January 3, 2007

Fifth Test, Sydney

A burning sensation

Gideon Haigh

© Getty Images
News, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Thus the preposterously good run enjoyed by Sir Richard Branson’s brainstorm of feeling ‘uncomfortable’ about flying the Ashes urn back to MCC, on grounds that…well…it’s really not clear, and nor is it immediately obvious why he has anything to do with it. But it was a quiet news day, and RB and a quiet news day were made for one another.

Branson’s grasp of the Ashes, it is fair to say, is not sophisticated; but nor is the issue itself completely straightforward, because the trophy is twice incarnated, as the Ashes (Actual) and the Ashes (Symbol). For those who’ve just joined us, let me briefly explain.

The Ashes (Symbol) derive from the original death notice for English cricket in the Sporting Times after the Oval Test of 1882, placed there by Reginald Brooks aka Watkinshaw, a pioneering work of English sporting masochism but also a riff on the cremation debate. The first cremation in England wasn’t until January 1884 - the work of the latterday druid Dr William Price – and it was at the time of the Oval Test a proverbial hot potato.

The Ashes (Actual) were a colonial jest, a present to Ivo Bligh when he led an England team to Australia a few months later. Noone intended them to become a trophy for anything. Marylebone refers to them, rather endearingly, as a ‘love token’, for one of the instigators of the gesture, Florence Morphy, married Bligh: they became Lord and Lady Darnley.

You can trace the modern history of the Ashes (Symbol) to England’s 1903-4 tour of Australia – the first under Marylebone’s auspices – when the visitors won 3-2. England’s captain Pelham Warner adopted the ‘Ashes’ as a motif for his team’s quest, and wrote a book called ‘How We Recovered the Ashes’. He, however, seems to have been referring to the obituary, not to the urn, which he had never seen. Competition, moreover, actually proceeded for some years without precise agreement about what the Ashes (Symbol) actually denoted. When England visited Australia in 1920-21, for instance, captain Johnny Douglas denied absolutely that the Ashes were at stake. ‘As to the ‘Ashes’,’ he told Australians, ‘people here seem to be labouring under a wrong impression. When an English team took them home [England] some years ago, my idea was that they were to stay there until an Australian XI went home next year to recover them. In the meantime I have just brought an XI here to get some practice for that great occasion.’ In other words, Douglas believed that the Ashes were only at stake on English soil. Not surprisingly, this cut no ice in Australia; the only practice that Douglas’s team experienced was at losing, incurring five consecutive defeats.

It’s possible, I think, to have a civilised disagreement about this. I can understand why some regard the separate existences of the Ashes (Actual) and the Ashes (Symbol) as sub-optimal. Imagine if Arthurian legend ended with Gawain telling Lancelot: ‘I’ve quite a nice cup at home that would pass for a grail. Sod this quest - let’s go jousting instead.’ No Australian expects the Ashes to feature in an extravagant presentation ceremony, manhandled by horny-handed, Foster’s-flourishing cricketers. They simply crave the custody of an object that, originating in Australia, is as much part of its past as England’s.

That, however, is an argument to do with modern sentiment, not with history. The historical argument is cut and dried: Australia is not entitled to the Ashes (Actual). There’s even something slightly petulant and adolescent about the protest: ‘Awwwww, everyone else’s got a trophy. Why can weeeeeee have one too?’ Myself, while I can accept that others may hold other views, I like the difference. To me, Australia and England play for an idea, and should have the courage of the uniqueness of their rivalry. It is for other lesser sports and nations to play for trinkets and gew-gaws.


Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

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Posted by Margaret on (January 6, 2007, 5:15 GMT)

The original Urn should stay with the MCC. I do like the idea of the symbolic burning of a ball/bail in a perpetual trophy, however, I would make the original trophy big enough to take about one hundred ashes to give it a sense of history. The real problem with giving an actual trophy to Australia is there will be huge arguments as to where the trophy should be located. Australia's States are as fiercely competitive as our Nation. Believe me, whatever the trophy is it must be able to tour between the States.

Posted by Shawry on (January 6, 2007, 2:25 GMT)

Let's talk this through. A mock obituary was written citing the death of cricket in England. As a result, the England team travelled to Australia to "recover" those Ashes, seen to have been held by Australia. This was then presented to them in the form of the physical Ashes, which were returned to England. They were a physical representation of the Ashes of English cricket, seen to be dead when England lose to Australia and have to be won back. Surely, while not a trophy, that still leaves them to be a physical manifestation of the idea and to be won back should have to leave England's shores. It is the MCC and ECB that twist history to suit the argument, not Branson and Co. The Ashes were recovered, and returned to England in physical form. End of story. As they are lost in future series, they should be taken frfom England in physical form. Of course, this would involve the relevant authorities waking up and noticing the Empire is gone, or perhaps this is the final manifestation of any level of authority over Australia. Keep them here "because we can". That's ok, the Australian Public, and all true cricket fans know what is "right", rather than legal. Keep your urn to remind you of your failure.

Posted by Jeff C on (January 5, 2007, 17:41 GMT)

Saw the original ashes up close at the Perth museum,(Western Australia)before Christmas.It's a fragile looking thing the size of a pill bottle. It had endured a few knocks and was insured for $5000000 Australian." The Sheffield shield" also on display was certainly more magnificent in its beauty. I would say it would be easy to produce an exact true scale replica of the ashes urn to present to each future winning team with the details on the base. I believe the urn still belongs to Lord Darnley's estate.

Posted by Kathy on (January 5, 2007, 12:08 GMT)

According to Wikpedia - "MCC organised the early England cricket teams, and outside of Test matches the touring England team officially played as "MCC" up to and including the 1976/77 tour of Australia.

I wonder if Lord Darnley gave didn't give the urn to the Marylebone Cricket Club being the Marylebone Cricket Club, but gave it to the MCC as being England... It also makes me ponder what he would have done in a modern context, would Lord Darnley have given the urn to the EWCB?

Posted by StripeyPJs on (January 5, 2007, 4:58 GMT)

Dave wrote: "MCC own the four-inch urn, formerly the property of Lord Darnley. Therefore they can do with it whatever they damned-well please."

Legally, yes, as we keep hearing. But morally?

If I were ever bequeathed a sentimental object, I'd try to utilise/display it in such a way that would please the late owner, before considering my own interests.

Gideon, what would Ivo and Flo want done with the Ashes Urn today? Do you think they'd approve of the MCC's position?

Posted by Dave on (January 5, 2007, 0:12 GMT)

Why is this being debated?

MCC own the four-inch urn, formerly the property of Lord Darnley. Therefore they can do with it whatever they damned-well please.

The Ashes of the body of English cricket, according to the obituary, were taken to Australia and then England, according to the media of the time, went to Australia in 1882/3 to regain said ashes. This preceded the existence (in cricketing circles) of a certain terracotta urn.

Long may Australia and England play for the ashes - of English cricket, not those of a bail (or ball or stump as the case may be) which should remain in the urn they are currently in, in the custody of the owner: the Marylebone Cricket Club.

Posted by Jay on (January 4, 2007, 23:55 GMT)

I don't know where The Ashes trophy belongs, but the series sure doesn't belong on my TV!! Not when England is sucking so bad, they might tear a hole in the sky!! Take The Ashes, everyone of them, the symbol, the actual, the imagined, the perceived, just get this thign off my TV man!!

Posted by Tim Richards on (January 4, 2007, 21:21 GMT)

The Ashes are about the spirit of English cricket, and spirit is, by definition, intangible. When, in 1979, the TCCB decided (claimed the right to decide) that England could play official Test matches, but not put its honour at stake, The Ashes ceased to have meaning for anything other than promotional hyperbole.

Posted by Peter on (January 4, 2007, 21:02 GMT)

The ashes (actual) belongs at the MCC. English cricket do not get it, its the MCC. I think having it travel around Australia giving Aussies a chance to view it is fantastic, but its home will always be the MCC. Does not getting to keep the trophy take away anything from the sweetness of the revenge the Aussies have had this series? I think not. The symbol is what we battle for, and everyone knows who has won the battle. Richard Branson should stick to flying planes and leave his uneducated opinions to himself.

Posted by Charlie on (January 4, 2007, 13:31 GMT)

As a Pom living in Australia I've had to endure this series (but have not been surprised by it). The Aussies REALLY wanted the urn back (metaphorical, and have always wanted it literally as and when they 'hold' the Ashes).

For all the historical arguments, and MCC ownership, it was never intended as a trophy, blah blah blah - it just sounds churlish in the extreme not to let, say Cricket Australia, locate the actual Ashes urn in a safe place for public display for as long as the Aussies 'hold' the Ashes(while "ownership" is still technically MCC's if you like). "Nah - you can't have it, cos technically ... nah nah na na naaaa" - it sounds really sad. Can we not rise above this?

If & when England win the 'Ashes series' in the future, the urn can go back to Lords. Let it not be held aloft as a trophy (a substitute one does fine for this purpose), but be carefully looked after (100+ years old artifact and all) and worst case it is transported every 2 years or so in a comfortable Virgin airplane. Surely it can survive that.

How can anyone (who is not an archaic sad MCC member) argue against this act of good sense and common decency? It won't happen - but it is blindingly obvious to millions (and not just Aussies).

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Gideon Haigh
Born in London of a Yorkshire father, raised in Australia by a Tasmanian mother, Gideon Haigh lives in Melbourne with a cat, Trumper. He has written 19 books and edited a further seven. He is also a life member and perennial vice-president of the South Yarra CC.

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