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  Thursday, 5 December, 2002, 08:31 GMT
Keeping the Ashes safe
Rival captains Steve Waugh and Nasser Hussain
England and Australia now play for a new trophy
Housed in an unremarkable glass case, placed almost as an afterthought beneath the turn of a staircase, stands one of the most famous trophies in British and Australian sport.

Grand claims can and are made over the importance of the Ashes, all four inches of it.

It is to many the most evocative of prizes, blessed with suitably mythical beginnings involving Victorian nobility and, of course, a love interest.

But it is, after all, only contested between two countries in a sport that is not one of the world's most popular.

"There are probably quite a lot of Frenchmen who have never heard of the Ashes," said Stephen Green, the curator of the museum at Lord's and de facto guardian of the urn.

Green oversees an unparalleled array of cricket memorabilia, housed in a collection of rooms behind the pavilion at Lord's.


If there was a fire here it would be the first thing I'd look to save
Stephen Green

That urn is, of course, the main attraction, but there is much, much else.

There are portraits ranging from the third Duke of Dorset to a stubbly Graham Gooch, from an 18th century bat to a ball autographed by Shane Warne after he had claimed the man-of-the-match award in the 1999 World Cup final.

It is also the home of the new World Championship trophy.

The shiny, four foot long mace wrapped in a slither of gold could not provide a greater contrast to the tiny, home made Ashes urn.

The one thing they have in common is Australia - they hold them both.

But when it comes to the Ashes it is in name only - although that will not provide any comfort to Nasser Hussain if, some would say when, Steve Waugh's side win this series.

The Ashes may have been created in Australia, but since they were brought back by the Honourable Ivo Bligh in the closing years of the 19th century they have only been back down under once.

And that was with the Queen.

The Ashes
The most coveted trophy in cricket

It all began with that famous newspaper announcement in 1882 after England had lost at home for the first time.

"It may have not been a coincidence that Parliament had just passed the cremation act," said Green, who has been in charge of the museum for more than 30 years.

When England went to Australia shortly afterwards, Bligh was presented with the ashes of English cricket.

It was made by a group of women from Melbourne and presented, so the legend goes, to Bligh, who took it back home along with one of the Melbournites, the future Mrs Bligh.

"As far as we are aware it has only been out of Lord's on three occasions since," said Green.

On two of them it did not go far, staying in London for exhibitions in the 1930s and 1990s.

The other was an altogether bigger adventure.

The urn was found a place on the Queen's flight as she journeyed to Australia for the country's bicentennial in 1888.

Back home, around 40,000 people a year file reverentially past and it does not fail to impress, perhaps thanks to a combination of its ordinariness of appearance and its wealth of history.

"Sometimes I wonder what a millionaire collector would be willing to pay for it at auction," said Green.

"It is insured, but that really means very little as it is irreplaceable.

"I once, rather foolishly, said if there was a fire here it would be the first thing I'd look to save."

All the news ahead of the 2002/03 Ashes tour

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