Sunday, December 03, 2006

Urn's turn to tour

The Adelaide test between Australia and England remains delicately poised after day three. England are making a decent fist of Adelaide after its heavy defeat in Brisbane but need early wickets tomorrow if they are force a win. Australia despite being well behind may declare early in a gamble to win the game. The English are 1-0 down in the defence of the Ashes. Both sides are putting in an enormous amount of effort for a tiny urn. Some of the blame for this has to go back to John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset. It was he who started cricket’s first international tour as far back as 1789. But Sackville’s choice of location was flawed. France in 1789 was otherwise engaged in Revolution. Sackville only made it as far as Dover.

In the new century that followed teams did get together and call themselves “England”. But it wasn’t until 70 years after Sackville that an England XI finally toured abroad. North America was the destination and George Parr, the “Lion of the North”, led the tour. In the choppy waters of the Atlantic Parr showed he was no sea-lion. He frequently had recourse to gin and water to settle his nerves during heavy weather. Among the other players was fellow bowler John Wisden, who would later found cricket's bible, the Wisden Almanac. The Montreal Cricket Club sponsored the first tour, helped by the proprietors of the St Lawrence Hotel in Montreal. The players were guaranteed 50 pounds plus expenses. The English eleven played five games, all against teams of twenty two players. This format allowed Parr to pick up the impressive figures of 16 wickets for just 25 runs in one innings. They won all their games including a game against USA XXII. The tour was a huge success and they played in front of 25,000 plus crowds in Hoboken, NJ and Philadelphia.

Two years later the colonies of Australia were ready for a cricketing visit from the homeland. The state of Victoria, newly formed from the southern rump of New South Wales, was flush with the wealth of its newfound gold reserves. In 1861 the Melbourne caterers, Spiers and Pond invited Charles Dickens to tour the country to help advertise their wares. Dickens declined the offer and Spiers and Pond desperately looked around for some other means of revenue. Spiers and Pond were the caterers at the Melbourne cricket ground and their customers argued they should invite instead an England cricket team. A mostly Surrey-based team made the long journey.

Again it was 11 men against 22 except for the first game in Melbourne where an England side just off the boat successfully bartered their opposition down to 18. That first game in the suburb of Richmond attracted 15,000 people. They easily won the first game by an innings but did lose 2 of their 12 matches. Spiers and Pond were the real winners and they made so much money from the tour that they graciously allowed the Englishmen to share half the profits from the final game. The “Lion of the North” missed this tour but was back with a stronger team two years later in 1863. This time they won all their games even adding New Zealand to the itinerary.

Nine years elapsed before Dr. W.G. Grace brought out the third touring party. Although strictly an amateur, the good doctor was so sure of his own prowess and fame that he demanded a fee of £1,500 plus expenses. But his team lost 3 games out of 15 and although still playing against 18 players, it was obvious the colonials were improving. Grace justified his match fee by leading from the front. Sometimes however, there were considerable distractions. A local journalist reported from Ballarat, ‘The sun shone infernally, the eleven scored tremendously, we fielded abominably, and all drank excessively’.

Four years on in 1876, the first fully-professional English team came to Australia and established the modern pattern for the tour. The highlight of this tour was to be two games against a Combined Australia XI. These two games later became recognised as the first two Tests. Without Grace, this England team was beatable. And in the first test in March 1877 at the MCG, the Australians won by 45 runs. The English captain James Lillywhite was magnanimous in defeat, saying, "The win was...a feather in their cap and a distinction that no Englishman will begrudge them". The local press went berserk but it received no coverage in the Mother Country. The English gained revenge to win the second test.

An Australian team travelled without success in 1880 but returned again to play one test at the Kennington Oval in London in 1882. But the Australians were well prepared. It was the 29th game of the tour of which they had only lost two games. Fred Spofforth known as the Demon took 14 English wickets for 90 runs. In a low scoring test, Australia won by seven runs in under two days. This defeat did grab press attention. The day after the end of the test was Saturday, September 2nd. On that date the Sporting Times carried the famous mock obituary for English cricket - an epitaph that lingers to this day and ensures posterity for the journalist Reginald Shirley Watkinshaw Brooks.
In Affectionate Remembrance
E N G L I S H C R I C K E T,
which died at the Oval
29th A U G U S T, 1882,
Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances
N.B. - The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.

The Nota Bene at the end of Brook’s obituary would give the obituary continuity and ensure that the name stuck. But it needed one further moment of theatre for it to become the label for one of the longest-standing sporting contents in the world. A few weeks later, an English team, captained by Ivo Bligh set off to tour Australia. The side lost the first of three but won the next two to win the series. The result prompted a group of Melbourne ladies to burn one of the bails used in the Third Test, put it a small brown urn, and present it to Bligh. Bligh took the urn back to England. But he also took back one of the Melbourne ladies who burned the bails. In February 1884, Bligh married Miss Florence Rose Morphy of Melbourne. Forty-three years later it was she who bequeathed the Ashes to MCC on the death of her husband.

The urn has stayed in London ever since, regardless of which side subsequently “won the Ashes”. Until 2006 that is. MCC had hoped the urn could return to Australia in 2003 but an X-ray taken at the time revealed several serious cracks, notably in the stem. The urn was repaired and now for the first time since Miss Morphy and her friends burned it, the urn itself is now on tour with the players. At the moment the urn is with the South Australian Museum. The museum hopes that as many as 10,000 people will view what is now cricket's “holy grail” in its 11 day stay.

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