As befits such a curious pursuit, one of the most famous competitions involves a 15cm (6in) high urn reputed to contain the remains of a bail.
That competition has produced an enduring rivalry between England and Australia since the 1880s, featuring hugely exciting games, drama, vitriol and passionate support.
And it has proved to be one of the most popular sporting memorabilia collecting fields, as lots coming up at a Leicester sale on May 13-14 suggest.
These items offered by the Knights saleroom span a century of Ashes rivalry, with one of them dating right back to the earliest days of this contest. This silver trophy is marked Presented to RG Barlow by a few friends in Australia for his excellent batting & bowling against the Australian Eleven. January 29th 1883.
A year earlier, British newspaper The Sporting Times was not particularly impressed by Australia's 1882 victory at The Oval, their first Test win on English soil. A satirical obituary stated that English cricket had died, and “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”.
England captain Ivo Bligh pledged to bring back ‘The Ashes of English cricket’.
English pride suitably dented, a year later RG Barlow and teammates travelled Down Under and after winning the January 29 test match Bligh was presented by a group of Australian ladies with an urn said to contain the ashes of the now burnt wooden bails used in the match – ‘the Ashes of Australian cricket’. The urn, together with its embroidered velvet bag, is housed in the Memorial Gallery at Lord’s.
Barlow is commemorated by the poem pasted on the side of the urn:
When Ivo goes back with the urn, the urn;
Studds, Steel, Read and Tylecote return, return;
The welkin will ring loud,
The great crowd will feel proud,
Seeing Barlow and Bates with the urn, the urn;
And the rest coming home with the urn.
Barlow played for Lancashire and England from 1871-91. This 10in (25.5cm) high trophy was made by Hilliard & Thomason of Birmingham and hallmarked Birmingham 1878. It was sold in Phillips in 1982 and is now estimated at £7000-10,000 at Knights.
The greatest test
Roll on just under a hundred years, and Bob Willis was one of the English cricketers taking part in perhaps the most famous Ashes series: that of 1981. It had started badly for England, with a defeat and a draw in the first two tests.
The third was to prove crucial.
In what became famous as the ‘Greatest Test’, with Australia seemingly in control, Willis took eight wickets for 43 runs at Headingley on July 16-21, after Botham’s battling 149 at the crease. The series tide was truly turned and with two wins and a draw in the remaining three games, the Ashes belonged to England.
The omens had not been good, with Botham resigning as captain to be replaced by former skipper Mike Brearley following the first two tests. In a Guardian article from 2011, Brearley recalled: “Willis was initially not picked for the match. The selectors were afraid he was not fit and thought this was confirmed by his not playing in the match for Warwickshire the weekend before. We were also concerned about his form (he had lost his strike-bowler status and was bowling far too many no-balls, a sure sign of lack of rhythm). Was he, we feared, over the hill?”
Further fears about which end he should bowl from were overcome and Willis became an England cricketing hero.
The ball with which Willis took those wickets is another stand-out cricket lot at Knights, estimated at £8000-12,000. It is offered with a presentation medal presented to Willis after the game by match sponsor Cornhill Insurance and his 1981 series medal.
Willis, who played for Surrey, Warwickshire and England from 1969-84, kept the ball after the match. He had it inscribed Headingley 1981. Bob Willis 8-43 and signed it.
Auctioneer Tim Knight says: “It was a quite remarkable turnaround in events. England were down and out, odds of 500-1 against, then Botham played his swashbuckling innings and Willis produced with the ball.
“In September 1999 we actually sold the bat that Botham used in the match – it’s a pity we didn’t get that and the Willis ball together. Botham’s bat had gone to The Sun newspaper for a competition, and it was won by young lad aged 11-12. About 20 years later he sold the bat through us - it made about £11,000 plus commission, a good price.”
Huge cricket collection
Both the Ashes items mentioned above came from a cricketing memorabilia collector from the south of England who died recently. For Tim Knight, it has been a wonderful opportunity to select items from an extensive, excellent collection which can be offered over several sales. “It is an auctioneer’s dream to be honest,” he says.
This was part three of the collection. The first two were offered last November and in February this year, and Knight confirms there is more to come.
The May 13-14 sale includes many other Willis items. In 1988 he sold a huge chunk of his cricket memorabilia at Christie’s South Kensington and the same collector who bought the 1981 ball secured the majority of that collection, and it now comes to Knights.
The Barlow trophy was consigned from the same source.
Knights is based in north Norfolk but holds auctions at the Premier Inn, Fosse Park, LeicesterSouth West. Three major auctions of sporting memorabilia include cricket, while two annual specialist sales of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack take place every year, including on Sunday, May 14.