“Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust; if Thomson don’t get ya, Lillee must.” — Caption for a Sydney Daily Telegraph Cartoon, 1974
If ever a couplet was good enough to describe an entire Ashes series Down Under — that of 1974-75 — this was it.
The bitter animosity between the two teams in that series, the sledging and profanities, and of course, the bowling — aimed at intimidation and maiming — was only matched, perhaps, by the ‘Bodyline Series’ of 1932-33.
The tone for that confrontational series was said to be set by Tony Greig. He got Dennis Lillee to top edge a bouncer, in the first innings of the first Test at Brisbane. What provoked the Australian pacer wasn’t that he got out to the bouncer but the fact that he fell on his backside — bruising his ego rather than his rump — and was given a rather ‘ceremonious’ send-off by the sniggering bowler.
The big pacer, from under his soup-strainer moustache — while stomping back to the hut — is said to have murmured, “Remember who started it. We’ll finish it.” That incident had set the series aflame.
England soon found out what Lillee — helped along by the fierce pace of Jeff Thomson and the bouncy Max Walker, could do. Dennis Amiss broke a thumb, John Edrich broke an arm and skipper Denness, besides having his gold medallion embedded in his chest, forgot how to hold a bat for a couple of months. In fact, by the end of the series, most English batsmen were nervous wrecks and Colin Cowdrey (41) had to be flown in to open the innings in the final Test.
For the record, Australia won the six-Test series 4-1. Only a couple of hundreds from Denness and Keith Fletcher and some inspired bowling from Peter Lever helped the tourists salvage some pride with an innings win in the last Test at Melbourne.
The traditional form of cricket has its Test matches, and then there are the Ashes. When England plays Australia, at home or Down Under, it is usually all out war.
Comparing the Ashes to an India-Sri Lanka series is like comparing AK47s to peashooters. I hope I am forgiven this ‘blasphemy’ but given the option of watching the Englishmen having a go at their traditional rivals, in Australia, would any day be better than watching India play cat-and-mouse with the beleaguered Lankans.
Why? Because the Ashes has history behind it; 135 years of folklore!
In 1882, when Australia beat England in a Test match at the Oval there was an obituary published in The Sporting Times to mourn the ‘death’ of English cricket. “The body will be cremated and the ‘ashes’ taken to Australia,” the obituary stated.
In the 1882-83 series played in Australia, Ivo Bligh, the England skipper vowed to regain the ‘ashes’. After England won two of the three Tests, a group of women burnt a wooden bail, placed the ‘ashes of Australian cricket’ in an urn and presented it to Bligh. Thus began the hostilities that have lasted over 70 eventful Ashes series.
Former Prime Minister of Australia, Robert G Menzies was a huge cricket fan. Once while watching an England-Australia Test at Melbourne he was asked, in all seriousness, by one eminent person sitting next to him what he thought was the greatest problem confronting the nation. Menzies, annoyed by the question, while he was trying to concentrate on the game replied, “The greatest problem, my dear, is getting another wicket before lunch.” The eminent person is said to have moved away, probably resolving never to vote for a ‘light-minded’ politician again.
Australian crowds enjoy their cricket as much as Indian fans do. But they are more colourful, more creative and wittier. ‘Yabba’ was perhaps the most colourful of them and has his statue installed in one of the SCG stands.
It is said that the great Patsy Hendren would jump over the fence near the Sydney ‘Hill’ and have a swig of beer offered by the crowd, when a wicket fell. They loved him. Douglas Jardine, with his stiff upper lip, was on the other hand, scorned. He was laughed at for his stiff-legged running and ‘Yabba’ often reminded him to ‘mind his stays’!
In the 1954-55 Ashes series, Frank Tyson had run riot at Melbourne with his pace and bounce. As one Australian tail-ender, stepping out to bat, was having problems bolting the pavilion door, a spectator shouted, “Leave it open, you won’t be long!”
Can we ever forget the striking picture of an entire stand doing stretching exercises, imitating Merv Hughes as he prepared to bowl a spell? Or, for that matter, how about a row full of Richie Benaud lookalikes?
In addition to the beautifully manicured outfields Down Under, the facilities there are comfortable and spectator-friendly. What stand out, however, from a cricketing point of view, are the bouncier, harder wickets. With a little in it for both bowlers and batsmen, the quality of cricket played is more attractive. Square-cuts and pull-shots played to bowlers of express pace sets the adrenalin pumping.
Finally, my remote points towards the Ashes broadcast on TV because of the excellence in picture quality and the standard of commentary from Australian pundits. Channel 9 set the trend for classy broadcasts of the World Series Cricket matches in the 1970s and hugely upgraded cricket coverage on TV.
The difference, in my opinion, between Australian commentators and others is that the former seem to have a conversation among themselves, allowing viewers to eavesdrop on them. The latter, however, tend to describe the action that a discerning viewer can already see happening.
I have been waiting for the action to begin Down Under for the last couple of weeks. The Australian and England camps have traded barbs and called each other names. David Warner, for instance, has said that he would like to show his ‘hate’ for the Englishmen during the series and has reiterated what he had stated the last time around: “They have scared eyes”.
Nathan Lyon too reopened wounds when he spoke about Matt Prior wanting to fly home scared in the 2013-14 series. Prior hit back by saying that cricket has a funny way of biting back. “You want to end careers? Take care that yours doesn’t end!”
Oh, for the hype and the hoopla before and during an Ashes series! And, I’m in good company, for I saw the legendary spinner, Bishen Singh Bedi’s tweet about the terrific atmosphere at the ‘Gabba’, as also my friend and mentor, Ayaz Memon tweeting, “Alarm set for 5.30 am. First day of Ashes, not to be missed!”
As for me, I’m loving it!
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, he has mentored cricketers and footballers, and is now a mental toughness trainer.