Botham and Border back plan January 3, 2007

Branson calls for Ashes to remain in Australia

Steve Waugh, Allan Border and Mark Taylor pose with the Ashes urn after it arrived on a flight from England © Getty Images
It has taken five Tests for the ritual debate to reach full flight, but the home of the Ashes has again become an issue of national importance. Sir Richard Branson's company Virgin Atlantic is under contract to fly the urn back to England when the series ends, but in a comical performance, in which he was flanked by Ian Botham and Allan Border, he requested it stay in Australia.

Branson's push to end almost a century of tradition - the original sits in a glass cabinet at Lord's - was upstaged when his seriously flawed account of the symbol was corrected by Gideon Haigh, the writer and historian. "In 1882 the idea was the Ashes were to come to Australia," Branson said. "They would come home to England, but an England captain grabbed hold of them and kept them ever since."(Click here for a history of the Ashes)

Branson went on to say Marylebone Cricket Club's view of the urn as a gift was "mistaken". "I think it was originally a trophy, the Ashes were burned when England lost the 1882 game and it was turned into a trophy that the Australians took back to Australia. I think, I may be wrong, but they are re-writing history."

"You're re-writing history, you're completely wrong," Haigh said and then filled in the gaps during a two-minute precise. Border admitted Haigh had a "fair point", but Branson's errors continued with his repeated referral to MCC as "MMC".

However, Branson's idea, which was hatched over dinner with Botham this week, has received strong and predictable support. Ricky Ponting said after the series was sealed in Perth that Australians should prevent the urn from getting on the plane and today John Howard, the prime minister, joined in.

"I know there is a lot of tradition surrounding where it has been in the past but I don't think there is any valid reason why it shouldn't follow the outcome," Howard said. "I'm sure it would be treated with immense care and reverence, and protected and left unbroken, and I can assure you that Australians have great warmth towards that symbol of cricket supremacy."

Botham said MCC would "probably throw out my membership" but he and Border, who is also a member, said the issue should go to a club vote. "The space at Lord's should be left empty until we get them back," Botham said. "There's no excuse not to move them around."

The Australian push for the Ashes to stay Down Under grew during their 16-year reign from 1989, but it is rare for such high-profile English figures to support the move. "You're playing for the Ashes," Botham said. "To me it seems ridiculous. If you're playing for the European Cup or the Ryder Cup you get the cup.

"Just think of the fun it would have been in 1986-87, to be totally written off, to fly back with the urn on the plane. It would have been fantastic." It might also have been broken.

Border, who lifted replicas in three series wins, said it was the "biggest trophy in the game" and it was time Australia got "the real McCoy". The only problem - and it's a big one - is the Ashes are owned by MCC, who say they were never intended to be a trophy, and they have been reluctant for them to travel. The urn arrived in Australia in October to start a cross-country tour in the main capital-city museums and it will depart for England later this month.

Branson said he would feel uncomfortable carrying the item back to London considering the result of the series. "We'll fly it back if we can't persuade MCC over the next two or three days," he said. Good luck.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo