I have a friend, a very good friend, who loves cricket. She is staying up until the wee hours of the morning to watch England play Australia in the Ashes way Down Under. She very much wants Australia to win, even though she lives in London. 'It's a colonial thing,' she says. 'Anyone who beats England has a sense of achievement because they were once invincible at cricket.' They were once invincible as an empire as well and no remnant of that empire is more intact today than cricket. Frankly, I can't think of a sport that offers a window into our modern world more than cricket. And that, more than the game itself, I find endlessly fascinating.
Anyone who wants to know where England has been in the last 500 or so years need look no further than the International Cricket Council, which has 104 members but only 10 full members who play official test matches. Those 10 countries are Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan, West Indies, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and, of course, England. Every one of those countries and regions was at one time part of the British Empire.
When the Japanese occupied Hong Kong during the second world war they tried convincing the Indian Cricket Club to take up baseball instead of cricket to free them from their colonial past. It didn't work but when you look at the places where baseball is important, you can see the gaps in the empire.
Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are crazy for baseball and all had little British influence. Barbados, Jamaica, Antigua and Trinidad and Tobago are all part of the 15-nation English-speaking Caribbean countries that make up the West Indies team. Their neighbours in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba are Spanish speaking and baseball mad.
I grew up actively playing all kinds of sports in a former British colony and there was no cricket to be seen. Presumably, Canada's proximity to the US precluded any sort of cricket culture in the Great White North. Maybe that's why Canada, unlike Australia or New Zealand, no longer has a Union Jack on its flag.
My friend came to London by way of Barbados and says her roots define her cricket. 'For my generation, cricket was the glue that kept us together and helped cement our identity as West Indians,' she says. But cricket in England, and even in the West Indies, up until the mid-60s was largely elitist and white. The most influential poet of the Caribbean was reggae icon Bob Marley and his sport was soccer, not cricket. 'Soccer was the sport of the rebellious and the oppressed,' she says. 'You didn't need a fancy white outfit to play it.'
Again, not knowing many of the rules and most of the players, the thing that truly interests me about the Ashes is the contrasts in the styles of the English and the Australians and how those contrasts are a microcosm of the countries themselves.
I have a friend who writes about cricket for Melbourne newspaper The Age. Not only is he one of the more astute observers of the game, he is one of the more detached. 'Cricket is dying a bit,' he says. 'It's been hurt by the match-fixing scandals in Pakistan. The Ashes are the only tests that still do well.' So how are the Ashes going? 'The first test was a draw,' he says. 'Five days of playing and you don't get a result.' Well, it's cricket.
The English and the Aussies have been contesting the Ashes since 1882 with the Australians winning 31 series and the English 29. The Aussies, of course, are renowned for their brash brand of cricket. 'It's kind of an upper-class game in England but in Australia it's a bit more classless, not to be confused with a society lacking class,' he said. No, of course not.
It has been pointed out to me by more than one Aussie that Canadians are little more than frozen Yanks. Conversely, a case can be made that Aussies are merely thawed out Poms. The games they love, like rugby and cricket, are gifts from their colonial overlords. Their independence seems rooted in their swagger and dialect. It's a dialect rife with indecipherable euphemisms, not to mention a broad accent that makes many of them sound like the dingo that ate Darwin. They talk a lot of smack, or 'sledging' as it is known Down Under. 'Aussie cricket is brash, arrogant, crude and colonial,' he says. 'They are the worst sledgers in the world. They swear and cuss and abuse you, and try to make it as uncomfortable as possible for you.'
Now the English, well what would you figure? 'Typically the English game is very correct, very public school,' he said. 'Alistair Cook, their opening batsman, is very correct, proper and technically sound. Although some of the guys from the north are a bit rougher around the edges, by and large it's English in nature. Minus passion and flair and quite reserved.'
And well it should be. The English have a fiduciary responsibility to uphold the integrity of cricket. It's more than a sport, it's the moral fabric of their culture.
Some 20 years ago, a right-wing politico in Britain suggested a citizenship test based on cricket allegiances. In order for someone to justify being in Britain they were to be asked if they supported India, Pakistan, West Indies or England regardless of their ancestry. Bring on the Ashes, then. I don't know all the rules, I can't understand most of the vernacular and I find the accents of both teams slightly bewildering. But I'll watch. After all, it's my colonial duty.