In England, the Ashes cricket match with Australia a national obsession
Here on our little tiny Island, we are currently in the midst of a frenzy and it's nothing to do with the Royal baby. It's a sporting frenzy and one that we descend into every couple of years. We put aside our obsession with football (soccer), the weather and cucumber sandwiches and get swept away by cricket and more specifically by this, the fiercest of all our sporting rivalries, the Ashes.
The Ashes. Since 1882 England and Australia have battled, fought and spilled blood on a cricket pitch to try and win this thing called The Ashes.
The Ashes. They are two words that send the English into a meltdown of emotion tinged with more than a little bitterness. The Ashes is different to anything else. For us, beating the Australians at cricket matters more than whether we have a roof over our head. In fact, we'd sell our own grandmas to beat the Australians.
For 25 days we watch as the two nations compete for a five-inch trophy that is so old and decrepit you aren't even actually presented with it even if you win it. It stays in a hermetically sealed cabinet guarded by the white jacketed stewards at Lord's, the Home of Cricket in London.
The Ashes isn't so much a sporting event as a national obsession. It's more important than a Royal Wedding or a Royal baby and certainly much, much more important than the elections we hold every four years to decide who runs our country.
This whole bizarre obsession came along when England first lost to Australia on home soil back in 1882. More than a mere sporting loss, it was an unbearable dent to English pride. It led to a mock obituary in the Sporting Times.
The following winter in Australia, England reclaimed some of its dented pride by beating the Aussies, 2-1. The England captain Ivo Bligh was given a tiny terracotta urn containing the ashes of something or other (nobody really knows what they're the ashes of even if they say they do). That little urn is the most precious prize in cricket even though more than 90 percent of the cricket playing world aren't even eligible to compete for it and it never leaves English soil. Since we lost the Empire, we have to have something that's ours forever don't we?
There are three things that the English take more seriously than anything else: Tea, the weather and cricket. Losing to the Australians hurts more than the loss of beloved pet and an Englishman with a dented ego is a grumpy beast.
To understand the obsession, you need to understand the history. Back in 1770 Captain James Cook set off in his little boat, bumped into a piece of land and colonized it. Some 18 years later we started sending our undesirables and petty criminals there. Shift onwards another half century or so and we decided that we'd ease up on the brutality and violence and play some cricket against these oiks. And there the history began. England vs. Australia is loosely translated as the posh chaps in regal navy blue versus the ruffians in green and gold. You can understand why they enjoy beating us so much. We colonized them and then committed a number of atrocities against them. And we enjoy beating them because it's a triumph of class over brawn (that's not at all true anymore but that is where this all stems from).
Cricket has a reputation for being the gentleman's game with the manner in which it is played being more important than the actual result. The phrase "it's just not cricket" has found its way into English parlance to mean anything that is unjust. It's a lovely romantic notion and one that would be very British except it's simply not the case. The Ashes has been littered with controversy throughout its history. In 1932, the England captain Douglas Jardine instructed his bowlers to bowl fast at the body of their opponents to try and combat the skills of Australia's most prolific batsman, Sir Donald Bradman. It was seen as intimidatory and threatening and led to serious ill feeling between the teams. Things got so heated that our respective governments had to get involved. Never mind the great depression, the poverty and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, there was a brewing crisis in cricket and they simply had to step in. That 1932-33 Ashes series, known as the "bodyline series", was one of the most significant events in the history of cricket and stamped further into the psyche of Englishmen and Australians that winning the Ashes is more important than oxygen.
Robin Williams once described cricket as "baseball on valium." It's a gentle but fiendishly complicated game with more nuances than a Henry James novel. In a nutshell, the side that gets the most "runs" wins. Sort of. In a test match -- a match that goes on for five days -- you have to get 10 of the opposition batsmen out -- twice. If that doesn't happen then the match is a draw, even if one side has more runs than the other side. And as I type that, it dawns on me just how ridiculous it must all sound.
At 10:55 a.m. someone rings a bell and out trudge 13 men in white clothes and two umpires. At 11 the umpire says "play" and they commence at a sedate pace. At 1 on the dot, the two teams break for lunch for 40 minutes. And not just a quick sandwich -- a fully cooked meal plus a dessert. At 1:40 they return to play and then mid-afternoon they stop again so they can have a cup of tea. Only one thing matters more than the winning and that is having a cup of tea in the middle of the afternoon.
Australia and England are united by history, language and Monarch, but the two countries are divided by cricket. For those of us of a certain age, the Australian cricket team ruined our childhoods. And our teenage years. Before 2005, England hadn't won the Ashes for 16 years. Australia was the best side in the world; England was hopeless. And now in 2013 the tables are turned. England is dominant, while the Australians are in disarray.
There'll be no sympathy for them though. None whatsoever. We're quite content to grind them relentlessly and ruthlessly into the dirt.
But we'll gladly make them a cup of tea.
Lizzy Ammon is a cricket writer based in England. Follow her on Twitter.