(A version of this article appeared in Varsity in June 2009)
Flip through earlier chapters of that history and you notice that a number of Cambridge men figure prominently. Mike Atherton (Downing 1986-89), the most recent CUCC Captain to go on to skipper England, took part in some epic Ashes battles but sadly never tasted success. Mike Brearley (St John’s 1960-68) had better luck, famously masterminding a Botham-inspired comeback in 1981. To find Cambridge’s most significant contributor to Ashes history, however, you have to turn to the very first volume, dated 1882. Therein lies the tale of the very blighter who first brought the urn back to Old Blighty – the Honourable Ivo Bligh (Trinity 1877-81). After England’s first defeat on home soil had prompted the Sporting Times to print its now famous mock obituary of English cricket, it was Bligh who led the touring team that set sail for Australia, declaring that he intended “to recover those Ashes.” And recover them he jolly well did. His personal contribution? Just 33 runs in 3 Tests, but plenty of damned fine after-dinner speeches, no doubt.
Curiously enough, Bligh’s original plan was to assemble a touring XI comprised solely of his old Cambridge mates. Evidently, this plan never came to fruition, but it was not quite as bonkers as it may sound now. His mates happened to be pretty handy. As a fresher, Bligh had been part of Cambridge’s greatest ever team, which won all 8 matches it played in the summer of 1878, thrashing Oxford and beating the touring Australians by an innings. How times have changed. When interviewed by Varsity earlier this term, Mike Atherton admitted that during his stint at Cambridge, “we weren’t expected to win any games.” The days of Oxbridge and the Public Schools monopolising English cricket are – quite rightly – now long gone.
Which brings me back to the Ashes today. The thing is, depending on how you look at it, the battle for the urn is either the greatest contest in sport, or a ludicrously glorified old boys’ match. As staging a Test match World Cup is utterly unfeasible, we have a situation where beating the old enemy seems to matter above all else. Purportedly the pinnacle of the game, it’s like a final in which the finalists are not chosen on merit. In the last issue of Varsity, one of the Sports Editors touched upon Britain’s excellence at inventing sports and exporting them to the rest of the world, only for the rest of the world to then dominate them, corrupt them or completely reinvent them. Well, Ashes cricket is in some sense an exception to this. Even if the England cricket team appointed Steve McLaren as head coach, they couldn’t fail to qualify for the next Ashes series Down Under. McLaren would probably end up resigning after a 3-2 series loss to Kenya, but England would still be able to board that plane to Oz. Pretty much the only circumstances in which the invitation would get rescinded are if the UK government introduces an apartheid regime, Robert Mugabe gets elected PM, or Ricky Ponting hears that Gary Pratt is going to be included in the touring party.
You’ve probably gathered by now that I don’t attach as much importance to Ashes series as the average pundit does. Don’t get me wrong – I still think they’re brilliant, just infinitely more so when the mantle of being the world’s best is at stake, as was the case four years ago. That series was the spectacular culmination of a systematic assault on Test cricket’s summit. In comparison, “Botham’s Ashes” were mere bickerings at base camp, at a time when the West Indies stood well and truly on top of the world. Today, the not-so-mighty and ever-so-slightly-frozen West Indies have been brushed aside by an England side that appears to have halted its own freefall, while Australia are trying desperately to hang on at the top after a change in personnel. I’m sure it’ll be a great contest this summer – gripping if not glorious. I can’t wait for it to get underway. But the most important prize in cricket? If you say so.