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The first Test match in the 2015 Ashes cricket series between England and Australia starts tomorrow, 8 July, in Cardiff.

Cricket is a very popular game played in England and its previous colonies such as Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa and the West Indies. Every couple of years, a series of five-day “Test” matches is played between England and Australia. The winner of the series wins the Ashes. It is perhaps the highlight of the cricket calendar, or at least for England and Australia. One of the main dreams of cricketers from both countries is to be part of a winning Ashes series.

England and Australia first played Test match cricket in 1877 when Australia was not even a country but a series of British colonies (until 1901), and therefore never expected to beat the mother country at its national game of cricket. This was to change when the ninth Test match between the two countries was played at The Oval, London on 28 and 29 August 1882. In a low scoring match, Australia made just 63 runs in the first innings. England took a handy lead when it reached a score of 101. In the second innings, Australia scored 122, giving it a lead of 85, which England was expected to achieve easily and win the match.

But the Australian team had other ideas when they came onto the field in England’s second innings. Legendary fast bowler Fred Spofforth, known as the “Demon Bowler”, was fired up and took a number of English wickets, 7 for 44, to add to his first innings haul of 7 for 46. When the last batsman strode onto the ground, England still needed 10 runs to win. This batsman fell cheaply and Australia won by seven runs.

The British press took the English cricketers to task and congratulated the Australians for having plenty of “pluck”. On 31 August, a mock obituary to English cricket appeared in Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game. It read: “Sacred to the memory of England’s supremacy in the cricket field which expired on the 29th day of August, at the Oval …” A second and better known obituary, by Reginald Brooks, was published in The Sporting Times just two days later on 2 September: “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.”

England was to tour Australia in 1882-83 and play four Test matches. Captain Ivo Francis Walter Bligh (later Lord Darnley) vowed to regain the “ashes” of English cricket. The first match was played in Melbourne on 30 December and 1-2 January. Australia scored 291 in its first innings. In reply, England made only 177 and was asked to “follow on” (that is, bat again straight away) because of the large difference. In their second innings, the visitors managed 169 runs. Needing just 56 runs to win, Australia easily reached its target with the loss of only one wicket and won the match. England reversed the result in the second Test, also held in Melbourne, and won by an innings and 27 runs, levelling the series at one-all. The third Test, in Sydney, was closer with the English winning by 69 runs.

Even though there was a fourth match in Sydney, which Australia won by four wickets, the series was deemed to be best of three matches and England had won two of them, thereby regaining the “ashes.” Legend has it that as a personal memento to the occasion, some women from Melbourne had burnt a cricket bail (which sits on top of the stumps), sealed it inside a small urn, and presented it to Bligh. He took it home with him. One of the women, Florence Morphy, was to become his wife.

More recent evidence suggests the urn was presented to Bligh at Christmas 1882 at a property owned by Sir William Clarke at Milton, just north of Melbourne, a few days before the first Test match. These claims are made in two books, Cricket’s Biggest Mystery: The Ashes, by Ronald Willis, and Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Birthplace of the Ashes, by Joy Munns. Competing claims as to the contents of the urn have arisen over the years too. Bligh’s daughter-in-law said they were the veil of her mother-in-law. Some Aborigines believe they are the remains of King Cole who died of tuberculosis on the tour of an Aboriginal cricket team to England in 1868. X-rays in 1995 showed a 95 per cent probability that the contents were ashes of a bail.

At any rate, not much more was said about the “ashes” until a cricket book, With Bat and Ball, by George Giffen, was published in 1899. The true revival of the concept came in 1903. Reeling from a series defeat in England in 1902 by two matches to one with two drawn, English captain Pelham Warner said he would regain the “ashes” in the 1903-04 series in Australia. The Australian media used the term a great deal during the series, which England won 3-2. From that time, the term “The Ashes” was used to describe the regular series of cricket Test matches between England and Australia.

The urn with the original ashes was in Bligh’s possession until his death in 1927 when his widow gave it to the Marylebone Cricket Club, headquarters of English cricket at Lord’s Cricket Ground, London. The urn’s permanent home is in the club’s museum. A large replica of the urn is now given to the winning team after each Ashes series. The original terracotta urn, just six inches high and possibly an old perfume jar, is regarded as the most important icon in cricket.