HomeLifestyleSport

The story of The Ashes and MJK Smith

BY Mike Thompson

16th Jun 2023 Sport

The story of The Ashes and MJK Smith

With this year’s cricket event of the year, The Ashes, underway, Mike Thompson looks at the history of the sporting event and the parallels between Ben Stokes’ England team and the team captained by MJK Smith in the mid-1960s

Forget the IPL, forget the Hundred. The greatest sporting encounter on the cricket calendar is underway—The Ashes. The origin of this contest between England and Australia is well known to most cricket aficionados but, for the benefit of the less devoted follower, here’s a brief synopsis.

The first Test took place at Melbourne in 1877 and was won by Australia. In the ninth Test in 1882, Australia beat England at the Oval for the first time in England. In a low-scoring game England, captained by the double international (rugby and cricket) AN “Monkey” Hornby and with WG Grace in the side, needed only 85 to win but finished eight runs short after some sensational bowling by Fred ‘The Demon’ Spofforth.

"In the ninth Test in 1882, England finished eight runs short and a vicar reputedly bit through the handle of his umbrella because of the tension"

He took 14 wickets in the match, including England’s last four for just two runs. A vicar reputedly bit through the handle of his umbrella because of the tension.

Mock obituary for cricket

The Ashes urn on display at Lord's
The famous Ashes urn, on display at Lord's. Credit: danielgreef

A few days later a mock obituary, written by the mischievous journalist Reginald Shirley Brooks appeared in the Sporting Times:

In Affectionate Remembrance

Of English cricket

Which died at the Oval

On 29 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 Honourable Ivo Bligh, England's captain for the return series the following winter, vowed to bring back the Ashes and his team won 2-1. After the final match, a group of Melbourne women burned a bail and presented Ivo with a small terracotta urn containing its ashes. Less than a year later Ivo married Florence Murphy, one of those ladies. The urn is kept permanently at Lord's, even if Australia win the series.

Ashes great contests

England cricket legend WG Grace in 1896
England cricket great WG Grace in 1896. Credit: Hawkins & Co

The Ashes contests over the last 150 years have seen some epic encounters featuring many of the game’s greats. For England there has been WG Grace, Wilfred Rhodes, Sydney Barnes, Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe, Wally Hammond, Dennis Compton, Len Hutton, Colin Cowdrey, Peter May, Ted Dexter, Geoffrey Boycott, Fred Trueman, Jim Laker, Ian Botham, Alastair Cook and Jimmy Anderson.

For Australia there’s been Victor Trumper, Warwick Armstrong, Don Bradman, Neil Harvey, Ian and Greg Chappell, Bill O'Reilly, Keith Miller, Ray Lindwall, Richie Benaud, Bobby Simpson, Bill Lawry, Alan Border, Dennis Lillee, Shane Warne and Steve Smith.

Hard-fought Ashes matches

The matches have always been hard fought—a bit too hard on occasion, particularly during the infamous “Bodyline” series of 1932/33 when the England captain Douglas Jardine ordered his bowlers to deliberately bowl at the batsman's body rather than the stumps in an attempt to limit Bradman's prolific scoring.

"The matches have always been hard fought—a bit too hard on occasion, particularly the infamous 'Bodyline' series of 1932/33"

The Australians accused England of “unsportsmanlike conduct”, the ultimate insult to a nation which rather self-righteously regarded itself as the custodian of fair play. Coal miner's son, Harold Larwood, one of the fastest bowlers of all time, was the main protagonist and was never selected for England again.

Individual excellence

The Ashes has also seen some magnificent individual performances: Don Bradman's 300 in a day at Headingley in 1930, Len Hutton's record 364 at the Oval in 1938, Jim Laker's 19 wickets at Old Trafford in 1956, Ian Botham's fighting 149 not out at Headingley in 1981 which rescued England from a hopeless position, followed by Bob Willis' heroic bowling spell of 8-43 which gave them victory against all the odds.

The 1965-66 Ashes and 2023 Ashes

This five-Test series starts at Edgbaston on June 16. This year the sides look fairly evenly balanced, with England probably stronger in batting and Australia in bowling.

One former player eagerly awaiting the series is England's oldest living Ashes captain, Mike (MJK) Smith, who will be 90 at the end of June. “To play for England against Australia is the highlight of any cricketer's career,” he said. “Historically, Australia have always been our strongest opponents and the contest has a great tradition. The series is always played aggressively as Australians are a very competitive, sports-minded nation and you know that every game will be hard-fought.

"One former player eagerly awaiting the series is England's oldest living Ashes captain, Mike (MJK) Smith, who will be 90 at the end of June"

“It was disappointing not to bring the Ashes back after we went one-up in the 1965/66 series at Sydney, only to lose the following Test at Adelaide and finish up 1-1.” That series is described in detail in a new biography of Mike Smith, The Last Corinthian: The Cricketing Life of MJK Smith, which is published by Pitch Publishing on July 3.

An ability to inspire

There are some parallels between that series and 2023. Mike and his team went out to play attractive, attacking cricket and the current England team under Ben Stokes' dynamic leadership has pursued a similar approach, which has made Test cricket a more exciting spectacle.

Although entirely different characters—Mike calm and impassive, Ben Stokes excitable and exuberant—both possess the ability to inspire and motivate players to perform at their best and to encourage risk-taking and adventure. An exciting series beckons.

The Last Corinthian book cover

The Last Corinthian: The Cricketing Life of MJK Smith by Mike Thompson is published by Pitch Publishing on July 3.

Banner photo: MJK Smith (seated, centre with glasses) as captain of the Warwickshire team in 1958. From Mike "MJK" Smith's personal collection

*This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter

This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you. Read our disclaimer

Loading up next...