David Whitley visits the world’s most famous urn at the Lord’s Cricket Ground in .
It’s tiny. The prize that every Australian and English cricketer fantasises about looks rather pathetic sat in its big glass cabinet, dwarfed by a colourful exhibition about Brian Lara.
The Ashes urn is perhaps the most feeble thing in the Lord’s Cricket Museum, but it’s what a sizable majority of visitors come to see. And if the titchiness comes as a surprise, then the story behind it is a bigger one.
Keith, our tour guide, is trying to explain to the Aussie contingent why the Australian cricket team is never allowed to keep the trophy. Despite, in the past, having won it fair and square.
The response is fairly simple. “It’s becauseand have never played for the Ashes urn,” says Keith. “It has never been a trophy.”
It’s not really an urn either – it’s a terracotta perfume jar, and its route to becoming cricket’s most iconic symbol is a fascinating one.
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The Ashes series derives from the England cricket team’s first defeat on home soil back in 1882. The London Sporting Times published an obituary for English cricket at a time when parliament was debating whether to legalise cremation. The ‘ashes’ of English cricket came from an attempt to be waggishly topical.
The joke was continued by Ivo Bligh, the England captain in 1883, who said he was going to bring the Ashes back. On the five week voyage to Oz, he met his future wife. Florence Morphy just so happened to be the music teacher to Sir William Clarke’s children, and Sir William was the president of the Melbourne Cricket Club.
After England won the series, they played a social match at Sir Charles’ home in Sunbury, Victoria. Before everyone swanned off for drinks, Florence Morphy took the stumps, burned one of the bails and put it in the most convenient vessel she could find. The perfume jar was given to Ivo Bligh as a gift – the famous Ashes ‘trophy’ was actually a jokey romantic present from a music teacher. And more interestingly, it’s actually Australian after all.
Bligh bequeathed the urn to the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) upon his death, which is another reason it can’t be used as a trophy – it’s not the England and Wales Cricket Board’s to give.
The MCC owns Lord’s, which is almost universally known as ‘the home of cricket’. Ordinarily, the pavilion is a strictly members only affair, but we’re allowed to step into the hallowed Long Room and the players’ changing rooms.
We’re also given a few interesting insights. The players have to come down the stairs and battle through the huddle of members in the Long Room on their way to and from the crease. To get to the crease in three minutes as the laws of the game demand is not as easy as you might think.
The laws said two minutes until after the 2005 Ashes series, when Australian batsman Jason Gillespie took two-and-a-half. The umpires offered England captain Michael Vaughan the opportunity to appeal for “timed out”, and he declined, knowing what a pain in the backside getting out there can be.
Conveniently, the MCC is still in charge of the laws of cricket, so the committee decided to change the time out rule.
The dressing rooms are surprisingly un-lavish. There may be leather seats around the side of the room, but that’s the only hint of mod cons. The players have nowhere to store their bags, have to walk across the corridor to get a shower, and can only realistically fit three or four on the balcony at any one time.
It’s the biggest cricket ground in England, with a capacity of 30,000, but the MCC is determined to keep it as a traditional ground rather than a stadium. There are no floodlights either – although that’s more because the neighbours object. It’s in a residential area, and planning permission to erect the towers has been refused.
Yet sometimes a controversial new extension can become a treasure, and the remarkable media centre is an unexpected highlight of the tour. It’s a unique piece of architecture – best described as an extra terrestrial egg with no interior supports. Going inside gives an idea of what goes on when the media are focusing on on-field stories rather than off-field. It’s not difficult to imagine what chaos it can be on match days, with hundreds of writers and TV commentators all shouting over each other.
But it’s the ancient, rather than the modern that people come to Lord’s for. To the aficionado, 18th century bats, original scorecards from the 1930s, players’ shirts and even sparrows killed by cricket balls are little slices of heaven. And then there’s that little terracotta perfume jar, which may not be an official trophy, but it’s a priceless prize.
Details: Tours of the Lord’s Cricket Ground in St John’s Wood, London run every day (although they have limited access to most areas on match days). The tour includes museum entry.
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