The real prize

The Ashes

The Ashes are in Melbourne.

To say “The Ashes” I mean the small terracotta urn that allegedly holds the remains of a cricket bail, ceremoniously burned in 1883 after the first defeat of an English cricket team by an Australian one. The event is rather mythologised and alternate series of cricket matches between the countries are referred to as contests for “The Ashes.”

The actual urn rarely leaves Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. Either England or Australia are said to “hold” the Ashes but the urn remains where it is, possession being symbolic. Only three times have the Ashes left England, the first time being during Australia’s Bicentenary in 1988.

The Ashes are currently at the State Library of Victoria and interestingly, this is the first time they’ve actually been in Australia while Australia has officially held them.

The cricketer Peter Siddle saw the Ashes there and despite having participated in several series, admitted he’d never actually seen the urn before.

The Ashes have sometimes been referred to as the most important prize in cricket, an absurd claim considering that only two countries compete for them. Both teams remain important in the game but their era of utter dominance has long passed. The current top ranked team in the world is India’s and is likely to remain so. And yet, the official prize for being the top ranked test team isn’t nearly as famous as the Ashes are.

But then I think of prizes for other sports and indeed, outside of sport. Every year Nobel Prizes are announced for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, Economics and Peace. Every four years there are announced four winners of the Fields Medal.

There are cash prizes for some of these things and the top sports men and women may be very lucratively rewarded indeed. Roger Federer has won 20 grand slams and has received a winner’s cheque each time. The best cricketers make millions. The Nobel Prize is an actual medal and has a cash prize attached. I expect that the Fields Medal is an actual medal, too. I don’t know if it comes with money attached but there is certainly prestige.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what these prizes look like. Roger Federer probably has a lot of silverware. Michael Phelps, the swimmer, has a lot of gold medals. I could probably google to find a picture of a Fields Medal.

But it isn’t important because it’s not the actual possession of the artefact that matters. Rather, it’s the knowledge of the possession that is important.

The actual Ashes urn is small and appears to be made from terracotta. It is slightly wonky and there’s the suggestion that it might have once been a perfume bottle. Its actual value is negligible. The contents may or may not be the burned remains of a cricket bail. Heck, there might not even be anything inside.

But as with the Nobel Prize or any of the other awards I have named above, its importance lies in the fact that the rest of us know who has it. That’s the real prize.

The Melancholy Roman