EXPLAINER: Guide to the Ashes, test cricket’s biggest stage
BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Cricket got you stumped? Don’t know your Ashes from your dust?
Ahead of one of the biggest games of cricket on the calendar, with Australia aiming to clinch the five-match Ashes series against England by early next week, here’s a quick rundown.
Scenario: Australia’s part-time leg-spinner Steve Smith bowls a wrong ’un to England captain Joe Root, who doesn’t pick the variation, edges and is caught at silly point to complete a wicket maiden just before the tea interval on Day 5.
Clear as mud, right!
Here’s what it means: Smith bowls a delivery which turns counter to the conventional spin movement after the leather ball bounces and confuses the batter, who only hits it with the edge of the bat and is caught by a fielder standing in close proximity, right near the scheduled end of the match.
Not a lot of rules or terminology has changed in an Ashes rivalry that dates to the late 1880s when England still held colonial rule over Australia.
For the uninitiated, it can be very confusing. For those inquisitive souls wanting to explore the intricacies of the game, they can check with this from the Marylebone Cricket Club, the guardians of the laws of the game.
BOXING DAY TEST
After emphatic wins in the first two tests, Australia can retain the Ashes — the traditional prize for the winner of the regular series between Australia and England — with victory at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the five-day match starting Sunday.
The Boxing Day test has grown to become one of the biggest days on the international cricket calendar. It’s always scheduled at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and always starting Dec. 26.
It hits a holiday sweet spot for a lot of Aussies, giving millions of people across the country time to tune in via TV or radio in the relative quiet a day after Christmas.
The first recognized test match was between teams representing Australia and England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1877, with the Ashes series becoming a regular rivalry within a decade. The hosting rights alternate each series.
In all that time, only one team has ever rallied from 2-0 down to win an Ashes series: the Australian team led by the great Don Bradman in 1936-37.
England captain Joe Root is undeterred, despite England not having won a test match in Australia since 2010-11, when it clinched the series 3-1. Since then, England is 11 losses and one draw.
“Clearly we’re going to have to play a lot better than we have in the last two games. We have to absolutely believe,” Root said of his team’s prospects of an unlikely series win, provided the players take every chance. “I’m convinced we have got what we need to win test matches out here.”
The MCG can hold more than 100,000 fans and Ashes tests have averaged more than 88,000 on Boxing Day since 2006. The state government has dropped crowd caps at outdoor venues, but MCG organizers aren’t expecting a full house.
England’s traveling fans, the so-called Barmy Army, are considerably smaller this series because of international restrictions and some fans in Melbourne who have tickets may not attend because of the recent increase in COVID-19 cases.
HISTORY OF THE ASHES
According to the Marylebone Cricket Club, based at Lord’s in London, the term Ashes was first used in August 1882 in a mock obituary for English cricket printed in The Sporting Times after the representative team lost on home soil to Australia for the first time.
The obituary said the body of English cricket would be cremated and the Ashes taken to Australia. England captain Ivo Bligh led a team to Australia later in 1882 with a vow to reclaim “the ashes.”
A fan presented Bligh with a small terracotta urn as a symbol of the Ashes after England won a social match near Melbourne. And that’s how the Ashes and the urn, the symbol of the great rivalry between England and Australia, became intrinsically connected.
Bligh met his future wife on that day. After marrying, the couple moved to England and took the urn with them, keeping it in the family until after Bligh died and it was bequeathed to the MCC.
There’s three main forms of international cricket, with Twenty20 being the shortest, the one-day format being the most self-explanatory and test matches being the longest in duration and tradition.
All of them involve 11 players on each team. Test matches are scheduled to last five days, with each team supposed to bat for two innings. In this format, the winning team has to dismiss the opposition twice, which usually means taking 10 wickets in each innings.
As is so often said by the players and coaches, a test match is called a test match for a reason.
The five-day format can be a test of character, a test of wits, a test of endurance, a test of patience, etc.
In the commentary last weekend during the second Ashes test — a day-night match in Adelaide — TV analyst Matt Hayden talked about each batter having an individual routine or mantra to face every delivery. The ex-Australian opening batter should know, having scored 380 in one innings in 2003 to hold the world record for an individual innings. That was until West Indies’ great Brian Lara reclaimed the mark with an unbeaten 400.
That’s more than many teams score combined in an innings. Australia has posted two team totals above 400 in this series; England’s best is 297.
Hayden said it was important to “break the monotony” in the test format, when batters can face hundreds of deliveries and be at the crease for more than a day.
“It’s not over in 80 minutes. It’s a long game,” he said, with classic understatement, “it’s five days.”
It sure is.
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