The Spin | This Ashes is a minibreak compared to England women’s postwar odyssey

They say everything looks worse in the middle of the night: England fans know this well. To be fair, a full-bore batting collapse, precipitated by the first ball of the first day of the first Ashes Test, is a pretty bleak prospect at any time. Pull the trigger at midnight, however, and you’ve got yourself an eight-hour existential crisis.

While Pat Cummins was living the dream, those of us whose affiliations cluster closer to the Greenwich Meridian were tumbling in and out of a jet-laggy half-sleep, the place where reality meets our darkest fears. Australia’s bowling attack suddenly morphs into a personification of the Omicron virus and lays waste to the post-Brexit economy. Santa shows up at your house, only wait he’s also Nathan Lyon and he’s stealing all the presents and letting Rudolph crap on your carpet. At least that 85-ball century from Travis Head wasn’t real. Was it? Oh God, pinch me.

If England can’t find a way to bounce back from Brisbane, it’s certainly going to feel like a long old series for the team and their followers. And there is a beautiful irony in that, because this is actually the shortest Ashes tour England’s men have ever undertaken. By the time they fly out of Australia in January, Joe Root’s brigade will have played only seven matches, two of them against their own development side. Their back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back Test series takes place over 42 days, which will have a nice biblical ring to it if they do indeed spend the entire time wandering through the wilderness.

Global pandemics being what they are, it’s a Christmas miracle that we’re getting an Ashes at all this year, so it seems best not to carp about England’s lack of preparation for the Gabba. Ashes tours have been changing beyond recognition in the past decade, anyway, even before Covid demanded we do things differently. The previous one, in 2017-18, included a single game against a state side, with Cricket Australia XIs providing the opposition for the remaining warmup matches. The case of the shrinking Ashes tour isn’t a mystery: it’s the only way that cricket authorities can juggle their obligations to safeguard players’ wellbeing with their unconquerable commercial impulse to overstuff the international calendar.

And yet in the past few weeks, with the passing of two of English cricket’s longest-living pioneers, we’ve been offered a telescopic view back to a very different time. Cecilia Robinson made her international debut on England women’s second ever overseas tour, in 1948-49; Eileen Ash was the oldest player in that squad, having played in the previous Test series of 1937, before the second world war intervened and stole the best years of her career. The tributes to both women made much of their self-funded, month-long voyage to Australia on a cramped and crowded ocean liner, with stops at Port Said and Aden, not to mention a match against an All-Ceylon XI in Colombo.

England’s Grace Morgan during a training session ahead of the tour of Australia in 1948.
England’s Grace Morgan during a training session ahead of the tour of Australia in 1948. Photograph: TopFoto

Ash’s diaries of their seven-month tour, which she kept private until her death, might now come into the public domain, and if they do they will make a wonderful addition to the memories collected by Raf Nicholson in Ladies and Lords, her history of women’s cricket, as well as the first-hand account in Nancy Joy’s book, Maiden Over. England played four Tests and 30 provincial matches over the course of that tour of Australia and New Zealand, but it is notable in Joy’s reminiscences that their social schedule was just as packed as their playing one. Being hosted by local families – many of them dignitaries of some sort or another – came with certain obligations, and wherever they went the players were festooned with flowers, topped up with tea and taken to dances. The attentions were especially welcome given that back home the cricketers were still cooking from ration books.

“Parties, tours and visits are arranged for every spare moment,” writes Joy. At lunches, receptions and suppers, where they were feted by no less than Sir Donald Bradman, they were required to marvel at every regional sight their hosts deemed worthy, be those cattle ranches, canning factories or a depression-era dam. They visited refugee centres and played bowls at the Maimed and Limbless Ex-Servicemen’s Association. “The spirit is endlessly willing,” says Joy, after the first month, “but we begin at last to find we just cannot live the pace.” Eventually their manager, Netta Rheinberg, had to step in and ask for the “programme of entertainments” to be cut down.

The women landed back in England on 13 May, having left on 14 October. Their 211-day epic ranks among the longest tours in Ashes history, although it can’t compete with the men’s trips in the 19th century, when sturdy Victorians made it across the seas under sail power, and travelled to venues in a horse-drawn coach. It is possible, too, that the 1936-37 Goodwill Tour that followed Bodyline might well have tested that particular resource with its fixture list of 30 matches; while the postwar tour of 1946-47 was an especially big ask. It stretched from the end of August to the second week of April, despite the fact that some of the England players team were only recently demobbed and had to scrounge coupons for travelling clothes.

The current tour looks like a minibreak by comparison. And whatever the outcome, at least no one has to share a cabin.

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