The Ashes

by Brian on November 22, 2006

If you Google for “greatest rivalry in sports”: today you’ll get a lot of references to the Ohio State-Michigan series (largely because of last week’s game) several references to Red Sox-Yankees, and a few other college pairings. From a global perspective, these all look faintly ridiculous. Does any of these rivalries really compare to Real Madrid-Barcelona for history, or Celtic-Rangers for intensity?

It’s probably futile to say which of these is *the* greatest. But I think on the list should be the series “that starts in a few hours”:

When I was growing up I heard stories about schoolboys listening on small radios in all hours of the night to the exploits of Bradman as he walloped Englishmen on the other side of the world. The technology needed to get a (internet) radio broadcast to upstate New York from half a world a way is a little more complicated, and a laptop computer can’t be placed as snugly by a bed as a crystal set radio can, but the effect might be much the same. There’s some chance we’ll be able to get internet video of the games, but I’m rather sceptical of the quality of the pictures we’ll get. In any case, it’s hard to imagine spending 25 days cramped in front of a computer screen watching the pictures when there’s work to be done. So there’ll be a lot of cricket on the radio for the next few weeks.

This could be the last hurrah for a lot of great Australian cricketers. In terms of team success, probably the greatest of the bunch has been Glenn McGrath. Perhaps it is just because he’s been injured at the ‘right’ time, but he’s managed to avoid playing in many losing causes. More precisely, it’s been 2 years since he was last on a losing Test team (in Chennai in Nov 2004), 5 years since he was last on a team that lost a Test match before the series was decided (in Mumbai in March 2001), and 10 years since he was on a team that lost such a Test match in Australia (the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne against the West Indies in 1996). (I think I checked all the relevant Tests for that last sentence, but I could be mistaken.) Now I’ll be happily surprised if those streaks manage to survive this summer. And of course McGrath was on the team that drew when it needed a win at The Oval last year. But while they last the streaks deserve recognition as quite remarkable stats. How many top level sports figures can say that his team haven’t lost a home game they needed to win (or even potentially needed to win) for 10 years?

This could well be McGrath’s last Test series, and he will be deeply missed. I can’t imagine I’ll ever see again another bowling combination at all like Warne and McGrath. And I hope we get to see McGrath continue to be involved with the game in some way. His intelligence and wit would make a pleasant change from much of what passes for cricket commentary in Australia.

If you read newspapers, blogs, message boards etc about the series, the sense seems to be that Australia is favoured, but it will be a close contest. If you instead pay attention just to the betting markets, no such sense of closeness arises. Australia is a short-priced favourite to win back the Ashes (about $1.20 for a $1 investment), with the most favoured series outcome being a 4-0 demolition.

I suspect I’ll regret this, but my prediction is that the markets are indeed wise in this occasion. Australia were dominant at home long before they were dominant abroad, and I suspect they will stay dominant at home long after they cease being dominant abroad. And with Hussey in the side, and MacGill sure to be included for several games, the Australian team selection looks sounder than it has in a long time. But I think the markets are wrong to price in a draw; there just isn’t enough rain around these days to stop these matches going the distance, and I think both teams right now are better at bowling than batting. So I’ll say 4-1 to Australia.

If there’s one omen that looks good for England, it’s that this series seems to resemble none so much as the “2003-04 India tour”: In that case the guests had recently beaten Australia in a close fought, and fantastically played, series abroad. One of Australia’s all time greats, Steve Waugh, was retiring and wanted to go out with a win. But dull pitches and duller bowling, combined with some astounding batting by the visitors led them to get a drawn series. (And if there was to be a winner of that series, it was more likely to be the visitors.) Could the same happen here? Well, in that series Australia had neither McGrath nor Warne. This time they have them both. And as good as the English batsmen are, they don’t exactly conjure up the same fear as a lineup containing Dravid, Laxman, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Sehwag. Here’s hoping that’s enough of a difference.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Airminded · The ashes of the air
11.22.06 at 10:51 pm
Shipp: Jones Means Saxby Success; Rivalry Weekend | Peach Pundit
11.24.06 at 9:38 pm



rea 11.22.06 at 5:16 pm


Basketball vs. hockey?


dave 11.22.06 at 5:24 pm

Mind you, the previous Ashes was supposed to be 4-0 or 5-0, and after the first test England looked like they would be lucky to get zero. So you never know.

(Even having said that, I’d still put my money on 5-0 to the Aussies.)


Neil 11.22.06 at 5:26 pm

I’ve read commentators arguing that the Ashes isn’t even the greatest rivalry *in cricket*. The writer (was it Chloe Saltau?) suggested Australia/India, but one could make a claim for Pakistan/India.


Joshua 11.22.06 at 5:26 pm

Question for Brian:

Do you have a link to the internet radio broadcast? I listened through the BBC site last Ashes but that doesn’t appear to be available for US listeners this year.


ben alpers 11.22.06 at 5:46 pm

I’ll buy the notion that national rivalries (e.g. the Ashes) are bigger than more local rivalries (e.g. Michigan-Ohio St. and Celtic-Rangers), but why should European rivalries be necessarily more intense–or even older–than U.S. rivalries?

Spectator sports became a big deal at about the same time–the late 19th century–in both Europe and North America, and many of these rivalries began shortly thereafter.

FC Barcelona was founded in 1899; Real Madrid in 1902. Michigan and Ohio State first played football against each other in 1897. The Old Firm rivalry of Rangers-Celtic is older, but just barely, beginning in 1888. So age really isn’t a distinguishing feature here.

I suppose the very existence of Nil By Mouth suggests that the Old Firm may win in terms of intensity…but that’s not necessarily something in its favor.


Chris Bertram 11.22.06 at 5:58 pm

Both Barca-Real and Celtic-Rangers are also ways of playing out other antagonisms. In the first, supporting Barca was just about the only way of espousing Catalan nationalism during the Franco years; in the second there’s the Catholic-Protestant/Irish Republican-Loyalist subtext.


lucky jack 11.22.06 at 5:59 pm

Real Madrid v. Barca is, of course, also a national rivalry. Moreover, no one outside the US even remotely cares about American football, no matter who’s playing. Plenty of interest in the Old Firm the world over, not to mention Real v. Barca, or even, River Plate v. Boca Juniors.


blah 11.22.06 at 6:07 pm

Sorry, but nothing beats the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry today. You have the famous brawls with Fisk, Munson, Lee, Pineilla, Nettles, Veritek, A-Rod, Pedro, and Posada. You have the drama of the 78 playoff chase and Bucky Dent’s homerun. You have Boston’s heartbreaking loss in 04 and Aaron Boone’s homerun. You have New York’s astonishing collapse in 05 and Schilling’s bloody sock. You have the unrivaled hatred that exists everywhere today between Yankees and Red Sox fans.

Sorry, there is nothing faintly ridiculous about calling this the greatest rivalry in sports.


Kieran Healy 11.22.06 at 6:15 pm

Here in Australia, I heard a respectable newsreader say yesterday: “Tomorrow, the Ashes series begins. Australia’s mission: to crush England.”

I think the TV stations and sponsors are mostly worried that this is in fact what will happen, and no one will be watching by the end.


jhupp 11.22.06 at 6:39 pm

blah, I wish the Yankees and Red Sox was the biggest rivalry in sports, but you need to take a look at the history of the Old Firm. It’s not just about sports. This one’s also about religion (though less than it used to be). Celtic flies the Irish flag on gameday, and its early revenues went to Catholic relief charities in Scotland. Rangers didn’t even have a Catholic player until the late 20th century. Like so many religious conflicts, it has been violent. Here‘s a good summary.

Using “unrivaled hatred” to describe Yankees fans and Red Sox fans is laughable; I lived with a Yankees fan during the 2003 playoffs, but neither of us ever neared violence. I just didn’t want to talk to him for a couple hours after Boone’s home run. (He even gave me a congratulatory phone call after the 2004 World Series — though not after the ALCS.) You can walk freely through New York with a “B” cap or Boston with an “NY” cap, but it’s not always that easy in Glasgow.


Brian 11.22.06 at 6:41 pm


I was hoping to listen to ABC broadcasts, as I’d done in previous summers. But they seem to be blacked out in the US. I’m scrambling somewhat to figure out where to go next. The ABC page (which only just went up [grumbling]) says they are blacked out due to contractual restrictions. This would suggest that someone else has the contract. Or at least it would if anything in broadcasting made sense.


My memory of the last few years is that there have been plenty of times that Australia has demolished an opposition in the first few games and the effect on the attendance in Melbourne and Sydney for the last two has been to massively boost it. Certainly the first couple of visits that the West Indies had after Australia started winning went that way. As long as the visitors are taken seriously, Australians don’t get tired of winning.


derrida derider 11.22.06 at 6:42 pm

I hope the newsreader’s right. Like Yanks, Aussies usually treasure a really hard-fought win – if we were playing, say, West Indies, we’d be wanting the series to be 3-2 with the last match won by Australia off the last ball.

But against the English: may it be 5-0. As an Irishman, Kieran, you can surely sympathise.


Jason Stanley 11.22.06 at 6:53 pm

I thought the Syracuse Orangemen versus Georgetown in basketball was the greatest rivalry in sports. It’s also obviously a Protestant-Catholic conflict.


Eszter 11.22.06 at 6:58 pm

As an aside, I’d like to take this opportunity to comment on the fact that not all content online is created equal and one should be cautious about generalizing from Web-based material to issues that are of interest to the world at large (as some are wont to do, especially in the techie/journalist community).


harry b 11.22.06 at 7:03 pm

free amateur coverage here:

Still looking for better.


Jon 11.22.06 at 7:06 pm

And any ideas as to how to go about listening and/or viewing in Canada?

I know, faute de mieux there’s the Grauniad’s OBO text commentary, but despite it’s charms it’s not quite the same.


Joshua 11.22.06 at 7:19 pm

Despite their warning that it won’t be available outside the UK, I’m able to get the BBC audio linked from the top of this page:


Neil 11.22.06 at 7:21 pm

Better than the Grauniad is Descriptions updated every 60 seconds (and without that inimitable Grauniad sneer).


Neil 11.22.06 at 7:29 pm

Australia off to a flyer, but neither batsman looking all that convincing.


Ian Whitchurch 11.22.06 at 7:32 pm

Doesnt look good for England. Harmison is bowling crud, and Australia are starting at 7 an over. England could have their heart broken before lunch of day one.

For Americans, Glenn McGrath is a lot like Jerry Rice – not quick, but he will do *exactly* what is needed every play, and if you dont defend him perfectly, he will be just where the gap is.

For a Warne analogy, think Barry Sanders, the man who could head fake a mirror.


blah 11.22.06 at 7:36 pm


My hands drip with the blood of Red Sox fans.


snuh 11.22.06 at 7:37 pm

i think the sydney test is a sellout already, so attendance will be high no matter how crap england play.


Jon 11.22.06 at 7:41 pm

joshua, alas it ain’t working for me.


Ian 11.22.06 at 8:16 pm

Neil: India/Pakistan as the greatest rivalry in cricket, yes indeed. But a friend in Chennai (only a lukewarm fan, which may or may not help his objectivity) tells me than since the resumption of India/Pak games at home last year, Indian crowds have made a point of respectful restraint at games vs Pakistan, almost as if they feared the consequences of going too far. “Restraint” in context, that is.


Anna in Portland (was Cairo) 11.22.06 at 9:01 pm

As for soccer, I wanted to let you all know that Egyptians insist that in order to become an Egyptian citizen you have to declare for one of the two Cairo-based soccer teams, Ahly or Zamalak.


Cheryl Morgan 11.22.06 at 9:58 pm

Joshua et al – it is driving me crazy too. The BBC has had a UK-only restriction on its sports coverage for ages, but ABC used to allow access. I very much enjoyed the series against South Africa last year. This year, however, the US has been blacked out. Interestingly they started out by blacklisting only certain countries, but at lunch this changed to Australia Only, my guess is because of the large number of people using proxy servers to access the service. I’ve been hunting around, but I can’t find a free proxy server in either the UK or Australia. -sigh-

The question now is, why? Have the laws changed? Has the ABC got greedy? I have an awful feeling that the England & Wales Cricket Board is the culprit, and is asking too much money for the license. If they are they’d be following the example of the English Rugby Union who appear to be preventing Mediazone from carrying England’s Autumn Tests, even though Wales, Scotland and Ireland games are available.


Cheryl Morgan 11.22.06 at 10:44 pm

Progress! I emailed the ABC, and they wrote back! It sounds like there is a problem with lawyers. They have promised a solution “shortly”. Fingers crossed.

In the meantime DirectTV appear to have streaming video for only $99 for the series. I’m having trouble with their test clip right now, but if I can get it to work I’ll let you know.


John Quiggin 11.22.06 at 11:12 pm

I think the Ashes is a bigger sporting rivalry than the other rivalries mentioned. India-Pakistan is a reflection of national rivalries not an independent cause, and similarly for Celtic. By contrast, the Bodyline series raised serious questions about whether Australia would continue as part of the (then) British Empire.


radek 11.22.06 at 11:16 pm

“The greatest rivalry in sports” is probably something in badminton or ping-pong, it’s just that none of us ever heard about it.


Cheryl Morgan 11.22.06 at 11:20 pm

Victory! I have video. If you want to buy it, go here.


a 11.23.06 at 1:23 am

Another vote for Red Sox vs. Yankees. Red Sox were the most successful baseball team, until they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Sure, there’s not the violence that you see with other rivalries, but that’s only because American fans are better behaved ;-)

By the way, no one mentioned the Boat Race; if we’re talking history here, isn’t that longer than those mentioned?


Daniel 11.23.06 at 4:39 am

for sheer intensity, you cannot beat Galatasaray/Fehnerbache. Nothing on earth approaches it, and as far as I can tell it is purely sporting in nature. I really don’t think that the American vote for Yankees/Red Sox makes any sense at all; it’s a mild and friendly rivalry.

btw, I don’t agree with:

after the first test England looked like they would be lucky to get zero

on a flat track at Lord’s which is their worst ground, England actually managed a pretty respectable showing that could have looked really good if a couple of marginal decisions had gone the other way. In particular, the Australian batsmen were clearly rattled by having to face Jones, Flintoff and Harmison, all bowling very fast and aggressively. I put my money on after that test, on the assumption that the odds were worth taking a punt on an injury to McGrath or some such.

England are truly fucked this time. They have basically no fast bowling attack; Jones is out and Flintoff and Harmison are half-fit – one or both of them is bound to miss at least one match through injury. Resting our hopes on spin bowling against Australia is just completely futile, particularly when we have two of the most utterly pedestrian spin bowlers on earth (I really do not see it with Panesar). Our batting order is a complete shambles as well – we have no openers and once more, the tail begins at 5. This is actually a very weak England side, made even weaker by injury. I would love to eat crow over this unequivocal prediction but I don’t think I’m going to have to – it’s Australia 3-1, as they always ease off in a dead rubber, from which we get one draw and one win.


Daniel 11.23.06 at 4:54 am

No, I cannot stop talking about this. Brian is just trying not to jinx himself here.

good as the English batsmen are

Really? For which one of these lot is the idea of them being in “a lineup containing Dravid, Laxman, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Sehwag” anything other than a joke?

Flintoff – gneuinely talented and aggressive but half-fit and exhausted from being captain and bowling himself too much (he hasn’t yet, but as things get tough he will). Will make one or two valiant captain’s innings but is almost bound to get injured.

Strauss – solid and good. Probably the only one who actually could be in that lineup without embarrassing himself. But he needs partners …

Cook – exactly the kind of defensive batsman that England always take to Australia on the basis of a good record elsewhere. They always crumble.

Bell – Never seen it with Bell, even ignoring the 2005 disaster. He’s timid. Pokes at things moving away from him. A guaranteed six wickets for Warne.

Pietersen – entire reputation based on one innings. A good, exciting batsman (I don’t agree that he’s a slogger) but completely undisciplined and wildly selfish – he never acts like he has any idea of the importance of his wicket. Will make a glorious hundred in the dead rubber match to ensure continued selection but otherwise basically a liability. If I were a selector I would hate myself and not pick him.

Collingwood – abysmal technique. I cannot believe that anyone takes seriously the idea that this man is going to bat against Australia.

Jones – by way of perspective, this role used to be played by Alec Stewart and we still lost.

Joyce – who?

and that’s it, isn’t it?


Daniel 11.23.06 at 5:01 am

and finally, three in a row like the loon I am, I will note that I forgot about Sajid Mahmood while discussing the bowling attack above, but I don’t think that this is a fatal error. He is pretty quick, but in general I think it’s been established that the kind of reverse swing bowling that England have prospered with is only really a threat if the ball is sort of moving in the general direction of the wicket, which is always a problem for Mahmood.


ajay 11.23.06 at 5:23 am

since the resumption of India/Pak games at home last year, Indian crowds have made a point of respectful restraint at games vs Pakistan, almost as if they feared the consequences of going too far. “Restraint” in context, that is.

Another example of the positive effects of a nuclear standoff!


nick s 11.23.06 at 5:31 am

Victory! I have video. If you want to buy it, go here.

But I don’t want video. I want radio, please, and nobody appears to have the rights to the ABC/BBC broadcasts in the US. Or if they are, they’re keeping it to themselves.

There’s a partial solution: Radio Sport NZ has limited rights to dip into the ABC/BBC coverage for an over or two at a time, and I survived on that for the first day. (Even though, as Daniel says, England are going to be slaughtered, and this one will be over by the Boxing Day Test at the MCG.)

Oh, rivalries: Stoke City – Port Vale, and Southampton – Portsmouth. Think ‘Old Firm without the religion’; neither of these have any hint of the ‘friendliness’ that you’ll see in a Merseyside (or even Manchester) derby.

The problem with the Ashes rivalry is that it has to be competitive to burn at its fiercest, and that hadn’t been the case until last time.


Gracchi 11.23.06 at 6:40 am

The problem is England’s injuries- if we had Vaughan, Trescothick, Jones, then we might have a chance but without them the batting and bowling looks poor. As for the captaincy I wish it had gone to Strauss- there would have been less pressure on Flintoff.


Nabakov 11.23.06 at 10:09 am

I liked Ricky’s remark after winning the toss.

“”Nine times out of ten, you should automatically bat first. The other time you should think about fielding, but then bat anyway.”

And that’ll go done for posterity as either a Colemanball or as I reckon another sardonic piece of Aus gamesmanship.

I think young Ponting is shaping up rather well as Australian Captain don’t you? He seems to have the requisite guile and guts of his immediate predecessors along with a fair hand with the willow.


Rob G 11.23.06 at 10:44 am

Another vote for Red Sox vs. Yankees

Fine, but no-one outside the U.S. cares. This smacks a bit of the Olympics (forget which) where the favoured American lost the 100m sprint, but won the 200m. Until then, the 100m winner was considered the “World’s Fastest Man”, but the Americans insisted on a 150m run-off to decide the issue. Is this what they mean by “exceptionalism”?


dave heasman 11.23.06 at 11:45 am

“Nine times out of ten, you should automatically bat first. The other time you should think about fielding, but then bat anyway.”

I can’t place this quote but it doesn’t originate with Ponting. Maybe Bradman? Certainly that period (30s/40s). It is the truth, though.


Ben Alpers 11.23.06 at 12:08 pm

Fine, but no-one outside the U.S. cares.

Well, for starters, Major League Baseball also includes a team in Canada, so at the very least people in Canada care (and it’s usually us Americans who get chided for acting as if Canada is not a separate country).

But baseball is also not American football. Just because the cricket-playing countries (with the possible exception of Australia) don’t care about baseball doesn’t mean that much of the rest of the world is equally indifferent.

In fact, baseball is huge in most of Latin America and East Asia, and it’s growing in the Netherlands. The Japanese, at least, pay a lot of attention to Major League Baseball now that so many Japanese stars are playing here, just as British football fans care about Real Madrid-Barcelona.

The real parochialism is the assumption that, since Americans tend to be parochial, no American sport can possibly have any international interest. In fact, baseball and basketball are both truly international sports. American football is the exception, not the rule.


Zarquon 11.23.06 at 9:26 pm

But, see, the Ashes goes all the way up to eleven.


jp 11.24.06 at 7:32 am

England are quite clearly lulling the Aussies into a false sense of security, ready to unleash havoc when they are least expecting it. It’s classic w-g-gracian behaviour, a la Ashes tour of 1891-92.


jimbo 11.26.06 at 5:07 pm

India/Pakistan is the only rivalry where a bad call could could conceivable escalate all the way to nuclear conflict, so it wins by default.

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