England cricketer Kevin Pietersen celebr
Gareth Copley  /  AFP - Getty Images
England cricketer Kevin Pietersen celebrates on the team bus during the Ashes victory parade through London on Tuesday.  
By London bureau chief
NBC News
updated 9/13/2005 2:33:46 PM ET 2005-09-13T18:33:46

So here’s how it goes. Take two teams of eleven players. Give two guys a bat each, one guy a ball, get 10 to stand around the field all day and let the others hang out in the pavilion snoozing.

Check the weather and light, start the game. Break for tea, play some more, stop for lunch, resume play, break for rain, start over.

Repeat every day for up to five days. And then do that four more times.

Oh, and use a rule book that makes about as much sense (to most of us) as Ancient Greek.

At the end of it, if you’re lucky, one of the teams will have won. Or, maybe not.

Exciting stuff, huh? Yes, that’s cricket for you.

On Monday, one of the teams did win. England.

Better still, we beat arch-rivals Australia for the most important cricketing trophy there is — the Ashes — for the first time in almost 20 years. 

Victory at last
Tuesday, the streets of London were brought to a standstill by the “Barmy Army” — the affectionate media nickname for the thousands of loyal and dedicated English cricket fans — and tens of thousands of ordinary folk, cheering their new-found sporting heroes to the skies.

Two open-topped double-decker buses inched these sporting titans through the crowds to a massive demonstration of joy in Trafalgar Square. TV stations carried the celebrations wall-to-wall.

Yes, we love our sporting moments in the sun. And, these days in the UK, we don’t get too many of them.

But it’s not often that even we English get this excited about cricket.

Beating a former penal colony explains it all
So what happened?

A lot of it is down to the (usually friendly) rivalry with Australia.

They affectionately call all Brits “whingeing poms” (translation: whining Brits), implying we are a nation of complainers. As if!

For our part, we love to remind them that for a former penal colony they’ve done OK.

For years the Aussies have been telling us they’re the best at sport. Annoyingly, for a bunch of ex-cons, they often are.

Well, here’s some breaking news.  Not any longer, mates! Not for now, anyway!

The game of cricket itself must take much of the credit. There are times these days when it has become — dare I say — exciting.

Game for the modern age
Yes, the game has come of age.

No more crusty, port-swilling, retired colonels running the sport in ways that befitted the old Empire.

More important, TV and technology have given us the ability to be out there on the field, seeing what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a rock-hard ball twisting up from the ground at breakneck speeds. No wonder the players dress like modern gladiators.

They slow it down, speed it up, use computer animations to show us what really or nearly happened. Cricket for dumbos.

The players are less restrained, even flamboyant. Some sport tattoos, others have badger stripes dyed in their hair. Some even chew gum. Good lord, it’s enough to give those red-faced old colonels apoplexy.

At times, it’s a true spectacle — even if you don’t always understand what’s happening.

Here's how it works
So what’s so complicated?  Give me a second to explain how it works.

There are two wickets (three sticks called stumps topped by two small pieces of wood called bails) guarded by the two guys with the bats I told you about. The bowler — or pitcher — runs up and throws the ball at one of them. (He has to keep his arm strangely straight at the elbow or else it’s a foul.) 

The batter tries to hit the ball and if he connects, he can try to run to the other wicket and the other batsman runs toward him, so they cross over and change places — if they run a single or 3, but not if they run two. (Unlike baseball, they can choose whether or not to run.)

With me so far? 

The batters can be bowled out (one or both of those bails falls), run out, caught out or called out LBW (leg before wicket - honest). 

The bowler gets six balls at a time and if no one scores he’s bowled a maiden over. (You can’t make this up.) He may be knocked for six runs, or four if the ball bounces. There to help him, among others, is a wicket-keeper, 1st slip, 2nd slip, midfield and silly-mid-on.

Come on, admit it. You gave up several lines ago didn’t you?

Mike Finn-kelcey  /  AP
Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair shakes the hand of England cricketer Kevin Pietersen, during a reception at 10 Downing Street, on Tuesday.  

But for some curious reason we Brits — well really, it’s more we English, as most of the Welsh, Scots and Irish are as bemused as you Americans — rather enjoy this ritual.

'Cricket at its best'
And, certainly, the country’s been transfixed by the series these past several weeks.

On the final day of the game, the London Stock Exhange reported a 20 percent drop in trading. The brokers, it seems, were busy watching their TV screens, rather than their computer ones.

Some 25,000 fans were glued to the game at the stadium. Others perched precariously on the ridge of nearby rooftops, watching over the wall. Some eight million sat in front of their TV sets.  

Among them, Her Majesty the Queen, who sent best wishes to both the victorious team and to the losers.  She is, after all, queen of both.

“Cricket at its best,” she messaged them diplomatically.

Prime Minister Tony Blair was more effusive: “With so many people following this extraordinary series I am not sure our economy could stand many more days like today or our nerves any more excitement. But you have given cricket a huge boost and lit up the whole summer.”

So much so he invited the boys round to his place in Downing Street as a grand finale to the victory parade.

You can expect the party to go on for a while longer yet.

The prize?
So, I hear you ask, what exactly do you win when you get the Ashes? A jewel-encrusted bowl the size of a cartwheel?  A gold-and-silver trophy?

Not quite.

It’s something more like an egg-cup sized urn filled with, well, ashes, believed to be from the cremated wooden bails that sat atop the stumps of an earlier Australia-England wicket 120 years or so ago.

Not much of a prize? Still puzzled? As I was saying, that’s cricket for you.

Chris Hampson is NBC News London Bureau Chief.

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