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Ashes To Ashes: In the beginning

The history of the Ashes provides an epic story, so epic we've had to split it into five parts. Here's Dave Tickner with the early years.

WG Grace: great player, great beard

The story of how the Ashes came to be is a great one. It has been told and retold, yet remains perhaps the game's finest tale and the best example of cricket's intrinsic oddness.

What other sport has its greatest competition named after a joke concocted following a humiliating defeat for one of its competitors?

The central characters are two of the finest cricketers in history, WG Grace and Fred 'The Demon' Spofforth, and a hack called Reginald Brooks.

It's August 29 1882. England are playing Australia in a one-off Test at The Oval. The Aussies are in trouble at 114/6 in their second innings - a lead of just 76.

Enter Dr Grace stage left, mind full of mischief and face full of beard, to sow the seeds for 127 years and counting of often bitter and always intense rivalry between cricket's oldest foes.

Australia's number eight Sammy Jones left his crease to do a spot of gardening on a good length. Grace, never averse to a spot of gamesmanship - or 'cheating', as it's more accurately known - promptly ran the batsman out.

Australia slumped to 122 all out; England needed just 85 for victory.

Spofforth - a fearsome fast bowler at the best of times - was enraged: "This will lose you the match!" he apparently told the good doctor in an unimprovable example of a quote almost certainly apocryphal despite desperate desire for it to be true.

At 51/2 and a mere 34 runs short of victory, England appeared set to withstand Spofforth's fury. But Grace fell for 32, Spofforth decimated the rest of the batting line-up with seven for 44, and Australia won by seven runs.

It was England's first Test defeat on home soil.

These days, such disaster would have seen English cricket up for sale on eBay at a bargain-basement price or its Wikipedia entry hacked in a withering manner, perhaps including phrases like 'lozerz, lol' or 'pwned roflmao'.

Obituary

The 1880s, though, were a classier time.

Shortly after the defeat, Brooks penned his now legendary mock obituary in The Sporting Times:

"In Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket, which died at The Oval, 29th August, 1882. Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquiantances. R.I.P. N.B. - The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia."

It's comforting, somehow, to know that self-deprecating humour about the dreadfulness of the England cricket team has been around almost as long as the team itself.

The whole thing probably took Brooks five minutes from invention to completion. He probably assumed it would be forgotten just as quickly. The sentence that has become so crucial has the feel of a last-minute addendum, and note the lower case 'a'.

Yet it is perhaps the most important piece of cricket writing in history, and his words live on almost 130 years later.

Brooks' gag was taken up by the new England captain, the Hon. Ivo Bligh, who set sail for that winter's return series in Australia pledging to "bring back the ashes".

He repeated the statement when arriving in Melbourne, and the legend of 'the Ashes' (now with capital A it seems) took hold.

Ashes

England lost the first Test but won the series 2-1 - including the first ever innings victory in Test cricket. Afterwards, a group of Melbourne ladies (one of whom would later marry the England captain) presented Bligh with a small, terracotta urn containing the ashes of, well, something.

Most versions of the story say a bail, but others claim a stump, a ball and even a veil. Perhaps some of the ladies were hard of hearing.

The leading authority on all things cricket, Wisden, retold the story of the Ashes' inception in its 1954 almanack after England's memorable 1953 victory, and claimed the ashes came from a stump used in the third Test.

This version appeared in future editions until 1970 when stump was replaced by bail. In 1983, Wisden further muddied the issue by suggesting 'evidence' (although they don't appear to say what this evidence was) now pointed to the urn containing the remains of a ball, and that it was presented to the England captain around Christmas 1882. Which means it was presented before England had actually won the series.

It appears unlikely a definitive answer will ever arrive. Not least because we prefer it that way: the mystery is all part of the fun.

And so it is that cricket's greatest rivals spill sweat and blood twice every four years for the rights to a four-inch high urn - containing no-one knows what, with a hand-written label on it saying 'THE ASHES' and some deeply mediocre poetry printed on the side - that almost never leaves Lord's anyway.

The Ashes was born, and the English and Australians have been competing for and arguing about it ever since.