The game of cricket is virtually impossible to explain to those who have never learnt to play it. And learning to play it reasonably well can take quite a bit of time. One could therefore surmise that this strange game is only played by a highly-educated elite in a few rich countries. Not so! Cricket is probably the world's second most played sport, after soccer, largely on account of its huge popularity throughout the Indian sub-continent.
Cricket was invented in England and is played at the highest international level in about 8 countries, with another 8 also competing in world-cup type events. Over the past 120 or so years, the two oldest international rivals have been England and their former colony, Australia. When Australia beat England for the first time in the mother-land of cricket, the Sporting Times newspaper was so disgusted that it published an obituary notice of English cricket, saying that the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia. The next time an English team travelled out to play in Australia, the tour was decribed as the quest to regain The Ashes. Since then, the series of games played between the two countries, alternately in England and in Australia, at roughly 2 year intervals, have been known simply as "The Ashes". Each series consists, usually, of five separate five-day matches, played on five different grounds in the receiving country. The winner gains temporary (and symbolic) ownership of the urn containing "The Ashes". If the series is drawn, the current owner retains The Ashes.
England won the 2009 series played at home and so are current holders of The Ashes, even more so since they have just retained them in Australia after winning the 4th test match of the 2010/2011 series which is under way (one should remember that cricket is played in the summer months, and so the intervals between series played in the two hemispheres vary by 6 months). Only 4 of the 5 games have been completed at the date of writing, but, by winning 2 against Australia's 1, the other one being a draw, England are now sure to keep The Ashes, whatever happens in the last game which will start in Sydney on January 2nd. Taken overall, since the 2 countries started to compete, it is Australia who hold the lead over England in terms of victories, both in games (123 vs 99, with 87 draws) and in series (31 vs 29, with the current series still to be determined). In fact one can say that Australia has been, historically, cricket's strongest nation, albeit with fluctuations through time.
The 2009 series in England was full of suspense, with both teams winning games, and this one is holding its share of surprises and heart-stopping reversals, with amazing fluctuations in the results. England clearly have dominated the 2010/2011 series so far. The first test was a draw, but a moral victory for England, who went on to easly win the second test and then totally and strangely collapse in the third. In the fourth test which has just finished in the 90,000 capacity Melbourne cricket ground, Australia were again soundly defeated, with the defeat somehow compounded by some chidlishly anti-sporting behaviour by the Australian captain, Ponting, who seems unable to accept an umpire's decision when it goes against his team, even when proven to be right by electronic means. Its fine and necessary to be a competitor, but rules are rules for everyone in a game, and the captain should show an example.
I am looking forward to the 5th test, although goodness knows it is hard to catch any of it here in France!
Happy New Year to all