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In the bitter English winter of 1962-1963 – when the snow lay on the ground for more than two months – I would lie awake at boarding school in the pre-dawn chill. Beneath my pillow was a transistor radio emitting the muffled broadcast of the Ashes cricket contest between Australia and England, beamed with the uncertain technology of that era from the far side of the planet.

It was a tense series, fiercely fought and ultimately drawn. But it is not the cricket that has stuck in my mind. It was the contrast between the misery of that winter of frozen roads, pipes and toes, and the word pictures of demi-paradise that the commentators conjured in the minutes before I had to get up and face a day that probably included double maths, Latin, a compulsory run along the main road (the only sport possible in those conditions), and a visit to matron about my chilblains.

That winter had a number of personal consequences. The Engels moved house because my mum insisted on somewhere with central heating. My inchoate fascination with cricket became ingrained for ever. I was left with a lifetime urge to escape English winters whenever possible. I also became obsessed with Australia.

Shortly after that, a new boy, Alex Bernstein, arrived at school. I asked where he was from. “Western Australia,” he replied, trying to be dismissive. I followed him round for months, firing questions about how and where he lived, until he grew bored with the joke and admitted he really came from Dublin (which was exotic enough).

Others followed the dream. The 1960s marked the last hurrah of the Ten Pound Poms, migrants given virtually free passages by the Australian government to try to fill the wide brown land with wholesome British stock: families such as the Gillards from south Wales, who were advised that winters like 1962-1963 were dangerous for their daughter’s delicate health. Little Julia Gillard is now Australia’s prime minister.

My Australian obsession has passed beyond the stalking phase but it has never gone away. It has just got deeper. Many, including northern hemisphere editors, share the Captain Cook view that Australia is terra nullius – effectively empty. In Cook’s case that meant the British were entitled to sweep aside the hapless aboriginals. His modern equivalents see it as a place without conflict and, thus, inherently boring (like Holland, Scandinavia, Canada and, worst of all, New Zealand).

Actually, Gillard leads a country full of underlying conflict – about its past as well as its future. This remains unresolved precisely because the country has never endured the catharsis of full-scale confrontation. But the problems are there, hidden beneath layers of prosperity, hedonism and sunshine. No worries, mate.

The most characteristic conflict involves the nation’s relationship with the country from which it sprung. Australia has spent the 240 years since Cook’s arrival defining itself in relation to Britain. Should it remain a monarchy? Should it keep the Union Jack on its flag? Inertia rather than sentiment prevents change.

But Anglo-Australian relations do have the most glorious safety valve: a mechanism unique in diplomacy. On November 25, the valve will return to action. After almost 130 years of mutually satisfying strife, the battle for the Ashes will be joined once again: five Test matches lasting up to five days each, to be played in Australia’s five main capital cities, concluding in the first week of the new year.

Sport and international relations are becoming increasingly muddled: consider the politicisation of the bidding process for the Olympics and for World Cups. The role of the Ashes is far more positive. It is a unique bond between two countries at the uttermost ends of the earth. It is stronger than trade (Australia is well down the UK’s list of partners), stronger than the increasingly irrelevant monarchy, stronger even than the ties of family that, even these days, get frayed or snapped by the tyranny of distance. There is nothing else like it in sport or any other field of endeavour.

The notion of the Ashes dates back to a famous home defeat at the Oval in London in 1882, a time when Australia did not yet exist as a nation. Its colonial inhabitants were regarded – and regarded themselves – as simply a detached sub-species of Briton, though they were already seen to be acquiring their own recognisable character: undeferential, a little coarse perhaps, and vigorously physical.

In 1882 it was considered humiliation for England (effectively Britain, population 30m) to lose to Australia (population 2m), but it was to become a recurring humiliation. Since the resumption of cricketing hostilities after the trauma of the first world war, Australia have “held the Ashes” for 62½ years out of 90.

Just once, in the southern summer of 1932-1933, the cricket generated enough hostility to threaten Anglo-Australian relations: the haughty England captain Douglas Jardine unleashed a method of attack – “Bodyline” – designed to neutralise the master batsman Don Bradman by ordering his bowlers to aim persistently at Australian heads rather than at their wickets.

The Australians complained quite justifiably that, as the saying goes, this was not cricket but were loftily slapped down by cricket’s traditional rulers, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), through a mixture of innate arrogance and, given the imperfect communications of the time, ignorance about what was going on.

Once Bodyline was abandoned, Bradman resumed his former dominance, which was to outlast the second world war, and made him, alongside Ned Kelly, (begging the pardon of Kylie Minogue, Paul Hogan and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo) the most enduringly famous of all Australians.

Until he died, aged 92, in 2001, Bradman would remain the living embodiment of what the Ashes represents: a unique global institution linking two distant nations in shared enjoyment of cricket, mutual respect, good fellowship – and, never far away – mutual antipathy.

As the Australian philosopher David Stove once put it, the Aussies usually win because they hate the Poms, while the English merely despise the Australians. On the one side, the historical baggage is massively overweight, with lingering folk-memories from the convict ships to Churchill’s alleged wartime betrayals. Then there is resentment of the Poms themselves, all of us allegedly both dirty (“I’m as dry as a Pommie’s towel”) and whinging.

During the Tests, refined England supporters usually let the chanting rabble known as the Barmy Army do the biting back: “We came here with backpack, you with ball-and-chain” and, most insidiously: “God save your gracious Queen …”

Even the concept of “holding” the Ashes is a contentious one. The object of desire is a small, fragile urn that contains the ashes of something or other. But it is the private property of the MCC and normally remains at its headquarters at Lord’s whoever is notionally in possession. The winning captain is forced to lift a replica. The urn is too fragile to be manhandled, according to the MCC. Many Aussies see this as yet more post-imperial arrogance (again with some justification). But then, right now, they don’t hold the Ashes anyway. We do, following a 2-1 victory in the 2009 series in England. So there.

As a writer, this is the only sporting event where I would dream of using the word “we”. It is almost impossible to be either English or Australian and neutral. Some migrants to Australia may indeed acquire the zeal of the convert: we know which side Julia Gillard is on. But it would be rare indeed for anyone already interested in cricket to change allegiances.

Even as an 11-year-old, my infatuation with Australia never led me to contemplate supporting them. Once or twice in the years since (usually in really drab English winters) I might have contemplated emigration. But I couldn’t imagine changing sides. It would be like changing sex.

The battle for bragging rights occasionally spreads beyond cricket. In 2008 the British Olympic team for once outstripped the Australians, even in Australia’s traditional forte of swimming. John Coates, president of the Australian Olympic Committee, said Britain was doing all right for a country that has “no swimming pools and very little soap”.

I am not sure Stove’s explanation for Australian success is right. I reckon they usually win because it matters more to them. Britain’s place in the world is an uncertain one but the British do not need sport to gain attention.

Australia constantly faces the embarrassment of non-recognition. In a display of leader-dolls at the G20 summit in Seoul last week, Gillard was depicted in Austrian national dress. Knowing nothing of Bradman, most Americans have never had any conception of Australia at all, except during the brief commercial triumph of Crocodile Dundee in the 1980s – and the wondrous Sydney Olympics 10 years ago. Sport is crucial to Australia’s sense of itself.

And they do like to win, the Aussies. They gave England eight successive Ashes batterings between 1989 and 2005: the Aussies loved it, and the English – torturing themselves the whole time – maintained the faith the way one does playing a video game in which the monsters inevitably wipe you out.

When the boot’s on the other foot, it’s different. The last time England won the Ashes away from home was December 28 1986. That very day, just up the road in Melbourne, Australia beat Sweden in the final of the Davis Cup tennis. Guess which story led the Melbourne papers next day. You needed a magnifying glass to find the cricket score.

Only last month, the Commonwealth Games in Delhi got virtually no attention in Britain except for stories about snakes and squalor. No one was interested in the third-rate sport on offer. In Australia, they lapped up every one of their 74 gold medals (twice as many as England, as they can’t have failed to notice).

The 2010-2011 Ashes will not have this problem. England’s epic victory in 2005 transformed the nature of the competition from a massacre to a slugfest. Australia retaliated with a 5-0 home win four years ago but, after the retirement of their ace spin bowler Shane Warne, lost again in England last year. Everyone expects this renewal to be close.

However, the terms of non-cricketing trade have changed in the other direction. Eight years ago the beer-bellied Barmy Army were chanting “We’re fat, we’re round, three dollars to the pound.” The shrewder ones might have taken the chance to buy a penthouse overlooking Sydney Harbour. At 1.6 Australian dollars to the pound it is a different story.

With many potential supporters forced to stay in England, the grounds may be quieter this time round. And this series comes at a time when cricket is in an appalling state. The recent revelations about player corruption in Pakistan come against a background of abject maladministration. The Dubai-based International Cricket Council, which replaced the lordly MCC as cricket’s ruling body, is obsessed with its own importance, and quick financial gains from the shorter forms of the game, summed up by Australians as “hit-and-giggle”.

The glorious languor of the five-day Test is dying across the cricket world. Except when England play Australia. The magic of the Ashes, always chivalrous, always combative, seems unfailing. It is a little beacon not just to a troubled sport but to the world.

I am writing this from a back garden in Sydney where the jacaranda blossoms are dropping gently on to the sunlit lawn. I made up my mind where I wanted to be on these occasions 48 winters ago. At 1.6 to the pound, I may have to subsist for the next two months on Vegemite sandwiches and billycans of swagman’s tea. But at least I am not anticipating chilblains.

I do sometimes wonder what happened to Alex Bernstein. Perhaps he emigrated to Western Australia.

Matthew Engel is an FT columnist and a former editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack


Matthew Engel on the legends behind the Ashes

The legend of the Ashes dates back to 1882 when the England batting collapsed against Australia – not for the last time – to lose a match they seemed certain to win. A writer called Reginald Brooks responded to the disaster not with a rant on a radio phone-in nor with headlines denouncing the England captain. Instead, he placed a gently humorous advert in the Sporting Times:

In Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket, which died at the Oval on 29th August 1882, Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. RIP. NB – The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.

The England captain for the tour to Australia that followed, Ivo Bligh (later Lord Darnley), promised to bring the ashes back. While he was there, some Melbourne ladies, including Bligh’s future wife, presented him with a tiny urn containing the ashes of a burnt bail. That urn and its contents became the trophy that still transfixes two nations.

That’s the story, approximately, but almost every aspect of it is now contested. Was it a bail that was burnt, or a ball, or the future Lady Darnley’s veil, as her aged daughter-in-law claimed in 1998? This sounds like a gently erotic gesture, more feminine than burning a bail.

Plausible, too, like the story that, whatever the urn contained originally, it now has cigarette ash, hastily placed there after a new maid cleaning the Darnleys’ drawing room innocently told the butler: “You know that old urn on his lordship’s mantelpiece? Well, I’ve given it a good old clear-out.”

Recent research also suggests the advert may have had a deeper subtext. Brooks’ father was an ardent campaigner for cremation.

Whatever, the Ashes were firmly entrenched in popular imagination by Edwardian times as the trophy for which England and Australia played, on the basis that the team that “held” the Ashes continued to do so if they won or drew the next series until they were defeated.

In practice, the urn remained with Lord Darnley until he bequeathed it to the MCC on his death in 1927. The MCC has let it go to Australia just twice – once for the bicentenary celebrations in 1988 and again for a tour of Australian museums in 2006-2007. On both occasions, curiously, England held the Ashes anyway.

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