The Ashes in Print – Part 1

The Ashes Urn
The Ashes in Print - Part 1

As all cricket lovers know “The Ashes” legend arose out of a mock death notice for English cricket that was published in The Sporting Times following Australia’s victory in the only Test match played during the 1882 tour. The notice declared that “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”. The captain of the England side that visited Australia that winter, Ivo Bligh, promised to regain the Ashes and did so by winning two of the three scheduled Tests. In the course of the tour he was presented with the small terracotta urn that is now so familiar.

The first overseas cricket tour had been undertaken in 1859 by an English team that travelled to North America. On the tourist’s return organiser William Lillywhite published the first ever tour book. There were one or two other such books prior to 1882/83, but the first Ashes book ever published was a brief and somewhat irreverent account of Bligh’s tour entitled St Ivo and The Ashes written by RD Beeston. This little book, containing just 22 pages of text, was largely a vehicle for the cartoon style illustrations of D Massie. Published in Australia Beeston’s only contribution to cricket literature is one of the real rarities amongst Ashes books original copies, on those rare occasions they turn up, selling for substantial four figure sums. Even a facsimile edition, which contains some additional material from other sources, that was published in 1982 by UK dealer John McKenzie , cannot now be obtained for less than one hundred pounds. Those without deep pockets who wish to learn more of the tour need not despair however as in 2009 Scyld Berry published Cricket’s Burning Passion which, with full access to the Bligh family archive, examines the series closely.

The next two Ashes tours, by Australia in 1884 and England in 1884/85, were both chronicled at the time. Charles Pardon’s press reports on the matches of the 1884 tour were gathered together in one place and the book by Shaw and Shrewsbury on the following winter’s tour added to that formula some sidelights on the touring experience – both are acclaimed publications and, not surprisingly, difficult to find although neither are anything like as valuable as Beeston. Anyone interested in reading the books today again has cause to be grateful to John McKenzie’s facsimiles.

After Shaw and Shrewsbury’s effort it was to be 1896 before a contemporary account of an Ashes series appeared again, albeit nothing like so ambitious, this being a 64 page booklet produced by the Athletic News which contained the scorecards of the tour, some brief details and a couple of articles. Of the intervening tours there was nothing, although three books have subsequently appeared.

First Rick Smith and Ron Williams describe the 1891/92 series in WG Down Under, a reconstruction of that Ashes series as well as the good Doctor’s earlier visit to Australia almost twenty years previously.

Of the other two newer releases there is a 2007 publication on the 1893 series which Archie reviewed here. , and the story of one of the great Ashes series, 1894/95, for which we have the 21st century eminence grise of cricket writers, David Frith, to thank. In the hands of a lesser writer Stoddy’s Mission would probably have been a dull and predictable report compiled from other writings. Such is the quality of Frith’s narrative however that it seems for all the world as if he accompanied the England side throughout the tour. England won the first Test by ten runs after following on and then went two up before two heavy defeats brought about a magnificent final Test in which two forgotten English heroes, Jack Brown and Albert Ward, both Yorkshire born, put on 210 for the third wicket to enable England to pass a distant fourth innings target of 297 at a canter, with six wickets to spare.

The next man to “write” a tour account was Ranji, whose With Stoddart’s Team In Australia told the story of, to English eyes, a disappointing series. Ranji’s ghost is not, in the fashion of the times, acknowledged, but the style of the book and particularly its tactical insights suggest that Ranji, unlike some who have given their name to cricket books, took a keen interest in what was written. The series itself was eerily like that which was played out in England exactly a century later, as England won the first Test convincingly before being brushed aside in the remaining four – the book was reprinted in 1985 with a new introduction by Ranji’s biographer Alan Ross and is, in that edition at least, inexpensive and relatively easy to find.

Despite Ranji’s book running to four editions publishers still seemed reluctant to publish tour books. The next series, that of 1899, had to wait almost a century for a full account to be devoted to it, although in 1905 An Australian Cricketer On Tour, by the Australian all rounder Frank Laver, dealt with his experience of both the 1899 and 1905 tours. Peter Sharpham’s book The 1899 Australians in England, published in 1997, is a faithful if rather colourless account of a series won by Australia by virtue of their victory in the only test of the five match series that reached a conclusion.

Archie MacLaren’s side of 1901/02 has never been honoured with a book and even the famous 1902 tour, save for one slim and today virtually unprocureable Australian publication, was not written up in book form at the time. There was huge interest in a series which included two of the most famous Tests of all those being “Fred Tate’s Match”, which Australia won by three runs and the next and final match of the serious when a mercurial century by Gilbert Jessop and a last wicket partnership of 15 (“..we’ll get ’em in singles”) between George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes brought England a dramatic victory. The easily obtainable Victor Trumper And The 1902 Australians by Lionel Brown appeared in 1981 to fill the gap.

The next series was 1903/04 when Plum, later Sir Pelham, Warner was captain of England. It was on this tour that, for the first time since 1882/83, the description of the contest as being for “The Ashes” came back into vogue. Warner called his book of the tour How We Recovered The Ashes and Wisden, in its section on the tour in its 1905 edition, referred to “The Ashes” for the first time. The passage of time has not enhanced Warner’s reputation, and he is regarded today as a somewhat obsequious and at times duplicitous man, but of his love for the game and the care he took over his writings on it there can be no doubt. While painstaking and informative, as opposed to vibrant and enlightening, are the adjectives that spring to mind when considering Warner’s books the influence of How We Recovered The Ashes on the way tour books were written afterwards is clear, and the book is an important one and, thanks to a new edition published in 2004, not difficult to track down.

Warner’s book, like Ranji’s, sold well but caution remained in the minds of publishers and it was sixty years after Frank Laver’s book that another book on the 1905 series, in which England Captain Stanley Jackson topped both their batting and bowling averages in the English victory, appeared. Jackson’s Year was written by Alan Gibson, a man who was as good a writer as the game has seen, and who did a fine job on the series.

In 1907/08 Australia won the series 4-1 to retain the Ashes. The significantly understrength England team were managed on the tour by Major (later Colonel) Philip Trevor, whose reports on the cricket appeared in the Daily Telegraph. These reports were later gathered together in book form. Despite there being some exciting cricket played (the series was much more closely contested than the scoreline suggests) limited interest in the tour in England meant that the book, which was a paperback printed on poor quality paper, did not sell well. Few copies survive and it is a rare event to find a copy in even reasonable condition. Once again however there is a robust and well produced McKenzie reprint for anyone keen to learn more about a writer and a tour that both deserve to be better remembered.

Australia won again in 1909 and, without home success, publishers gave the series a miss. It was to be 1993 before the, sadly, now defunct Cricket Lore magazine published Mary Ann’s Australians, an account of the tour by Peter Mahony. England regained the Ashes in 1911/12 and, in a pattern to be repeated down the years, publishers were happier to invest in a series in which England had taken back the ascendancy. Warner, England’s captain again but prevented by illness from playing in the Tests, was able to concentrate on writing England v Australia – The Record Of A Memorable Tour, and Jack Hobbs lent his name to Recovering The Ashes. Warner’s book, if a purchaser is willing to put up with a not very attractively produced 1950’s Sportsman’s Book Club reprint, is neither rare nor particularly difficult to find.

In 1912 it was back to England for the first and so far only Triangular Tournament with Australia, England and South Africa all playing each other three times. The Australian side was riven by internal strife, six leading players not making the trip, and the weather did not treat the Tournament kindly. England retained the Ashes, and by dint of the intervention of the Great War were to keep them until 1920/21. There is just one book on the Tournament, Triangular Cricket, by EHD Sewell, which is a scarce and expensive item. It is a good book but anyone with an interest in the series who does not have a spare GBP250 or so need not be patient for too much longer – a meticulously researched book on the series by Patrick Ferriday is finished and due to be published very soon.

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