LONDON — Five things to know about the Ashes cricket series between England and Australia, which started on Wednesday:
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Every couple of years — usually — the top cricketers England and Australia do battle for a tiny terra-cotta urn said to contain some ashes. The name for the series originates from a mock obituary placed in Britain’s Sporting Times newspaper in 1882 after England’s cricketers lost to Australia on home soil for the first time. "In Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket, which died at The Oval, deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. R.I.P," the paper said. "The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia." Later that year, in a re-match in Australia, England won the three-test series. After the third match, some Australians are said to have burned one of the bails — little wooden blocks that sit atop the stumps — put the ashes in an urn and presented it to the England captain.
WHY SUCH A FIERCE RIVALRY?
When Australia and England compete at sport -- be it at cricket or rugby union, or at the Olympics -- national pride is at stake. The British are the one-time Colonial masters of far-flung Australia, which remains in the Commonwealth of Nations containing mostly former members of the British Empire. Between 1788 and 1868, about 160,000 convicts were sent to Australia from Britain. The majority were poor and illiterate, and records indicate eight out of 10 prisoners were convicted for larceny or petty theft. English sporting fans rarely let the Australians forget the roots of their nation, while Australians deride their northern hemisphere cousins as "whinging Poms."
WHO WILL WIN THE URN?
Australia dominated the Ashes for almost two decades until England won the last two series back-to-back. Confidence is so high in England that former captain Ian Botham is not only predicting a 5-0 whitewash in this series but also in the next one, which starts in Australia just months after the conclusion of this series due to a realignment in the Ashes schedule. The series winner is decided over five tests -- the traditional form of the sport in which each match stretches to five days, rather than the limited-overs format of one-day or Twenty20 cricket. In a test, each team of 11 players bats for two innings unless it is outscored before it gets a chance to face the bowling attack for a second time. A match, though, can last for five days without there being a winner -- particularly if rain intervenes.
IT'S JUST NOT CRICKET
In a sport that stops for tea every afternoon, cricket retains the image of being a genteel pastime where English gents and players sip tea and chew crumpets. It's an image that's becoming increasingly dated. The Ashes series isn't the first time Australia and England have clashes in cricket this summer, having also been paired in the Champions Trophy, a tournament of matches staged in England last month. After Australia's 48-run loss to England, the players ended up in the same bar in the centre of Birmingham and tensions between the rivals boiled over. Australia batsman David Warner punched England player Joe Root in the face, which led to him being fined 11,500 Australian dollars ($10,600) by team bosses and dropped from some matches.
DOES THE WORLD CARE?
In countries where the Ashes is not on television, the England and Wales Cricket Board is streaming matches for free on YouTube in Europe -- including Vatican City -- and Latin America. One American woman is unlikely to be seeking coverage. When tweeting on the Ashes the handle (at)theashes is often included on postings. But that's the Twitter name used by Ashley Kerekes, who knows nothing about the sport. Cricket fans from around the world started bombarding Kerekes -- who lives in Westfield, Massachusetts -- with messages after the 66th Ashes series began in 2010. She issued a series of polite denials before coming out with the phrase that still features on her profile "I'm not a freaking cricket match!" yet she now embraces her fame during each series. "It was nice that I was a nanny during the last Ashes so I could tweet at work all night. Now, not really the case," Kerekes tweeted Wednesday during the first innings of the first test. "Doubt boss would be okay with it if I called in sick because I needed to watch cricket."