In this assembly for secondary schools, Brian Radcliffe invites students to learn the history of the Ashes cricket series and to consider what makes people patriotic
Leader: I wonder if anyone can tell me what this quotation refers to:
Reader: ‘It’s been going on for a long, long time, we still hate each other; and it’s wonderful.’ (1)
Leader: Was it a world war the speaker was referring to? Or was it instead all about religious intolerance, or a modern crusade? Was it referring to a spate of racial violence or a border disagreement?[Pause]
No. Those words you heard are rumoured to have been spoken by Ian Botham, the famous former England cricketer and now Sky Sports commentator. He was commenting on the Ashes cricket series, between England and Australia, due to start on July 8th.
‘A cricket match?’ some of you will respond. ‘How can a cricket match give rise to such strong emotions?’ However, over the next two months, during the series of five test matches, the TV, radio and newspapers will be full of ball by ball analyses of each day’s play. There will be moments when, just like for Andy Murray at Wimbledon, TV and radio programmes will be rescheduled as millions tune in for a crucial period of batting, bowling and fielding.
But why is it called the ‘Ashes’? What lies behind the name?
It apparently all began in 1882 when the ninth test match between England and Australia took place. England, the inventors of a game regarded as one of the chief exports of this country to the civilised world, lost the match for the first time on their home ground, the Oval cricket ground in London. It was such a shock that a journalist wrote a mock obituary for English cricket in the Sporting Times. He closed the obituary with these words:
Reader: ‘The body (of English cricket) will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia’ (2)
Leader: A few weeks later, the English team, captained by Ivo Bligh, set off to tour Australia. Bligh vowed to return with ‘the ashes’; Australia’s captain, WL Murdoch, similarly promised to defend them.
Later during that tour, Ivo Bligh was given a small terracotta urn (such as is used for the ashes from a real cremation) by a group of ladies in Melbourne. He brought it home with him and it stayed on the Bligh’s mantelpiece at their family home until Bligh died. However, it became such a symbol of the tournament that, at his request, his wife Florence bequeathed the urn to the Marylebone Cricket Club. It is now kept at Lord’s.
(NB. It is a common misconception that the original urn is the official trophy of the Ashes series, presented to the winner, but it has never been formally adopted as such since Bligh saw it as a personal gift. The urn’s official home is Lords, and it has only travelled to Australia twice.) (2)
Since the 1998-99 Ashes series, a large crystal version of the urn has been presented to the winners of the tournament.
Leader: Why does sport stimulate such strong emotions? Yes, there are always those people who are ‘sports mad’; who wear their scarves and tops every day, who have club logos on their cars, who tune-in permanently to Sky Sports. But each year there are some sporting occasions that empty shopping malls, bring businesses to a halt and cause a massive increase in sudden sick-leave requests – the majority of the population appears to be affected. Examples might be the Grand National (the one occasion each year when a lot of people place a bet), a football World Cup match, a Wimbledon semi-final, an Olympic track final or the crucial hours of a test match. Every family in the country, it seems, has their stories regarding their perspective of the 1966 World Cup, Red Rum winning at Aintree, Tim Henman valiantly losing at Wimbledon, Kelly Holmes’ double gold medal, Ian Botham or Freddie Flintoff.[Pause]
Why does sport stimulate such strong emotions?[Pause]
Some social observers say it’s tribal – a throwback to a time when it was important to show that your tribe was ’top dog’ in the region. It’s creates a feeling of solidarity and community with the other families in the tribe. In fact, a politician with strong views about immigration once claimed that a true test of whether or not you’re part of the British tribe would be to see which team you shouted for. Supporting a national team or representative shows where your roots are and unifies all ages and genders.
Others see sport as a continuation of the wars of history. We all get especially involved when the contest is against the traditional enemies of the country, like Germany, France, Russia and even the United States. Perhaps we’re still fighting.
A further suggestion is that our passion is closely related to the fact that, as a country, we’re no longer a major world power. Despite the boasts of politicians, Britain’s economic and military power has waned considerably. China, India and the Middle East amongst others have overtaken us, leaving us a long way down the international pecking order. Maybe, in the sporting arena, we think that, despite being just a small country, we can regain a little of our lost glory – it’s so important to use because of lost pride.
However, despite all this sociological and political analysis, the reason why most of us enjoy our flirtation with sport may be much simpler. Maybe an intense sporting contest is simply part of our summer tradition? Those long hot days with barbecues, strawberries, ice cream and ice cold drinks will be forever linked to the sound of a tennis racquet pinging; the splash of a surging swimmer; the patter of track shoes; the thud of a cricket ball on a solid willow bat. It wouldn’t be the same without them.
So this summer, relax and enjoy yourself. Enjoy the contest between the best of England and the best of Australia. Relish the tension, celebrate the victories and remember to congratulate the gallant losers; whoever that may be.
Meanwhile, think about the words of this prayer. Make it your own if you wish.
Thank you for the summer and everything that symbolises the best of it.
As we near the end of another school year may we start to relax, to recharge and to acquire new vision for the year ahead.
Whatever our choice of activity may we be safe, appreciative and fulfilled.
(1) Great deeds, tiny margins, The Observer, 7 July, http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2009/jun/07/mike-brearley-ashes-england-australia
(2) The Ashes, Lord’s History, http://www.lords.org/history/the-ashes/
This e-bulletin issue was first published in July 2009
About the author: Brian Radcliffe