Philip Barker

Next week, Australia’s cricketers are set to begin their defence of The Ashes against England, resuming one of the most enduring rivalries in sport.

A tiny urn containing "The Ashes of English cricket" was presented to the Honourable Ivo Bligh, then England cricket captain, almost 140 years ago. 

He later became Lord Darnley, and bequeathed it to the Marylebone Cricket Club on his death in 1927.

Regardless of who holds The Ashes, the urn only rarely leaves Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, where it has been displayed since the late 1920s.

The Australians have held the upper hand in the series of matches for long periods, particularly at home. Since the Second World War, England have only won five series in Australia.

They will at least have talismanic all rounder Ben Stokes. He has been taking part in intra squad matches this week as part of the warm-up process but many English fans will recall his remarkable innings which took England to an improbable victory at Leeds in 2019.

His exploits heightened comparisons with Sir Ian Botham, now a peer of the realm, who was largely responsible for one of the most dramatic Ashes episodes on the very same ground forty years ago.

Botham began 1981 as England captain, but resigned after a poor run of form with England one down after two of the six matches had been played.

It was an unhappy time in Britain. There was rioting in the major English cities.

For the third test in Leeds, England recalled Mike Brearley. A double first at Cambridge University, he was renowned for his leadership skills and more importantly, respected by Botham as an outstanding captain.

Despite this, Australia’s first innings total of 401 for nine declared put them in control when England’s batting collapsed.

Though Botham scored a defiant half century, England were all out for 174. 

As well as the famous little urn, England and Australia also compete for The Ashes Trophy ©Getty Images
As well as the famous little urn, England and Australia also compete for The Ashes Trophy ©Getty Images

Australia enforced the follow on. Their victory seemed inevitable when in their second innings, England stumbled to 135 for seven, still 92 runs behind.

The electronic scoreboard on the ground displayed bookmakers’ odds. England 500 to 1 to win. Australia 1-4 and 5-2 the draw.

Botham, arguably the last hope for England, was still at the crease. The Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, the sport’s annual chronicle of record, related how he "destroyed the game’s apparently set course."

He batted with controlled but powerful strokes.

"Don’t bother looking for that let alone chasing it. It’s gone straight into the confectionery stall and out again," said BBC commentator Richie Benaud of one almighty blow.

"It’s done more than revived Ian Botham’s career, it has positively revived this test series," BBC cricket correspondent Christopher Martin-Jenkins asserted.

With support from tail enders Graham Dilley, Chris Old and Bob Willis, Botham finished unbeaten on 149.

Even so, Australia’s victory target was a modest 130.

They did not make them. Fast bowler Bob Willis took eight wickets and devastated the Australian batting.

"It was not uncommon to see him perform as if his very life depended on it but this was something unique," Wisden concluded as Australia were dismissed 18 runs short of their target.

The scoreboard which had earlier displayed those dispiriting betting odds flashed a very different message.

"Well done England that was great, you have all done a great job!"

Sir Ian Botham's heroics with bat and ball inspired England to a 3-1 win in the 1981 Ashes Series ©Getty Images
Sir Ian Botham's heroics with bat and ball inspired England to a 3-1 win in the 1981 Ashes Series ©Getty Images

Less than a fortnight later, the Australians were beaten again by a remarkable spell of bowling from Botham who dismissed five batsmen at a cost of just one run.

In the fifth Test, another belligerent century all but secured victory. Not for nothing were they called "Botham’s Ashes."

Many thousands of words were written about the 1981 series, amongst them full length books by captain Brearley and Botham.

Yet it could be argued that even this was not the most remarkable recovery in Ashes history.

Eighty-four years ago, Australia came back to win a five test series after losing the first two matches. England were captained by George Oswald Browning Allen, known to all as "Gubby", an establishment figure to his bootstraps. Such was his devotion to cricket, he lived until his death in a house adjoining Lord’s Cricket Ground.

His Australian counterpart was Donald Bradman. Known as "The Don" he was already revered as the greatest batsman in the world in the 1930s.

There was no television coverage, only radio and sporadic film in cinema newsreels, yet by the time Allen and his team came ashore at Perth from the steamship Orion in mid October 1936, interest in the series reached fever pitch. Cricket was seen as a welcome relief from uncertain international tensions.

England had plenty of time to acclimatise before the first test in Brisbane where former England captain Percy Chapman predicted success.

"Bradman will be in for the surprise of his life. England should make a huge score."

The words seemed ill-judged when England lost a wicket with the first ball of the match and tottered at 20 for three after an inspired spell from Ernie McCormick. Unfortunately for him and Australia, he was stricken by lumbago. England recovered to reach 358 as Maurice Leyland hit a century.

Australia conceded a first innings lead of 124 and in the final innings of the match Australia were all out for 58. Even Bradman registered a duck. England had won by 322 runs and even received a congratulatory telegram from the Prime Minister of Australia Joseph Lyons.

Sir Don Bradman's innings of 270, rated one of the greatest of all-time, helped Australia come from 2-0 down to win the 1936-37 Ashes series ©Getty Images
Sir Don Bradman's innings of 270, rated one of the greatest of all-time, helped Australia come from 2-0 down to win the 1936-37 Ashes series ©Getty Images

"Heartiest congratulations to your team on your magnificent win," Lyons cabled.

"I am sure all Australians will accept defeat in the true spirit of cricket."

Newspapers in Australia echoed such generous sentiments.

"The English victory will add much interest to the rest of the series, and is a sufficient answer to the gloomy prophets who declared that English bowlers could not beat the Australian champions."

In the second Test at Sydney, Allen won the toss again and England batted. Wally Hammond’s unbeaten 231 was the star turn for England as they reached 426 for six declared. Australia never recovered after they were bowled out for 80 and eventually lost by an innings.

Sir Jack Hobbs, a revered England star from the previous decade, sounded a note of caution.

"We must not take this rubber as a foregone conclusion," Hobbs warned.

"There is a temptation to throw bouquets at everybody but we must not get too cocky about it."

Enthusiasm remained undiminished in Australia. All but 250 tickets for the third test in Melbourne on New Year’s Day 1937 were snapped up by the beginning of December.

Ultimately, the aggregate attendance for the match was recorded as 350,534 over the course of six days.

"As it turned out Bradman won the match when he won the toss," suggested Wisden.

Australia hold The Ashes going into the 2021-2022 series following a draw in the previous edition in England in 2019 ©Getty Images
Australia hold The Ashes going into the 2021-2022 series following a draw in the previous edition in England in 2019 ©Getty Images

Even so, they struggled until Stan McCabe and wicketkeeper Bertie Oldfield took the score to 200. "Bradman then took the unusual step of declaring his first innings."

Australia’s bowlers then exploited a pitch "on which the ball reared up almost straight and at other times kept low." England lost nine wickets for 76, before Allen closed their innings with the aim of exposing Australia’s batting to the same problems.

Bradman took no chances and rearranged his batting order so that bowlers Bill O’Reilly and Chuck Fleetwood-Smith began the innings. They were both dismissed but bad light soon brought play to a premature end and there was a further day for conditions to improve, because no Sunday play was then permitted.

"A Sunday without rain enabled the wicket to recover so that when Australia took up their second innings again the conditions were more favourable for batting than at any previous time in the match."

Bradman at his best had previously been the nemesis of England’s bowlers. Now he scored 270. This was later selected as the top ranked innings of the 20th century by Wisden.

"It was inevitable that Bradman should find his form soon and he chose the moment of his country’s greatest need to do so."

With Jack Fingleton, he posted a record 346 for the sixth wicket as Australia reached 564.

England were set a target of 689 to win but were bowled out to lose by 365 runs. Australia were assisted by series regulations which prescribed that tests were played to a finish. Victory came on the sixth day.

In Adelaide, another towering double century from Bradman put Australia in command. Fleetwood-Smith returned career-best bowling figures of six for 110 as Australia levelled the series.

In the series decider, Australia batted first and Bradman was one of three centurions in a total of 604, the highest of the series.

England’s batting in reply was weak and they were twice hustled out to lose by an innings and 200 runs.

It remains the only time that a team has recovered from two matches down to win an Ashes series.