The ‘Ashes’ is, of course, a biannual Test cricket series between England and Australia, which epitomises the rivalry between the two nations and, as such, is the most celebrated bilateral Test series in history. Although not recognised as such at the time, the first Test series between England and Australia was played in March and April 1887 and resulted in a 1-1 draw. However, the term ‘Ashes’ was not used until after a one-off Test match at The Oval in August, 1882.
On that occasion, Australia were bowled out for 122 in their second innings, setting England a target of just 85 to win. At 51/3, with W.G. Grace at the crease, England looked certain to win, but Grace was caught by Alec Bannerman off the bowling of Harry Boyle for 32 to reduce the hosts to 53/4. Thereafter, fast bowler Fred Spofforth, a.k.a. ‘The Demon Bowler’, made short work of the remaining England batsmen, taking 7/44 to give Australia its first Test victory over England on English soil.
A spoof epitaph, written by English journalist Reginald Shirley Brooks, subsequently appeared in the ‘Sporting Times’. It began, ‘In affectionate remembrance of English cricket…’ and ended, ‘The body will be cremated and the Ashes taken to Australia.’ Three weeks later, the England team, led by the Hon. Ivo Bligh, embarked on a tour of Australia. England lost the first Test by nine wickets, but won the second by an innings and 27 runs and the third by 69 runs, thereby completing their quest to ‘recover the Ashes’. Indeed, the ‘Ashes’ ceased to be just a metaphor when Bligh was presented with a small, terracotta urn – nowadays kept permanently at Lord’s Cricket Ground in St. John’s Wood, London – containing the ashes of a burnt cricket bail.