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England's captain Alastair Cook poses with fans after the third Ashes cricket test match against Australia finished in a draw and England retained the Ashes at Old Trafford cricket ground in Manchester. (PHILIP BROWN/REUTERS)
England's captain Alastair Cook poses with fans after the third Ashes cricket test match against Australia finished in a draw and England retained the Ashes at Old Trafford cricket ground in Manchester. (PHILIP BROWN/REUTERS)

An oddball game with a hold on the soul of the old British Empire Add to ...

This has certainly been a remarkable summer for British sports fans. Andy Murray won Wimbledon, Chris Froome took the Tour de France, and England retained the Ashes.

Ah yes, the Ashes.

To an outsider, or at least this outsider, the Ashes is a baffling spectacle that captivates Britain every two years, or so. Officially, it’s a month-long series of cricket games pitting England against Australia that dates back more than 100 years, all for the right to claim a tattered trophy the size of an eggcup that neither team is actually allowed to possess. Unofficially, it’s a life and death struggle unlike any in sport.

Think Canadians are obsessed with hockey? Try coming here during the Ashes with its all-day television broadcasts, constant analysis on talk radio and up to six pages in every newspaper every day. More than 600,000 tickets have been sold and even the Queen turns up, performing a ritual inspection of both teams.

The economy is still slow, tensions are rising over immigration and the country’s other passion – soccer – is facing uncertain times, but cricket goes on. An English summer isn’t complete it seems without the game and the Ashes in particular, considered the purest form of the sport – this time involving five back-to-back matches, each lasting up to five days. It doesn’t matter that this long form of the game is waning in popularity in many parts of the world, notably India; it still matters here and the entire country gets involved.

The Ashes is played in venues around England, notably in Durham this week which is the most northerly city to host the contest. But there is still a decidedly posh feel to it. Maybe that’s because at least one match is almost always played at Lord’s, home of the Marylebone Cricket Club which was founded in 1787 and is the self-proclaimed “guardian of the Laws of the game” (cricket has laws, not rules). The MCC is a place of dress codes, royalty, prime ministers, Old Etonians and a waiting list that exceeds 220,000 names. It takes about 20 years to join, if you’re lucky.

For a long time this was a one-sided contest with Australia thrashing England routinely and revelling in the experience of beating up their colonial masters. But England has won three straight now and the shameless rejoicing has begun. For the English, beating the Australians is akin to culture triumphing over crassness, as evidenced by a former English captain who announced before this year’s match that the Australians “lacked culture” and their players “had an animal mentality.”

To the uninitiated, England’s victory this year hardly seemed like much to celebrate. They didn’t win because of fierce bowling, batting or fielding. They won because it rained. The final day of the third match was washed out and that meant the match was declared a draw, even though Australia had built up a huge lead. And since England was already up 2-0 in the series, a draw was good enough for England to keep the Ashes. Imagine the World Series being decided after one game was rained out. And that’s just the start of the oddities.

Even though England has already won, the teams keep playing, with little at stake beyond preparing for the next series. That’s like the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins playing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in June even though the Hawks had clinched the series in six.

Perhaps it’s the sport’s deep roots in the English class system that make cricket inaccessible to many. After all this is a game developed over centuries in which upper class “gentlemen” once took on lower class “players.” It’s the perfect activity for an aristocrat, someone who has nothing better to do on a long summer day than spend six hours playing a slower form of baseball, with breaks for lunch and tea – and then do it all over again four days in a row just to complete one match.

There have been attempts to broaden cricket’s reach. Versions of cricket are played on inner-city basketball courts, in indoor gyms and by the disabled. But this remains a largely regional sport, played mainly in England and its former colonies. Cricket has been in the Olympics just once, in 1900, and it isn’t even a recognized sport in the Commonwealth Games, unlike lawn bowling.

There are concerns about the future of the Ashes and whether such a traditional form of cricket can survive in a world of hyped-up, shorter variations of the game now played in India. Here’s hoping it sticks around for a while so that maybe by the next series I’ll have it figured out. Anyone know what a “dibbly-dobbly” is?

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