It is about four or so miles from The Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal Football Club, to White Hart Lane, home of Tottenham. The fastest way to cover the distance is by Taxi, which takes about 10 minutes but costs up to 30 pounds. Travelling by bus or by train is considerably cheaper, though both take up considerably more time.

The clubs have been fierce rivals since the early 1900s when Arsenal moved into the North London area. Their fans hate each other, and The North London derby, as clashes between the two are called, are always fiercely contested, both on the pitch and in the stands.

Sometimes, when things are not going particularly swimmingly at The Emirates, fans will launch into their “Stand up if you hate Tottenham” chant. The opponent doesn’t have to be their closest neighbours either, but the chant is a means of riling up fellow “gooners,” a demand to join in the support for their struggling team through their universal loathing of Tottenham.

There have been rivalries in sports since its earliest beginnings. Whether spawned by proximity, history or some particular incident, rivalries are a feature of almost every area of endeavor, but is particularly widespread in sports.

Battles between rivals are always more fiercely contested than normal. All opponents matter, but some matter more than others. Does anyone think Barcelona play arch-rivals Real Madrid with the same intensity they play Villarreal or Las Palmas? Or that the Boston Red Sox play just as hard against the Arizona Diamondbacks as they do against the hated New York Yankees?

Basketball greats Magic Johnson, of the Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird, of the Boston Celtics, had a rivalry that lasted for years. Many of their battles were epic and will be talked about for as long as the NBA exists. “When the new schedules come out each year,” said Johnson, “I’d grab it and circle the Boston games. To me, it was The Two and the other 80.”

His nemesis felt similarly: “The first thing I would do every morning was looking at the box scores to see what Magic did. I didn’t care about anything else.”

The intensity that great rivalries engender often lead to improved performances. Your rival pushes you harder, forces you to dig deeper, makes you better. Would Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer be as good if each wasn’t forced by the other produce some of the best tennis we have seen?

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The Ashes series stretches back as far as the 1882-83 visit by England to Australia. Both teams gained Test status in 1877. South Africa was admitted to the group 12 years later in 1889, and the West Indies 39 years after that in 1928. Australia/England contests are therefore the most enduring in cricket. Each side considers the other their oldest, greatest rivals. Each side wants to beat the other more than they want to beat anybody else.

The Ashes, one of cricket’s most significant clashes, has been the backdrop of some of the cricket’s most monumental matches, and some of its most stunning performances: The 1930 edition saw Don Bradman compile two triple centuries, silencing doubters who claimed that his fondness for cross-batted shots would’ve made him vulnerable in English conditions.

Hedley Verity’s dismissed Bradman twice, for 36 and 13, on his way to 15 wickets at Lords in 1934, leading England to victory by an innings.

There was Allan Border scoring 43% of Australia’s runs (196 and 41*) at Lords in 1985, carrying Australia to a victory few thought possible after England’s first innings total of 430.

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Jim Laker took all 10 in Australia’s second innings in 1956. There was Massie’s match in 1972, Botham’s Ashes in 1981.

In 1981 and 1989, Terry Alderman conducted swing bowling exhibitions almost every game, capturing 42 and 41 wickets respectively. Graham Gooch was especially befuddled by the Australian pacer during the latter tour, even asking to be dropped.

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There was the 2005 series, widely considered the greatest ever, a series marked by exceptional performances by Andrew Flintoff especially, but quite a number of others as well. These are but a few examples that come readily to mind. There have been many others.

For sure, the Ashes is not unique in producing thrilling battles and high-level performances – there are loads of great performances that spring from other encounters as well. The point is, however, that you are more likely to produce your best when you are up against your main rival.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier contested some of boxing’s most bruising bouts. “This is the closest to death I have ever been,” said Ali after the Thrilla In Manilla, the last of their three fights. It appeared that both fighters would have rather died than lose. “Only fighting each other,” said legendary boxing broadcaster Larry Merchant, “could have brought that much effort out, at a time in their careers when fighters, given all the punches that had landed on them, generally don’t want to go that far.”

There is, sometimes, a tendency of great rivals to push the envelope against each other, the inclination to bend or skirt the rules or to engage in behaviour considered untoward. Perhaps the most controversial series in the game’s history was the 1932-33 Ashes, or as it has come to be known: The Bodyline Series. Brutal short-pitched tactics, designed to curb the run-scoring appetite of Bradman, infused the series with the animosity that even threatened the relationship between the two countries.

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Eventual rule changes effectively outlawed the tactic but much acrimony remained for a long time afterwards, and the main instigators of bodyline, captain Douglas Jardine and fast bowler Harold Larwood, never expressed remorse. As far as they were concerned, winning the Ashes was what was important and whatever they deemed necessary to achieve that objective, no matter how unpalatable, was justified so long as it was within the rules as they stood at the time.

Frank Tyson, whose pace knocked the stuffing out of the Australians during the 1954-55 series, recalled in his book on the tour, In The Eye Of The Typhoon, overhearing a conversation between a Colin Cowdrey and a “spare, stooped old man, dressed in a pin-stripe suit.” They were to stop in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka before reaching Australia, and the man was offering the young player some advice. “When you get to Ceylon, Cowdrey, have a hit and get your eye on. Then when you reach Australia, just remember one thing – Hate the Bastards.”

Struck by the “vehemence” of the man’s words, Tyson asked former England wicketkeeper George Duckworth, who the man was. “That,” came the reply, “is Douglas Jardine, my former captain in Australia during the Bodyline series in 1932/33.”


As things stand, there have been 69 battles for the Ashes. Each side has won 32 and five have been drawn. Another commences on November 23 in Brisbane. Playing at home and with a number of express bowlers available, Australia should start favourites. With any luck, however, the rivalry will be as intense as ever and will result in five fascinating, hard-fought contests.

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