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

RSS Feeds: Gideon Haigh

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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).

Posted by hoss on (January 4, 2007, 13:20 GMT)

Let's face it. It's not a trophy unless beer/champagne(nuts to France)can be drunk from it. Unless the players enjoy the gritty taste of bail flambe, let's just leave the Ashes as an idea.

Posted by Matthew on (January 4, 2007, 12:35 GMT)

Such a long-winded piece that could have easily been put across in several concise sentences...

The urn so frequently present in promotional media is actually a donated family heir loom that postdated the original ashes idea. It was presented to an english captain as a joke gift to commemorate their poor performance. It belongs legally to the MCC so they can and will do what they please with it. Further, it makes no sense to award it as a winners trophy given the origin of the little urn.

So please Gideon, when you say, "let me briefly explain," try to include some modicum of brevity.

Or at the very least refrain from snide accusations of petulance when it is clear that the reason so many think the urn should go to the victorious team is the mistaken belief that the only reason it doesn't is because a stodgy MCC likes to deny the victor their just due, out of, shall I say it... petulance. However mistaken it is easy to see how such an idea has become widely established. It is also clear from the majority of comments that Australians don't want some "gee-gaw" F.A. cup style trophy.

Yet, there is a strong desire for the constant ashes symbology to mean something...

David said it best in: "So regardless of the accuracy of Gideon's research, the fact is that if Australia and England have always played for an idea, then no one told the players that! They've always played for "The Ashes" as an object, with the burning desire either to defend or recapture "The Urn". I'm afraid the decades old tradition train has long ago left the historical accuracy platform behind, with Gideon and the members of the MCC cutting lonely figures as they wave it goodbye."

And surely as David suggests a ball burning ceremony would pay due deference to the competitions rich history and provide a popular spectacle. Although, befitting the origin of the urn, it would be more in keeping with cricket history if the winning captain offered the ashes to the losing captain whose shame would be in having to accept the ashes. Nor is playing for an idea as unique as Gideon likes to trumpet. AFL teams playing to avoid the wooden spoon aren't playing to avoid a physical wooden spoon, something one would think Gideon of all people would recognise.

Posted by Peter on (January 4, 2007, 12:07 GMT)

Kathy....that was brilliant. One could suggest that they burn the heart of the current English Team but where would you find such a small urn?

Posted by Hong on (January 4, 2007, 11:58 GMT)

I suggest making a new trophy, carved in the form of the actual urn, from solid platinum. Either life-size, or a 4x replica (which would make it 64x the weight, which is about as heavy as you'd want to make it). That should be able to survive the rigours of being carted around the place, and satisfy people's desire for a physical representation of the outcome of the series while allowing the original to stay where the MCC wants it.

Posted by Jason on (January 4, 2007, 10:58 GMT)

Personally I've always been in favour of setting fire to the stumps on the day the Ashes is regained. How better to celebrate the proper spirit of the Ashes? Instead of the historical presentation of the ashes to the losers, though, in my view the winners keep the resultant ash from the burning, that is after the losers scrounge a trophy from somewhere to put the Ashes in. Preferably Kevin Pietersen's helmet.

Posted by Brenno on (January 4, 2007, 10:50 GMT)

The MCC not giving the Ashes urn to Australia smacks of pomposity and old style colonial attitudes that still prevail in English cricket.

An argument against giving the Ashes to Australia that focuses on the fragility of the urn itself simply attempts to mask this elitist mind set.

I have no interest in joining in with the cultural cringers who would gladly go cap in hand to the MCC to get their hands on a crystal trophy representing what is a piece of Australian cricketing history as much as Englands.

Posted by Vas on (January 4, 2007, 8:14 GMT)

Fair points Gideon, tho I have to query whether such history plays a part anymore. Given the marketing of the modern Ashes contests, it is done in the view that the urn is the grand prize (which incidentally is not stopped by MCC). Therefore, doesnt it stand to reason that it should act as a trophy? If no, then why was Michael Vaughan waving around a replica last year?

Besides, any self-respecting Pom must be ashamed of having the Ashes in their backyard after this debacles of this series. As Botham rightly points out, it may ignite a fire in the players' bellies if they realised the Ashes weren't there anymore.

Lord Darnley may have donated the urn to MCC, which is the reason they keep using. Then why is it that MCC are willing to do a showcase tour around Australia and charge people to see it, thereby profitting on it? It seems like the Australian nation is totally oblivious and meaningless to the symbology of the urn, so why are MCC using contemporary business interests on something that holds strongly onto history? Double standards if you ask me...

Posted by marcus on (January 4, 2007, 8:06 GMT)

If we're just playing for the idea of the Ashes, well that's all well and good. But isn't the Urn itself just as much part of Australian cricket culture as it is England's? It was that match in 1882 that really sparked the rivalry between Australia and England, and inspired England to revisit our shores again and again, without which development of cricket in our country might not have reached the level it had. Of course I could be wrong (to quote Sir Richard Branson) but it just seems to me that the Urn itself is just as Australian as it is English. So why shouldn't we have access to it? "One Urn to Rule Them All...?"

Posted by A Manton on (January 4, 2007, 8:00 GMT)

What about setting fire to Steve Harmison and sticking him in an urn?

Posted by Danny on (January 4, 2007, 7:39 GMT)

A fair article that sheds light on things that were not always known.

I feel that most people, including myself, were under the impression that the urn was the trophy that both teams competed for (given all the advertising etc). Now that its clear its not, the urn and its entourage should come with a classification detailing information similar to the article. Imagnie how many people would have gone to see the urn if they understood the history behind it. I think playing for an idea is what you do when you play in the park. Get a trophy and attract advertising and sponsorship and lets get involved how sport is now played.

And a quick dig to all the poms. Dont decorate any more of your sportsman. Rugby union and cricket are examples ofwhat happens when a teams wins something once in a long time.

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

If Australia and England play for the idea of the Ashes, and Australia aren't entitled to the actual urn - why does the trophy they get presented with mimic that of the original?

Posted by Kathy on (January 4, 2007, 3:13 GMT)

After all the OBE's in 2005, there is one OBE in this series - an O-Obviously B-Beaten E-England

Posted by Kathy on (January 4, 2007, 3:08 GMT)

Win, lose, or thrashed England hold the Ashes (actual)... in that sense, England can never lose the Ashes... I believe that they are on permanent disppoid to get to seelay at Lords irrespective of who holds the Ashes (idea), and that there is a fee charged to see the urn (among other things)... My suggestion is that if the urn is to stay in London, then for the period that Australia hold the Ashes (idea) then the urn be on display at Australia House - OR NOT AT ALL... for why should England display something they do not 'actually' hold? Australia can only hold the Ashes in a symbolic sense, but England can hold the Ashes in both real AND symbollic sense.... in a real way, England can NEVER lose the Ashes....


Posted by Danny Lythgo on (January 4, 2007, 2:19 GMT)

Gideon, you are so far out of touch. Keep your fairy tale urn in England for you all Pommy cricket lovers to worship at Lords. Nothing sounds better to me, reward mediocrity, loose a pumped up series and go home with your trophy.

Let's start a new ashes trophy, burn the wickets from the Sydney test, put them in an urn and present them to Ricky Ponting. Should the Poms ever beat us let them keep these ones. Not that England would ever want any reminder of their 2006/07 performances in Australia.

Posted by Chris on (January 4, 2007, 1:25 GMT)

If the trophy isn't what we play for, then why were England waving them around after their win in 2005?

Posted by Shawry on (January 4, 2007, 0:55 GMT)

Here's a thought. The Ashes (actual) are, as has been pointed out, a representation of the death of English cricket and, quite rightly, should travel back to England in, say, a player's coffin (cricket kit bag). Dare I say a vote be cast for the team member that most contributed for the loss on this tour, but then, Duncan Fletcher probably doesn't travel with a coffin.

As for a current trophy, how about all England players present their Australian counterparts with the OBE's they received 18 months ago. Surely even a cursary glance at recent history dictates this team of Australians deserve them far more than this hit and miss English lineup. If the Ashes (symbol) is such an important ideal, perhaps the OBE's could all be burnt and presented to Cricket Australia to be passed around to subsequent winners of the series. Because let's face it, despite the Boring Boorish Barmy Army's bland and repetitive sung reminders that the Queen of England is also that of Australia (see lyrics "God Save YOUR Queen"), it's hardly likely that anyone would be man enough in England to admit what is obvious to all and sundry. The Australian Players have won consistently, repetitively and over a long period this sporting rivalry (along with many others) and if anybody deserves OBE recognition for service to the Kingdom, it sure as hell isn't Fletcher and Co.

Actually, scratch that idea. It's that kind of thinking that leads to madness and we know the fragile mental state of this current touring party. Perhaps this is an idea that was put to Stresscothick and look how he held up to it. Everybody relax and let the Poms quote history and keep the Urn. After all, after this display, history is where happiness in English cricket undoubtably lies for some time to come.

Posted by andrew webb on (January 4, 2007, 0:54 GMT)

I just read Davids solution involving a ceremonial burning of the bails at the end of every ashes series. What a great idea! It would make for fantastic theatre, which afterall test cricket is all about. Total fire bans might be an issue here, though not in the old dart.

Posted by Stu Carraill on (January 4, 2007, 0:19 GMT)

Happy to see the Ashes(actual) travel back & forward between Australia & England when,and only when,other items of historical importance are reduced to a travelling sideshow! EG:"Roll up,roll up - come & see the Magna Carta - (also available as a framed print from Channel 9 memorabilia store)"

Posted by Ralph on (January 4, 2007, 0:11 GMT)

Superb final paragraph. In fact, one of the best paragraphs in an opinion piece of sports journalism that I have seen in a very long time.

Posted by wimmera1 on (January 4, 2007, 0:10 GMT)

Posted by: Pen "I'm surprised no Australian has even considered burning the bail from that third test and placing it in an urn of their own, but such an ambitious idea is beyond them I guess."

Australian cricket died because they lost a series by two runs on foreign soil? Was it's condition upgraded to 'alive' after their eleventh consecutive victory since then? Incidentally, how's England's health been?

Posted by Gus on (January 3, 2007, 23:26 GMT)

Thanks for setting me straight Gideon, although my life is now in turmoil. We play office cricket; ball made from tape, bat with a cardboard tube, six and out if it goes in the airconditioning duct - that sort of thing. Anyway to celebrate a smoko victory we needed something so Weasel set fire to some pencils and put the "ashes" in a plastic "urn". We even wrote "The Ashes" on the front. I was the first to win them. Now what are we going to do? Weasel just ain't that intellectual I'm afraid, he likes to get hold of the urn and pull contorted faces as he celebrates by calling me names. The urn was, until I read your article, proudly displayed on his computer for maximum humiliation. How am I going to tell Weasel and the boys that I've had to lock the Ashes away in my cupboard and they can play for the idea of them? They're not going to be happy with you Gideon, no sir.

Posted by David on (January 3, 2007, 23:23 GMT)

Rest assured, if it was the other way 'round and the "ashes" were permanently in Australia, there would be a vast call from the English thet they should reside in the country where they are won (especially after the last Ashes win in England!)

I agree with what you say, Gideon. But I'm pretty sure the English don't mind the fact that the REAL urn stays in England.

I know I would.

Posted by Pen on (January 3, 2007, 22:34 GMT)

Glad to see yourself and others such as Boycott ridiculing and correcting Mr Branson and company on this misinformed plea of theirs.

I'm surprised no Australian has even considered burning the bail from that third test and placing it in an urn of their own, but such an ambitious idea is beyond them I guess.

Posted by jamie on (January 3, 2007, 22:24 GMT)

seriously -0 what was he on about - he has no idea about what he's on about and has no place talking about it. clown!

Posted by Celtica on (January 3, 2007, 21:31 GMT)

Could you be a bit more clear. Just maybe five concise sentences to explain what actually got burned.

Posted by SJH on (January 3, 2007, 20:51 GMT)

Well said, Gideon. However, as a long term (English) resident of Australia, I have always been fascinated with the Australian obsession with Trophys. I agree with you, Gideon, why do we have to play for baubles, what is wrong with playing for an idea? Maybe MCC should solve the debate once and for all and give the Ashes (Actual) back to their (actual) owners, the Darnley family. It is only by the generosity of that family that we can see them at all. They are a piece of memoriabilia, given as a personal gift, not a trophy to be waved about. The ECB produced, at Australian instigation and great expense, a trophy in the form of a Waterford Crystal Vase. Maybe it would be good for the "playing for an idea" theory for future England captains who win the Ashes Series to refuse to accept the vase, thus allowing it to remain in Australian hands and giving them a trophy of their very own to keep and put on display.

Posted by Leon Blackburn on (January 3, 2007, 20:50 GMT)

Great Article. Seems to make sense that test series are played for a 'symbol' rather than the 'actual' ashes. After all, even rugby league has an 'ashes' series.

Now I don't know a whole lot about league but i am assuming that there isn't a little ern somewhere with the ashes of Rugby posts, which of course means the league boys are playing for an 'idea'. Unless they to are playing for the 'actual' ashes as well.

Rather than playing the same record over and over I think both Australia and England should be glad that such a unique sporting specticle exists at all between 2 countries that love to wined each other up, but at the end of the day have far more in common with each other than we would all care to admit.

Posted by Venu on (January 3, 2007, 20:43 GMT)

I wouldn't be too harsh on Branson's mis-interpretation of the Ashes. I've been a die-hard fan of Cricket for nearly ten years and only two months ago after a visit to Lord's and a coffe-table book on the Ashes was I able to fill in the gaps. Most of our knowledge of the Ashes comes from the crappy television show from Australia a few years ago. I loved watching it though. Speaking of which, I can only think that Branson is only protecting his business interest, little does he care where the urn stays. The urn should go back to MCC as simple as that. Your last two sentences will have sent shivers down the spine of some ICC members ;)

Posted by JimDavis on (January 3, 2007, 19:08 GMT)

Glad to see this old chestnut raise its head again. Glad to, Gideon, that you have rightly pointed out that the Ashes (Actual) was a colonial gag. With so much talk of Australian team's sportsmanship over the last decade or three I've been waiting for someone to expalin to the world what the Ashes (Actual) really is - Surely it's the sports worlds biggest and most articulate sledge.

Posted by alan on (January 3, 2007, 18:37 GMT)

honestly bein only 16 i didnt really understand much of this article but before i read this i thort the ashes(actual) shud be a trophy for the ashes but after reading this i now understand what it is about in that if the ashes(actual) was a gift then why shuold it be played for i myself like the last paragraph about the ashes(symbol) bein the prize so all in all i like this article and agree with you 100%

Posted by David on (January 3, 2007, 16:57 GMT)

Gideon, Congratulations on setting the history straight to Messrs Branson, Border and Botham (strange that such disparate characters could still sound like an estate agents.) As you so rightly say, it is perfectly acceptable to want the urn in Australia, but it is important to accept that the MCC have got an historical claim on their side. Keep up the good work!

Posted by David on (January 3, 2007, 16:56 GMT)

Gideon, Congratulations on setting the history straight to Messrs Branson, Border and Botham (strange that such disparate characters could still sound like an estate agents.) As you so rightly say, it is perfectly acceptable to want the urn in Australia, but it is important to accept that the MCC have got the history on their side. Keep up the good work!

Posted by David on (January 3, 2007, 15:22 GMT)

The details of historical minutiae and accepted tradition don't always make comfortable bed-fellows. So regardless of the accuracy of Gideon's research, the fact is that if Australia and England have always played for an idea, then no one told the players that! They've always played for "The Ashes" as an object, with the burning desire either to defend or recapture "The Urn". I'm afraid the decades old tradition train has long ago left the historical accuracy platform behind, with Gideon and the members of the MCC cutting lonely figures as they wave it goodbye.

However, since we have two seemingly opposing and irreconcilable forces at work here - the MCC with it's "if you don't like the way I play, then I'll just take my urn and go home" attitude, and 99.9% of Australian and English cricketers and cricketing supporters who won't rest until there's a recognisable trophy at stake - it seems we need to come up with an alternative solution. In that regard, I humbly suggest one which takes the best of both the "playing for an idea" position and the "playing for a trophy" one.

Since the Ashes idea was born in a moment of rich satire, it would be a shame to lose that satirical edge and just play for a lump of characterless wood. What should be at stake in "The Ashes" is not merely a trophy, but national bragging rights - the right to assert the eternal moral, cultural, political and even sporting superiority either of the noble Mother country over her uncouth convict colony, or of the joyous land of the free over the antiquated bath-phobic Empire. But these bragging rights must be encapsulated in visible form (such as a trophy), so that there is a “something” to play for - to capture or defend - that isn’t just an idea.

I therefore suggest that at the end of every Ashes series, instead of a traditional (and boring) trophy presentation ceremony, we have a re-enactment of the original Ashes idea. The captain of the losing side must burn the match bails and present the ashes to the victorious captain in a new trophy (let the MCC - like Gollum - keep their "precious"). In this way he symbolically hands bragging rights over to his counterpart, who, by possession of the trophy, can with all justification proclaim that only his nation lies on the side of goodness and truth, while the vanquished must retreat trophyless into the dank darkness to which they are eminently suited. Then at the beginning of each subsequent Ashes series, the old Ashes are emptied from the trophy, which sits empty until the issue is decided once more.

There are many advantages to this idea apart from just keeping everyone happy. First, it gives cricket, which is unique in the sporting pantheon, a unique prize and presentation ceremony. Secondly, it reflects how true cricket supporters from both countries really view Ashes contests - as the ongoing battle for national superiority in miniature. And finally, it may even consign some of the more tepid and unispiring contests we’ve seen recently to the dustbin of history - what captain wouldn’t do everything in his power to avoid having to go through such a ritual public humiliation?

Burn your own dignity and present it to your victor - beats meaningless cliches at some carbon-copy presentation ceremony any day!

Posted by wimmera1 on (January 3, 2007, 13:34 GMT)

The physical Ashes are an historical artefact that belong to the MCC. It's silly to suggest that they Must hand them over. But it would be a nice gesture is they lent it to the Australian Embassy in London (if travel is that much of an issue). The one nice thing about the "no, they're ours" argument is that England never really lose them, so they seldom have the hunger to get them back. Best for all concerned that they keep their trinket, and never discover that hunger.

Posted by Yosser on (January 3, 2007, 13:10 GMT)

The Ashes is like no other contest, it is wrapped up in mythology. The actual urn, as you so rightly point out, is a representation of that mythology. To present it at the end of each series would be to make it a cup like any other. You would end up combining the myth with the actual and the result would eventually be a lessening of the whole aura surrounding such series. Long live the debate, long live the arguments, but keep the tradition alive and leave "the Ashes" at Lord's

Posted by Scott of Brisbane on (January 3, 2007, 12:43 GMT)

The historical facts aren't relevent anymore. The Australian public has been inundated with marketing from the ACB, television, radio and news media that the Urn IS the ashes, and thats what both teams play for. I haven't been to England but I imagine the marketing and promotion is exactly the same. The teams are contesting for the Ashes. To the public the teams are fighting for ownership of that urn. If you asked the players what they think of when you say winning the ashes its not going to be about the ugly crystal trophy but that little urn.

The fact the Urn has not been allowed to these shores for many years due to their delicate nature but are now doing a tour here means that arguments that it can't be travelled here when we own it are no longer valid.

To Australians arguments about the historical facts sound like sad excuses from sad little Englishmen who can't get over their own pompous snobish selves. In 2007 the ASHES belong to Australia. That should include the urn. The historical argument on who owns it? I don't care and there are 20 million other Aussies who don't either. We Own it, its ours, the poms need to be stop being sore losers and hand it over.



Posted by Sam on (January 3, 2007, 12:36 GMT)

The Ashes, be they part of an obitury or the urn and its contents presented to Bligh, were awarded to the losers not winners of this contest. So, if they were to be traded, they sould be presented to the losers not the winners so England have earned the right to go home with them. Given this fact one could also argue that the fantastic losing streak England chalked up prior to 2005 is sufficent achievement for them to have eraned the right to keep them in perpetuity or at the very least until Australia can match it. Another view might be that they are in fact a curse. Since they were given to Bligh England's cumulative performance has been so bad that Australia holds a huge margin in wins both in God's own country and poor old England. Its a tempting thought that leting them rest in Australia might just transfer that curse to the Aussies and get the monkey off England's back. Let's not tempt fate, Lord's should keep them!

Posted by Tom Coates on (January 3, 2007, 12:08 GMT)

For good or ill, the legal arguments are, as you say, cut and dried: the MCC keeps the urn.

And, although the disagreement can be civilised, voicing the arguments does no one any good. My sympathies tend to be against whoever is putting the case. Australian protests can indeed be adolescent; English refusals are pompous and legalistic.

The sporting argument is equally beyond discussion: the Aussies get the Ashes back, and that's what really hurts this Englishman.

Posted by Jez on (January 3, 2007, 11:58 GMT)

An interesting point raised in this inciteful article. However, the one issue I have is that the general public (from which cricket relies) would unlikely be as learned so as to distinguish from the 'symbol' and the 'historical'. To them, I would think the Ashes urn has become a trophy, the physical embodiment of what the contest represents. After all, why was the urn flown to Australia at this time, and not at say, to accompany an exhibition for Sir Donald Bradman? Why indeed did so many people go to see the urn? While its' historical signficance is undoubted, many would think of this as 'the actual trophy'. Conversely, while I am sure the urn could be incorporated into some other trophy (surely other trophies have elements of historical signicance incorporated into them?) the media coverage generated by stunts such as RB's must generate further interest in the Ashes...

Incidentally, and I'm not sure if other Aussies (or you, for that matter..) will disagree with me, Fosters is rubbish (Australia's cricketers drink Crown Lager)! The saying goes most of our worst beer (Fosters) primarily ends up exported...

Posted by Peter on (January 3, 2007, 11:42 GMT)

I like Johnny Douglas's interpretation. Had it been adopted, the Ashes (actual) would have been on Australian soil since 1989, and would be staying here until an English team was up to coming down and winning them back. This would also have had the added benefit of the 2005 English team most likely not being awarded the trinkets and gee-gaws that all and sundry got...

Posted by Stephen Ritchie on (January 3, 2007, 11:36 GMT)

Thanks Gideon for applying some sense in this overly sentimental debate. The symbol of the ashes is what the teams play for, when did cricket become about trinkets. The ashes is above this surely.

Posted by bobrobtodd on (January 3, 2007, 11:12 GMT)

the ashes are not going anywhere until England can win them back. Which is never.

Posted by james on (January 3, 2007, 10:46 GMT)

Great Ending, i belive that over history the urn has developed into more than just a family airloom but represents the soul/life of english cricket. this is why the MCC wants it so bad. because they can lose the series but still have their life. it should be in australia until england cricket shows it is definatly alive. like winning 4 series in a row or two in australia. could it be possible that this is just a battle between the mcg and lords for no1 ground and the urn is the ace

Posted by Tony Mack on (January 3, 2007, 10:20 GMT)

Okay, I agree with where you're heading there Gideon, but it seems to me that Douglas was suggesting that the next Australian team to win on English soil would "regain the Ashes". Thus meaning that an English team would be needing to travel to Australia to win them back - the travelling trophy. I agree that while Ashes cricket is really played for the Ashes (Symbol), and the Ashes (Actual) are little more than a historical and sentimental side alley, perhaps the idea that the Ashes (Actual) can be 'regained' by winning them in the country in which they are currently housed deserves a mention?

Posted by spence on (January 3, 2007, 10:06 GMT)

Gideon:excellent article and I fully concur;the ashes are more of a symbolic trophy,rather than one to be held aloft a la the F.A. cup.Australia's cricketers have trounced England so thoroughly:do they and their supporters really need tangible proof of their cricketing superiority?I'm reminded of a great story about Billy Wright,the England football legend of the 1940s and '50s:a visitor to his home remarked as to the lack of cups,medals and caps(he won 105)on display.Wright just smiled and tapped the side of his head and said 'I don't need them,it's all up here'.Food for thought maybe?

Posted by Chris on (January 3, 2007, 8:57 GMT)

Even as an australian raised on receiving trinkets, one can do little more than agree. The ideology of the Ashes campaign as it occurs today, fighting for the right to claim the ideological death of English cricket, serves to raise the value of the contest.

As much as an Australian cabinet remains empty, regardless of the victories won, the nation of cricket lovers knows supremacy stands.

Comments have now been closed for this article


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.

All articles by this writer