Date of release: Wednesday, July 10, 2013

cricket bails being prepared for ashOne of sport's greatest mysteries comes under the microscope this summer, as a Greenwich academic discovers just what England and Australia’s test cricket teams are playing for.

Dr Ian Slipper, from the university’s School of Science, teamed up with the Royal Society of Chemistry to discover what exactly is in the Ashes Urn.

The Ashes were presented to the England cricket team by a group of Australian ladies in 1882, following their defeat to Australia at the Oval that was nicknamed ‘the death of English cricket’. The urn is reputed to contain the ashes of a cricket bail (a small stick sitting on top of the stumps).

Using a Surface Electron Microscope to recreate and analyse the most famous trophy in cricket, Dr Slipper carried out a number of complex tests to discover its chemical formula.

"We take a bail and you've got to turn it into an ash,” he explains. "We cut it up into little slices and cook it for four hours, at 400° centigrade. To do the analysis the ash needs to be further ground down to reduce the particle size to less than ten microns - one micron is about a thousandth of a millimetre, so that's about a tenth of the width of a human hair."

The chemical analysis of these ashes shows Carbon, Oxygen, Sodium, Magnesium, Aluminium, Silicon, Phosphorus, Sulfur, Chlorine, Potassium, Calcium, Iron and Copper.

"There's no other way you can identify the components present - you can't use an optical microscope, the material is far too small,” says Dr Slipper. “I would love to get inside the little urn and find out what the real Ashes contain. I suspect it's far more complicated than our fairly controlled experiment."

More of the urn's secrets will be revealed throughout the summer as experiment results come in.

For more images from the Surface Electron Microscope, see:

For information on the School of Science, see

Story by Public Relations