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Australia, Cricket

Oct 1, 2006
2006 / October 2006

Australians are currently talking gibberish. Lately a whole new vocabulary has been added to their unique vernacular, leaving North American visitors more bewildered than ever. Everywhere you go, every time you switch on the television, you’ll hear talk of “the Ashes,” “wickets,” “googlies,”“the wrong-un” and “Bodyline.” What does it all mean?

It means that one of the oldest rivalries in world sports is about to resume. The sport is cricket; the rivals are Australia and England. From November through January the two nations will play five five-day Test Matches. At stake is the ownership of a fragile little urn that is much more than a mere sporting trophy. It defines the relationship between the two nations. This particular sporting contest goes back to 1882 when, for the first time in England, Australia’s cricketers beat the home side. In the wake of the defeat, The Sporting Times newspaper published the obituary of English cricket, concluding, “The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”

In reality, it was two small pieces of wood, known as bails, which sit horizontally on the three vertical “stumps” of the “wicket” that were cremated and interred in the terra-cotta urn. And the rest is history, for since that time the two nations battle every two years or so for rights to the Ashes. England — which won the most thrilling Ashes series in living memory on its home turf in 2005 — is the current holder. This year, the drama moves to the cricket grounds of Australia where the Aussies will attempt to regain the Ashes.

The off-field banter will be every bit as entertaining as the action on the field. Opposing fans will tease and taunt each other with gusto. This good-natured repartee has occasionally turned serious, most notably during the notorious “Bodyline series” of 1932, when the English captain, Douglas Jardine, instructed his bowlers (equivalent to baseball’s pitchers) to aim the ball directly at the bodies of the Australian batsmen.

“I’m not here to make friends,” he said. “I’m here to win the Ashes.”

His hostile tactics caused a full-blown diplomatic crisis.

Cricket has proudly cultivated its reputation for fair play and gentlemanly conduct, but in truth it has a long history of sportsmanship and larger-than-life characters. One unofficial tradition is for Ashes teams to attempt to break the beer-drinking record on the flight between Sydney and London. The current holder is Australian David Boon, who, in 1989, reportedly managed to down 52 beers and allegedly had to be wheeled off the plane on a trolley. It’s one sporting record that may never be broken.

The most controversial current Australian cricketer — and one of the greatest players the sport has ever known — is Shane Warne. During his career he has been banned temporarily for alleged drug use and has made headlines for his sometimes complicated private life. But at his best he is a match-winner. His spin bowling — roughly comparable to curveballs in baseball — bamboozles even the best batsmen, deceiving them into thinking the ball will bounce one way, when in fact it bounces the other. Warnie (as he’s known) has a repertoire of sneaky pitches with names such as “the googly,” “the flipper” and “the wrong-un.”

It is impossible to outline the rules of cricket in this short space. For a clear explanation (written specifically for Americans), visit http://uk.cricinfo.com/db/about_cricket The f.ull itinerary of the Ashes series, together with latest news and merchandising, is posted online at http://www.cricket.com.au.

When the first match gets under way in Brisbane on Nov. 23, the whole of Australia will be gripped with “Ashes Fever.” If you’re visiting then, to ignore it would be worse than impolite. It would not be cricket.

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