Ivo Bligh. The Honourable Ivo Bligh. The eighth Earl of Darnley. The protagonist of cricket’s most celebrated love story.
His deeds with the willow remained rather limited, with the leather non-existent. His days in the cricket field ended when he was just 24. His 84 First-Class matches brought him just two centuries, and his highest score in the four Test matches he played was 19. He never bowled. Soon, even though he remained young by chronological calculations, his constitution could no longer withstand the exertions required by the friendliest format of the game.
But, it was he who undertook cricket’s most celebrated quest. It was he who brought back cricket’s most cherished trophy. It was he whose name is bound to the oldest cricketing rivalry, through strings of cricket and passion.
Because, as in so many tales of adventure across high seas, Bligh’s journey ventured into the domains of the heart. He led his men to triumph, but he himself succumbed, helplessly pierced by the arrows of Cupid.
The history of the Ashes started as a concept in a comic obituary, written by Reginald Brooks in Sporting Times after Fred Spofforth had spit venom with his deliveries and bundled England out to win the 1882 Oval Test match by seven runs. However, it became a tangible memento, the holy grail of cricketing contests, in the luxurious rooms of a Rupertswood mansion, where Bligh courted Florence Rose Morphy.
Bligh found balm for his failures on the pitch in Rupertswood, owned by William Clarke. Clarke was the president of the Melbourne Cricket Club, the Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge in Victoria, the most successful man in Australia, and was soon to be knighted. In 1881, the Clarkes engaged Florence Morphy as governess and piano teacher for their daughters. She moved in to live with the family in their Rupertswood mansion at Sunbury.
It was in Florence that Bligh sought refuge. His injuries, which prevented him from batting in some of the tour matches, did not really hold him back from dancing.
The England team won back The Ashes after winning the third Test of the series, which made the scoreline 2-1. There was a fourth Test, won by Australia, but this is not the place to discuss that curious anomaly.
Legend has it that a bail used in the third Test was burnt, and the Ashes presented to the captain in a terracotta urn by some ladies of Melbourne. Some say it was a bail. And even others, the more romantic ones in the non-cricketing way, propose that it was a veil used by Florence.
However, available evidence says that it is more probable later that the presentation was made much earlier, after a session of paddock cricket at Rupertswood which involved several amateurs of the England team.
And even when the quest for Ashes ended, his own mission continued, for the fair hand of his lady love, ending in a tale of epic romance. Florence was to eventually become the Countess of Darnley.
Ivo Bligh was born on March 13, 1859.
Text: Arunabha Sengupta