Not many sporting encounters can match the pedigree of the Ashes. It is approaching 140 years of near-unbroken competition, largely at the pinnacle of the sport, with a storied cast of combatants and a grand compendium of anecdote and legend. Each new series is written into this story, is the latest “battle for the urn” – historic trophy foregrounded. At first glance, the England-Australia rivalry seems overflowing with history, narrative, heritage. But a closer look reveals each of those concepts plays a different role, sometimes overlapping with the others, and often to the detriment of the game and how we understand it.
In a terrific article written during the Melbourne Test, George Dobell criticised the standard of media coverage during the Ashes, and the deliberate attempts to stoke controversy and misinterpret nuanced statements. Here, Ashes history feeds into a narrative comprised of controversial incidents, providing an explanation for supposedly inevitable skulduggery. History leads to rivalry, which must in turn lead to controversy. Manufactured controversy is, of course, attention-grabbing, good for viewing figures and clicks. Perhaps it is a sign of a game unsure of its ability to attract purely as a spectacle, where a diverse media environment both swamps Test cricket as a background to summer and has to repackage it as moments of partisan debate.
What retelling history for the purpose of a narrative of rivalry does is elide much of it at the expense of a few supposedly quintessential moments. Hence the constant references to Bodyline, the acme of Ashes rivalry, colonial conflict and blood on the wicket, but almost no other mention of pre-Second World War Ashes cricket, except perhaps the inception of the urn or WG Grace’s gamesmanship. Cricket’s history becomes one of “ancient hatreds”, that lazy shortcut to understanding conflict.
The only other role the past provides, besides explaining why it’s so important that it all kicks off out there, is as a repository of data against which the present can be set. Alongside the controversy, the other great love of modern coverage is the record, a neat statistic that can take the place of analytical judgement of a performance. To be record-breaking is to be notable and can therefore be used to grab attention. Alastair Cook’s 244* at Melbourne was, for example, the highest score by a Test opener carrying their bat, a striking but slightly recondite stat. Yet this seemed to lead much of the coverage – a record-breaking performance by the England opener. Hence little else needed to be said, in terms of subjective analysis, context, or interesting historical background. The record is easily conveyed to the audience, but genuinely informative coverage is limited.
So history as part of narrative of controversy or silo of statistical data fails to do the Ashes or the game justice. At the same time, one must beware fetishize the past. Meaningless nostalgia helps no one. The pre-war history that Bodyline overshadows relates to a game very different to the modern one, although the Channel Nine commentary team’s cloying insistence on reliving their ‘90s glory days can rival any Golden Age yarn for irrelevance. The danger is that history stagnates into heritage, a procession of unexamined reference points – Bodyline, Headingley ’81, 2005 – with little sense of what is missed out by Our Ashes Story. Moreover, a reactionary tendency to revere the past can easily creep in, a reluctance to engage with and appreciate what is unfolding in front of us. Even if Steve Smith is not the new Bradman, his innovative technique and staggering run-scoring deserve the recognition of the contemporary spectator.
It is also easy to miss the pleasures of Ashes cricket when the frisson of rivalry becomes all-consuming antagonism. Blind jingoism is a relatively rare, if not entirely recent, phenomenon in cricket, but the culture of antagonism is reinforced by the narrative of controversy. The degradation of whinging Poms/mindless convicts is tedious, exclusionary and once again depends on a selective weaponisation of the past, rather than an engagement with the rich backstory. It adds little and detracts notably from the occasion. Overseas tours of the length that the Ashes maintain now seem indulgent given the international cricketing calendar. They should be savoured, not soured. The Ashes remains a supreme sporting contest, but this has as much to do with the current construction of international cricket as its history. A lengthy overseas tour is the ultimate test of a cricketer, buffeted and baked by foreign conditions, and, as such, an Ashes tour has a value outside of its historical continuum. That England win in Australia so rarely adds a context, but not the only meaning, to the series.
A refusal to see the Ashes in the wider context of international cricket further hinders our understanding of the contest. Other matches are not just warm-ups – they are significant as previous Ashes series. England and Australia should see winning in South Asia as important as an overseas Ashes win. Moreover, this should apply to the history of the game as well, both for considering players’ legacies and for the sheer pleasure of enjoying a wider range of cricket.
More seriously, the modern game can no longer be reduced to the Ashes and little else on and off the field. Cricket more than any other sport in Britain and Australia deals with the postcolonial, and reducing this to snide stereotypes of exiles and masters is a deeply uninteresting approach to this. In Australia, engaging Aboriginal communities is hardly likely to be aided by an Australian self-identity as plucky colonials, as well as obscuring events such as the tour to England by a team of indigenous players in 1868 with a fog of Baggy Green nationalism. In both countries, there are significant South Asian communities who are deeply engaged in cricket, but for whom the Ashes-centric international focus can seem narrow, as Kamran Abbasi has recently described. Similarly, England-Australia women’s cricket has only recently entered the mainstream, and its long history is still often obscured, despite the work of scholars like Raf Nicholson.
The history of the Ashes then is manipulated in two ways, by being press-ganged into a narrative of eternal rivalry and consequential conflict, and by being reduced into a simplistic series of familiar events, useful for selling the current series through association and nostalgia. This is not necessarily a new thing, but there is no reason we cannot do better. There is much fine writing and commentary out there, but it struggles to define the discourse. Perceptive analysis, over controversy and statistics-as-records, would be welcome online, on television and in the press. The predominance of former players in commentary teams ought to provide valuable insight, but there seems to be a reluctance to allow them to be analytical, and, without insight, surely knowledgeable journalists would provide better colour. A lay audience is as likely to be alienated by chummy in-jokes as by technical analysis and historical context.
Without its history, Test cricket would surely struggle. Who now would want a five day sports match? Even the Ashes, supposedly immune from the pressures of low attendance faced by other series and nations, relies on its past to sustain it. This history, however, has been misused and reduced to a neat story of heroes and battles, easily swallowed and little questioned. It is not too late to rescue the interesting and informative, whilst appreciating the significance of the present and widening our gazes.
When the former Australian opener Arthur Morris was asked where he was when Bradman made his famous final innings duck at The Oval in 1948, he answered, truthfully, “I was at the other end”. Morris made 196, his innings also four short of centennial neatness. At the moment, we are, like Morris, asked to remember moments, quirks and freeze-frames. Let understand the contexts, the details, the men and women at the other end. The game will be better for it.