I've been trying to write about this year's Ashes series, but I can't figure out how to do it without also explaining the entire game of cricket, a feat which took me 5 months of living in England to accomplish. At the very least I'll need to give some historical perspective on the Ashes (those interested in more depth can read the lovely wikipedia article on same). The Ashes is a biennial Test Cricket series played between England and Australia which began after the English team lost a Test match for the first time to the Australians in 1882. Local media bemoaned the "death of English Cricket" for having lost in embarrassing fashion to the colonials. The trophy taken back to Australia supposedly contained the ashes of a set of burnt bails (part of the wickets used in Cricket) representing the cremated remains of English pride.
The series is played as 5 Tests spread over the whole summer, each of which lasts 5 days. Without getting into too much gritty detail (although this article is a good one for Americans trying to figure out cricket) it is important to realise that each Test can either result in a victory for one side or a draw if the requisite number of wickets aren't bowled in 5 days' time. Also important is that the trophy is retained by whichever side currently possesses it if the overall series ends in a draw. Well, we're in the middle of the last Test now (today is day 4) and England is currently ahead 2-1 in the series. This means that if this final Test ends in a draw or an English victory (2-1 or 3-1 final results, respectively) then England regains the Ashes. In the case of an Aussie victory the final result would be 2-2 and the current champs (the Aussies) would retain the trophy.
The last tidbit of information required is that time lost to rain/inclement weather is not made up. So if you lose a couple of days to rain the match is likely to end up a draw, which in this case is good for the English. Cricket can be stopped due to rain or "bad light" where the umpires literally walk around the pitch with a photographers light meter to test for how bright it is. Under failing light conditions (like heavily overcast skies) the game is thought to be unfair to the batters who have a tough time picking up the ball coming out of the bowler's hand. So in this case they "offer the light" to the batting side who can elect to sit down for a while until it brightens up.
English fans at the Oval all started opening their umbrellas to encourage the umps to stop play, while Aussie fans took off their shirts in protest that it was a lovely day (in truth it's not raining, but it is a pretty grim day). The Aussie team took the field in sunglasses to show they were ready to play. At the moment play is indeed stopped and looks to remain that way for the rest of today (they stop the game at 6PM in any event). Barring an amazing display of bowling tomorrow, it looks very favourable for England to recover the Ashes.
Unfortunately it's hard to explain much more of the excitement of watching the match (this morning featured some brilliant bowling by England's Andrew Flintoff). The strategy of Test match cricket is so subtle that yesterday morning I went from thinking England didn't stand a chance to thinking that the Aussies couldn't possibly win. Anyway, Sox-Yankees in an hour, so I'll have had my fill of bat & ball sports today.