LONDON — Tickets were being resold for $500 or more. Millions of pounds were bet on the outcome. People jammed pubs and skipped work to watch the action or listened to the play on their computers. Tony Blair interrupted a speech on education to read out the score at tea time.
But for once, it wasn't soccer that was bewitching all of Britain. It was that most sedate and graceful game of summer, played on uncounted village greens: cricket.
From oil workers on rigs in the Barents Sea to schoolchildren hanging out of windows in a classroom overlooking London's Oval stadium, it seemed like the entire English nation was transported back to a simpler, happier time Monday as underdog England defeated No. 1-ranked Australia in the cricket series known as the Ashes.
Rocker Mick Jagger sent praise from the United States, where he and the Stones are on tour. Queen Elizabeth II sent her congratulations for the "magnificent achievement of regaining the Ashes" after 18 years.
"This has been a truly memorable series and both sides can take credit for giving us all such a wonderfully exciting and entertaining summer of cricket at its best," the queen gushed.
A grateful nation planned a victory parade today from the mecca of cricket, Lords Cricket Grounds in North London, to the epicenter of English pride, Nelson's monument in Trafalgar Square.
The rivalry dates back 123 years, beginning with England's humiliating defeat on its own soil by players representing its then-colony Australia.
The Sporting Times newspaper, tongue in cheek, published a death notice that year: "In Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket Which Died At The Oval on 29th August 1882, deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. R.I.P. ... The body will be cremated, and the ashes taken to Australia."
From then on, the English-Australian cricket rivalry became known as "playing for the Ashes."
When the victorious English captain returned from down under after defeating Australia in the 1882-83 series, he brought back a small urn. According to legend, it contained the ashes of a bail. A bail is the stick that lies across the wooden stumps behind the batsman that the bowler tries to knock down. (Those sacred ashes now repose at Lords, and a replica urn is given to winners.)
England's victory was hardly anticipated at the start of the summer, but expectations and excitement built as the series stretched over seven weeks, leading to a renaissance of interest in cricket.
Terry Howard, a London advertising executive, said he was delighted as he emerged from the Oval on Friday, not only with England's resurgence but the benefits to the sport.
"It's made cricket once again what it used to be when I was a child -- a national religion.... It's wonderful, wonderful."
A poll in the Sunday Times this week said cricket, not soccer, is the sport that best represents "traditional" British values. In results that were fairly uniform across ages and genders, 66% of respondents said cricket better reflected national character than the more popular, and more money-laden, sport of soccer.
With the national mood chastened by the July bombings in the London transit system and England's national soccer team under a shadow after losing to Northern Ireland last week, the cricket win was "a release," said Roger Bratchell, 43, a marketing director.
"This helps. I've been waiting a long time. It has been 16 years since we last had it."
Retiree Keith van Anderson said, "England has done well. I don't think even the English expected to do so well.
"You can see that the whole country is taken up by a huge wave of excitement," said Van Anderson, 55, who is ill with cancer but nonetheless turned out for the classic contest.
England last won the Ashes in 1986-87. Australia reclaimed them in 1989 and had held them since. The series takes place every 18 months.
Traditionally a sport of the middle class and long popular in the country's upper-crusty schools, cricket has been reinvigorated by the large numbers of West Indians and South Asians who have moved to England.
"It can only be good that the world's second-most-popular sport is healthy in the land of its birth," the Times of London said in an editorial before England's victory, without mentioning how it had determined that cricket was the world's second-most-popular sport. "England's cricketers, huddled, arms around each other, before the start of play, look like 11 men who put team before individuals. England's footballers ... look more than ever like spoilt prima donnas."
Arcane to outsiders, cricket resembles baseball in that it moves to its own rhythms and has its own secret shorthand and codes, all savored by true fans. In international competitions such as the Ashes, play lasts for eight to 10 hours a day, with breaks for lunch and tea.
And the vagaries of light and rain can and do determine outcomes.