A guide to cricket and the Ashes
Today, in Cardiff, the Ashes begin. So it's a good time to think about cricket. Cricket: white uniformed survivor of the empire, an incomprehensible reminder that Britannia once ruled the waves, her sailors diligently marking out bowling tracks on the decking of their frigates. The balls were limes, the bats were planks of wood and the ship’s cat was the umpire, but goddamn it Cricket was played. We’re talking about a sport which, though numerically popular thanks to the avid devotion of a billion Indians, is regarded by the rest of the world as an historical oddity only popular among south-east Asians – like jousting or kabaddi. Anyone who’s been to Calcutta on jousting day will know what I’m talking about. Carnage.
But the most historic contest in the cricketing world involves neither Indians nor kabaddi. It is called the Ashes and its origins lay in the late 18th century, when British officials found that they could relieve the overcrowding in her majesty’s prisons by sending hardened criminals to Australia. With a massive island to call their own, these British prisoners kept up the traditions of the empire with admirable gusto. Indigenous peoples were killed, mocked and enslaved, and cricket was played. Finally, in the middle of the 19th century, the English condescended to play their cousins down under and were surprised to find out that, with an abundance of sun and an absence of cultural activity of any sort, the Australians were actually pretty good at cricket. In 1882, Australia beat England on her majesty’s original soil for the first time, and the Sporting Times published a satirical obituary in which it said that English cricket was no more, and that "the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia". It really was the Onion of its day. This was gamely followed up by a bunch of housewives in Melbourne, who burnt the spirit of cricket (an old bail), put its ashes in an urn and presented them to the horrified, bail-loving English captain on his arrival in Australia the following year. And so the Ashes were born.
This year, the two teams find themselves relatively evenly matched. They also find themselves overshadowed by other Test match playing sides. For the last fifteen years or so, Australia has been the biggest dingo in the Cricket oval. Now though, all the old players are off administering to their retirement barbecues, cashing in on their memoirs or going on TV talking about how shit all the new guys are. Even so, there are still some players to watch.
Kevin Pietersen: known to everyone, including himself, as "KP". Having been brought up by South African parents in South Africa, Pietersen follows in a long line of English cricketers who aren’t English (others include Allan Lamb, Graeme Hick, The Nawab of Patawdi, Nasser Hussein). He is fond of blaming positive discrimination for his exclusion from the South African game. So, Apartheid’s loss is the English cricket team’s gain.
Monty Panesar: the fans’ favourite, owing to his comic fielding/the fact that he is a Sikh and therefore wears a turban. Unfortunately, like most sportsmen beloved by the English, he isn’t very good.
James Anderson: the kind of spiky-haired suburban semi-pretty boy you’d expect to be fronting a band like Hard-Fi, Andersen is England’s most dangerous fast bowler and has done his time in the wilderness – he was working in a café at Lord’s when former England captain Michael Vaughan saw him bowling bread rolls at the bins in the kitchen. Vaughan asked the young barista to come down to his country house and the rest is sporting history.
Brett Lee: keeping up Australia’s fine tradition of producing cricketers who look like surfers, the main thing you need to know about Brett is that he bowls very fast. Basically, he has the ability to make a small hard object travel through the air at a great velocity by throwing it in an elaborate way.
David Warner: Don Bradman, the greatest batsman of all time, honed his skills as a young man by throwing a golf ball at a water butt and then trying to hit it with a stump. He’d do this all day. Warner, on the other hand, honed his skills by using a two-by-four to thrash the beach balls his younger brother would lob at him. He’d do this once and then go and have a drunken joy ride.
Mike Hussey: enjoys listening to Snow Patrol while supping on a nice Camembert. Hussey is often found lying distraught in the outfield, tears rolling down his face as he surreptitiously listens to “Chasing Cars” on his iPhone.
The game itself
Cricket is a game whose length and eccentricity is the product of a time when feckless aristocrats running colonial lands could afford to stand around in a field chasing a ball for weeks on end. The 21st century game is five days long. This five-day rule is the result of gutless modernisation. In the past, cricket matches known as “timeless Tests” would be played in which the two teams played on and on until one of the teams won or surrendered. The last timeless Test was between England and South Africa in 1939 and featured 9 heady days of spirited cricketing spread over 12 days. The game was abandoned because the English had to take the boat home. But if you go to a game, you’ll probably just be going for a day. You’ll soon realise that most people who go to cricket matches actually spend most of the time doing other things. The more aristocratic members of the audience will sit with Mick Jagger in a fenced-off area, reading the Daily Telegraph, discussing which friends of theirs from public school are now in open prisons for grand larceny and eating the small triangular sandwiches their wives have made for them. The average working day fans, including England’s notorious “Barmy Army” (crazy guys!), will spend the whole day sitting in the sun topless, their bald heads slowly roasting as they drink barrel after barrel of warm lager. The Aussies do this as well, but take pride in wearing even fewer clothes and drinking even more lager. Of course, now everyone buys his or her lunch at the Gourmet Burger Kitchens dotted around the ground as opposed to the sausage roll stalls they had in the good old days.
With all the hours to fill, it’s only natural that some kind of paralysing boredom-induced panic will threaten to set in. Don’t worry, there are things you can do to offset this.
1) Bring lots of things to read with you.
2) Bring a soundsystem and listen to your favourite noise album (10cc will go down well I’d imagine).
3) Drink with the hardcore fans and learn all their homophobic chants.
4) Shout at the players.
If you are watching the game on TV, relax – you’ve got a whole working week to soak up the action. There’s no need to go for broke like you would if you were at the ground. This also means that Sky, who broadcast the games live, can have a sweet advertising field day. The game’s many pauses, breaks, and re-arrangements mean that you can fit about 150 advert breaks into a day’s play. By the end of the Ashes series you’ll be comparing the meerkat dot com 24 hours a day while you consider that cricket – a game whose sloth has made it totally unfathomable in America, where the commercial break is king – has become a massive money spinner for moguls like Rupert Murdoch.
So if you wake up, drool running down your face, warm lager slowly evaporating beside you, do not worry, you haven’t died, you are watching cricket.