The Golden Age: England’s 19th-century domination © Getty Images
The Golden Age: England’s 19th-century domination © Getty Images

The legacy of The Ashes, as is common knowledge, dates back to 1882-83. While we often get to know of words like ‘regain’ and ‘retain’, the phases of dominance is not very common knowledge. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the way the urn changed hands over time.

The bails were burnt and kept away in the urn 133 years ago — or that is what we are made to believe (though most sources today would suggest nothing of the kind had ever taken place). Whatever may have been the story, it cannot be denied that The Ashes is the most fiercely contested challenge of the longest format.

For over a century cricketers in both countries have grown up nurturing dreams of being a part of the quest for urn at Lord’s or MCG. They want to ‘regain’ the urn from the enemy’s lair. Once that is done, they want to ‘retain’ it till the end of time.

Psychological wars are waged. Skills are challenged. Champions are born. And history is created, the way it has been since the beginning of time.

Let us, then, have a look at the journey of the little urn over time.

1891-92: The Prince masters The Doctor

It is debatable whether bails were really burned and stacked away inside that urn on that summer day at The Oval when Fred Spofforth ran through the hosts. What is known, however, is the 1882-83 triumph for Ivo Bligh and his men over the arch rivals in the antipodes.

England won the series 3-0, and went on to win eight Ashes contests out of eight — 1882-83 (2-1), 1884 (1-0), 1884-85 (3-2), 1886 (3-0), 1886-87 (2-0), 1887-88 (1-0), 1888 (2-1), and 1890 (2-0). Yes, they toured that frequently — eight times in the span of seven-and-a-half years.

The 1891-92 Australians were led by Jack Blackham, the man who often batted at No. 11 but was good enough with the glove to be labelled ‘The Prince of Wicketkeepers’. WG Grace’s England were a formidable side, with Bobby Abel, Andy Stoddart, and ‘The Doctor’ himself forming the backbone of the batting, and the trinity of George Lohmann, Bobby Peel, and Johnny Briggs forming the bowling attack.

Australia took their first step towards the urn at MCG: they conceded a 24-run lead and eventually set a mere 213. Unfortunately, Charlie Turner turned out to be more than a handful for the tourists. England, reduced to 98 for 7, were bowled out for 158.

But it was for a reason that England remained unvanquished for eight rubbers on a run. George Lohmann took 8 for 58 at SCG, skittling out the hosts for 144. Then Abel became the first Englishman to carry his bat in Test cricket with 132, and England acquired an invaluable 163-run lead.

But Australians turned things around. Alec Bannerman (91) and JJ Lyons (134) turned things around with a 174-run stand. The middle-order contributed as well, and though Briggs finished the innings with a hat-trick, the tourists were set 229.

The onus fell on the bowlers. Turner and George Giffen reduced England to a hapless 11 for 3, Grace and Abel included. Stoddart held firm, adding 53, 19, and 32 for the next three stands. At 116 for 6 it seemed he might pull England over the brink.

But Turner came back to run through Stoddart’s defence. The great man fell for 69, and England were bowled out for 156. It was the first time that England had to leave the urn back Down Under.

Briggs claimed 6 for 49 and 6 for 89 at Adelaide Oval to give the tourists a win by an innings and plenty, but it did not matter.

1893: That man Briggs

It did not take England long. Rain prevented a result at Lord’s (though not before Arthur Shrewsbury became the first to score a thousand Test runs and Stoddart became the first to declare a Test innings).

The second Test at The Oval was all England. Six of their top seven went past 50 as they piled up 483. Briggs and Bill Lockwood bowled the tourists out for 91. Following on, Australia reached 126 for 1, and later 295 for 4, but Briggs (10 for 148) and Lockwood (8 for 133) eventually wore them out.

Australia needed to win the Old Trafford Test to retain The Ashes, but England were perfectly happy to decline a target of 198 in two-and-a-quarter hours. They finished with 118 for 4.

1897-98: New heroes emerge

England won three more Ashes on the trot, and that 1891-92 defeat seemed nothing more than an aberration. Then came the 1897-98, when Australia turned things around in the most amazing of fashions after England took a 1-0 lead thanks to JT Hearne’s match haul of 9 for 141 and hundreds from Archie MacLaren and KS Ranjitsinhji. ALSO READ: Ranji — Prince of a small state, king of a great game

Australia needed to win the 5-Test series to regain The Ashes, and they started emphatically. Five men went past 50 (Charlie McLeod scored a hundred) in the second Test as they scored 520. Then Hugh Trumble (8 for 107) and Monty Noble (7 for 80) led them to an innings victory.

The third Test saw another set of heroes. Joe Darling smashed 178 (this included the first ever six in Test cricket), and at one stage Australia’s score read 245 for 1. They eventually scored a whopping 573, and once again England succumbed to an innings defeat against Noble (8 for 157).

The urn was clinched in the next Test. This time little Clem Hill scored 188 out of a team total of 323. As many as 13 English innings were in excess of 20, but Ranji’s 55 in the second innings was the only fifty. Australia won by 8 wickets, and added another 6-wicket win in the fifth Test for good measure.

1903-04: Rhodes to perdition

The Australian dominance had begun. Amazingly, 1901-02 was almost an encore of 1897-98.  England started with an innings victory before history was repeated: Australia clinched the series 4-1 after being one-down, Noble and Trumble sharing 60 wickets between them. Then they went on to win the 1902 Ashes, one that ended with two of the greatest Tests of all time. They had won four Ashes on the trot.

Plum Warner’s men eventually brought the urn home in 1902-03. The first Test was decided by Tip Foster, whose 287 was the highest score on Test debut and remained the highest Test score for 27 years. The second Test belonged to Wilfred Rhodes, who finished the match with 15 for 124. He would finish the series with 31 wickets at a paltry 15.74. ALSO READ: Wilfred Rhodes — What an all-rounder!

Victor Trumper seized the initiative back for Australia with 113 and 59 in the third Test as Australia won by 216 runs. Unfortunately for them, things became a little complicated in the fourth: Bernard Bosanquet, practitioner of a new art, ran through them in the fourth innings with 6 for 51.

Having lost The Ashes, the Australians caught the English unawares on a rain-affected MCG pitch, as Tibby Cotter (8 for 65), Trumble (7 for 28), and Noble (4 for 38) bowled them out for 61 and 101. Trumper’s 88 was the only score of the Test in excess of 40.

1907-08: The Ship comes to shore

England retained the 1905 Ashes 2-0 after Stanley Jackson became the first captain to win all five tosses in a series. A relatively inexperienced side toured Australia in 1907-08, and got a 1-4 drubbing.

The first two Tests were all-time classics. Chasing 274 Australia were 27 for 3, then 219 for 8; but Cotter and Gerry Hazlitt saw them home by two wickets. England’s target in the next Test was 282, and they were nine-down for 243 before Joe Humphries and Arthur Fielder saw them through. The Test is also remembered for the debut of one Jack Hobbs.

Having set the bars too high, England could not live up to the expectations. They fought hard to secure a 78-run lead in the third Test before reducing Australia to 180 for 7. Then an influenza-hit Hill joined Roger Hartigan, and the Test turned completely. Hill scored 160, Hartigan 116, and Jack Saunders and Jack O’Connor took five wickets apiece to inflict a 245-run defeat on the tourists.

The tempo was set. England were 88 for 2 after Australia were 214 in the next Test. Then Hobbs fell for 57, and they were collapsed to 105. Warwick Armstrong’s 133 not out took the target to 495, and England’s feeble resistance amounted to a mere 186.

The last Test, a dead rubber, was another classic. England secured a 144-run lead before Trumper took control: his 166 took the Test away from England, more so after they were reduced to 123 for 7 chasing 279. Then Rhodes put up a fight with 69, and though Jack Crawford and Syd Barnes added 31 for the last wicket, they fell short. The series, in addition to three high-intensity contests, witnessed the rise of Armstrong, who scored 410 runs at 46 and took 14 wickets at 26.

1911-12: English champions outshine ‘Ranji’

Australia retained The Ashes with a 2-1 win in 1909, and with the mysterious ‘Ranji’ Hordern in the side, they were probably expected to do an encore. As things turned out, Hordern claimed 32 wickets at 24, but was not a force strong enough to counter Barnes (34 wickets at 23) and Frank Foster (32 at 22) to go with Hobbs (662 at 83).

Australia took a 1-0 lead with Trumper carving out 113 and Hordern returning 5 for 85 and 7 for 90. But Barnes took 9 for 140 in the next Test, and with 219 to chase down, Hobbs smiled his way to 126 not out as England won by 8 wickets. He followed this with 187 in the next Test as England went up 2-1.

Australia did not cross 200 even once in the fourth Test against Foster and Barnes, but the Test was decided by the English opening partnership: Hobbs (178) and Rhodes (179) added 323. Frank Woolley’s hundred gave England gave an emphatic 4-1 win.

The 1912 series was a convoluted one, for it involved The Ashes inside the first triangular tournament. The idea was a novel one, but it turned out to be a very, very wet summer. England won four matches and Australia two out of six each, and all South Africa could achieve was a draw.

The first two Ashes Tests rain-washed, so it was decided that the last one at The Oval would be played to a result. Australia, caught on a wet pitch, were bowled out for 111 and 65 with Frank Woolley following his 62 not out with 5 for 29.

Then came The Great War.

Click here to read History of Ashes: How the urn changed hands, Part 2 of 4

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)