricket to something exceptional, the Ashes needs an oxygen mask and so does test cricket for a lot of one depends on the other.