The Battle for the Ashes began yesterday. What a contest it promises to be: passionate, intense, protracted. In short, quite as stirring as what has been witnessed on the cricket grounds of Australia these past 42 days.
At stake is more than the result of a series, it is the physical location of the urn and its mysterious contents, after which the whole shebang takes its name. On the one hand is a band of swashbucklers determined that the object of desire should reside in whichever country has won the competition that is called the Ashes. On the other hand is the Marylebone Cricket Club, owner and keeper of the urn in perpetuity, who are insistent that its permanent home will remain at Lord's.
The issue is now slightly complicated by the fact that the terracotta trinket has been on a tour of Australia these past two months. Having let it out of their sight, the MCC may face some trouble getting it home. Not the least of the club's difficulties in this regard is that the man who provided the seat on which it made its journey from London now thinks it should stay in Australia. Sir Richard Branson called a hasty press conference during tea on the second day of the fifth Test yesterday at which he expressed his desire. He was flanked by Allan Border and Ian Botham, previous champions of Ashes contests, who thought along similar lines, and he had received a telephone call about the issue from Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard.
Safe to conclude that, in a long history of conducting amiable press conferences, Branson has appeared better briefed at all this one's predecessors. Indeed, had he launched Virgin Atlantic with so scanty a notion of what he was talking about it is probable that not a plane would have flown.
The entrepreneur had several stabs at explaining why the MCC should alter their stance, what the Ashes were and what they meant, the last of which went: "I think it was originally a trophy. The Ashes were burnt when Britain, when England lost the 1882 game. It was turned into a trophy which the Australians took back to Australia. I may be wrong but I think they're rewriting history."
He was wrong. This was too much for Gideon Haigh, an estimable Anglo-Australian cricket writer and historian, who exclaimed: "You're rewriting history."
Haigh delivered a potted history of the Ashes: how it stemmed from a mock newspaper obituary in 1882 when England did indeed lose a match at the Oval by seven runs and how a side led by Ivo Bligh returned to Australia the following winter where, at a social match in Sunbury, a group of Melbourne ladies burnt a bail and presented it to him in the urn. Bligh, who became Lord Darnley, took it home. Its existence did not come to public notice until 1927 when Darnley died and his widow Florence, who had been one of the Melbourne ladies, gave it to the MCC.
The Test had resumed, but Branson and Co were in full flow. Botham said: "It's the Ashes, the biggest trophy in cricket. Why not make it something more? Maybe you guys don't quite appreciate not having been out there, but to play for England or Australia the ultimate is the Ashes."
It transpired Howard had called Branson to assure him the Australians would look after the urn properly. But the MCC were not for turning. Branson said he would feel uncomfortable about one of his planes taking home the Ashes. But he would do so if he could not persuade the MCC within two or three days.
Out on the pitch the big question was why Stephen Harmison, England's fastest bowler, had not taken the new ball - again. He said: "I'm not bothered... I'll do what is best for my team to the best of my capabilities." This made about as much sense as Branson on the history of the Ashes.