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School of sport: A phoenix rising from the ashes


THERE cannot be many followers of sport, even non-cricketers, who have never heard of the Ashes.

The phrase that is used to define the regular cricketing battles between Australia and England was first coined back in 1882 after England, who considered themselves to be masters of the game, lost a Test match in their home land in abysmal fashion to Australia, falling eight runs short of their required target of 85, following which a mock obituary was published that stated: “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. R.I.P. The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”

Ever since then, every two years when competition between these two countries is renewed, the matches have been taken very seriously; every other Test match that these countries play against other countries are seen merely as preparation for the Ashes.

Huge boisterous crowds, intense media coverage and desperate gamesmanship continue to follow these series.

It was interesting to note, therefore, in the recent Ashes series, that some former Australian players lamented that the series had lost its bite, that the players were too nice to each other.

There was not deemed to be enough aggression or sledging for ex-players now commentating; it was all too cosy, friendly and soft.

They sound like those old-timers who bemoan the fact that corporal punishment has been taken away and mutter that “It never did me any harm” (though whether it did them any good remains to be seen)!

What has happened should not perhaps be all that much of a surprise as within the last ten to fifteen years the cricketing world has seen the rise of T20 cricket franchises in just about every cricketing country, with those in India and Australia especially providing massive pay days for all the top cricketers from countries all around the world. As a result, players from England and Australia, who compete against each other in the Ashes series, have become team-mates and good friends with each other in these franchise teams.

Are they now expected suddenly to put on an act of hating, sniping, abusing each other when they play for their country?

Of course, some might argue that the Australians did not need to be extra aggressive, seeing that they were able to win the series so easily!

More seriously, we might note that in these days of covid, where lives are being affected so dramatically, these sportsmen have begun to see the light that there are in fact some things that are more important than winning a sporting event, even the Ashes.

There have been more serious cases of ashes during this covid pandemic.

The hope has always been there, after that first dramatic loss of a Test match, that English cricket would rise up again like a phoenix from the ashes, to be stronger, wiser, mightier.

The mythical creature with huge talons and wings rose up from its own funeral pyre to be transformed with new life, energy and strength. The pyre of failure becomes more meaningful than the pyramid of success (of which John Wooden has spoken vividly)

We might conclude that they did not see the joke in the first place; the mock obituary was perhaps put there to tease everyone with gentle sarcasm for taking it far too seriously.

However, followers of cricket have looked for the contest to rise from the ashes like a phoenix, in much the same manner that Asterix and his friend Obelix (not to mention the local druid Getafix and the chief Vitalstatistix) rose up to fight their Roman invaders and conquerors with their magic potion.

When it comes to school sport, we may well say that it has died a sad and sorrowful death when we take it too seriously.

Sport at school dies when we make it over-competitive; it will be found to be burnt at the stake when there is too much at stake. We will have reduced it to ashes. We need, more than ever before, to help sport rise from the ashes; we need to see how sport can bring healing, renewal and revival to a world of youngsters that have lost something very dear and precious – the purpose of sport. Let RIP stand instead for Rise In Power. Let us bring school sport back to life.

  • Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Association of Trust Schools Email:

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