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London: Stop any player and ask him why is the ‘Ashes’ significant to the cricketing community, he will immediately say that it is a grand symbol of pride, a rich reward that waits on valorous performances. He will also say many other wondrous things, and that is because he misheard ‘Ashes’ as ‘cashes’, which as anyone with a sense of history of the game will tell you is what exactly that keeps sporting teams sticking together as a unit.
But if you ask the legend Sunil Gavaskar he will confirm that the Ashes is no patch on the other great cricketing rivalry, the one involving the two subcontinent rivals, Mafatlal and Nirlon’s XI. Those who grew up in India in the 80s will recall many intriguing contests involving these two Bombay teams. Mafatlal, of course, was an established textile giant while Nirlon was most famous for employing Gavsaskar in its ranks. Otherwise nobody knew what Nirlon did to earn money. For all we cared, it could have been into drug dealing or organised poaching.
Australia and England have a long history and tradition of saying that they have a long history and tradition. The Ashes is the international cricketing contest between Australians and many South Africans, historically called Englishmen.
The Ashes urn has enormous amount of prestige attached to it because it enjoys a unique status in the world of sports, in that when England wins the Test series it gets to keeps the urn and when Australia wins the Test series England still keeps the urn. Australia basically got to twiddle its thumb.
From 1998-99, however, after over 100 years since the two countries started playing each other on the cricketing arena, the Ashes series victors get a Waterford Crystal, symbolically shaped in the form of the urn, which in itself is a symbolic trophy.
The Ashes series, which is played every two years, will be played twice this year itself, as has been mandated by Duckworth-Lewis method.
As the series got underway at Trent Bridge on Wednesday, to mark the moment and also fill this column, we atCrank’s News pick out three famous moments from the arch-rivalry that has enriched cricket journalism with events and action that have provided heft and heave to quintessential hype.
Charles Bannerman’s century in 1877: It was the first ever international Test match. The excitement and anticipation surrounding the match was so much that the two teams actually forgot that this was also the first Ashes contest. What with one thing and another, they managed to create the ceremonial trophy only in 1882. Which is kind of understandable only if Suresh Kalmadi’s forefathers were running the show.
Anyway, Charles Bannerman, bravely overlooking the fact that cricketing history books were far from being written, chose to grab a prime place for himself in them as he scored the first ever Test match century. It is a monumental record that has stood the test of time. ‘My dad, who was a pugnacious opener in his day tried his best to break it. But alas he couldn’t,’ wrote English pace spearhead Stuart Broad in Wisden recently. Broad’s dad, Chris Broad, is a certified Ashes legend, and he has indeed broken, well, several stumps, especially when given out LBW. And he is a respected Match Referee these days.
The Bodyline series of 1932-33: It was such a tumultuous cricketing series that it made Australia drift further apart from England and actually become a totally new continent. (Till then, if you happen to see the world map of that era you will notice this, Australia was somewhere near Japan).
Douglas Jardine, the feisty and abrasive England captain, crossed the line of sacrosanct sportsmanship, by ordering his prime pacer Harold Larwood to bowl to Don Bradman’s area of batting weakness. (Till then, by general sporting consensus, Bradman was fed only low full tosses on the off and middle. That is how he managed to build that impossible career average).
Australia was mighty upset with this stunning tactic of bowling short-pitched deliveries on the leg stump, which, for the record, is what bowlers attempt to get Suresh Raina with these days. Though comparisons across eras are odious, the fact of the matter is Bradman was only as good as Raina, the latter will, however, nose ahead as he is better hugger of wicket-taking bowlers and catch-taking fielders.
After plenty of bad blood that saw England and Australia almost severing diplomatic relationship, the Bodyline issue was finally resolved when Bradman, taking a prospective cue from N Srinivasan, ‘stepped aside’ and started pulling and hooking the short-pitched deliveries to the boundary.
One of the iconic lines (attributed to Bill Woodfull, the Aussie opener) that emerged from the series was: “There are two teams out there, one is playing cricket. The other is making no attempt to do so”. This sentiment was later memorably evoked by Anil Kumble, who with a keen sense of history recalled the line several years later in Australia upon seeing the Indian cricket team play soccer during practice sessions.
Gatting bowled Warne –1993: When you see the magical sequence of events even today (on Youtube videos) it boggles your mind. How can a delivery that was called the ball of the century last century be still, in another century, called the same? Such is its beauty and brilliance.
‘Mere words cannot even come close to even describing that magical delivery.’ This is how most cricket writers begin to describe that delivery that Shane Warne bowled to Mike Gatting.
The ball pitched outside the leg-stump, spun across the full face of the bat and the enormous body of Gatting, and hit the top of the off-stump. Pity there was no DRS then. For, even though Gatting was clean-bowled, it was a decision that was worthy of a review. And the Hawkeye would have, of course, shown the ball to be ‘drifting down the leg-side’.
(Disclaimer: The ongoing Ashes is historic for the fact that this is the first time England is taking on Australia with the reigning Wimbledon champion being from Scotland)
(Originally published in Crank’s Corner)