An athlete wearing diamond earrings and a skunk hairdo led this country into a fanatical celebration Tuesday that drew tens of thousands to the streets and kudos from the queen, a day after England's cricket team regained the glory its former colonies had long enjoyed in the quintessential British sport.
Kevin Pietersen, the outlandish rookie with a penchant for jewelry and colorful streaks in his dark hair, and his teammates rode through central London atop a double-decker bus as millions watched the victory parade broadcast live on national television.
Perhaps because the Ashes, the name of the series between England and Australia, the world's top-ranked team, had taken 71/2 weeks to complete and the outcome was a tossup until the end, or perhaps because England just needed a lift after a summer marred by fatal transit bombings, the win was all-consuming. As it celebrated its first victory in the series since 1987, London felt like Boston after the Red Sox won the World Series last year.
But this bat-and-ball game is not at all like baseball. Cricket fans clearly relish their game's esoteric vocabulary -- the overs, the stumps, the googly and something known as LBW (leg before wicket). Many fans in this country known for its fondness of exclusive clubs clearly delight in the fact that much of the world doesn't really know what is going on when the batting and bowling begins.
"The fact that many people can't understand it is why fans like it -- learning cricket is like learning a language," said Mathias Disney, 35, a scientist who teaches at the University College of London and brought his 2-month-old son Rudi to Trafalgar Square for the lunchtime celebration. Since the series started on July 21, he said, "it has been so tense, I've been physically sick. My wife said, 'I want you back. I lost you for two months.' Now I can get back to my normal life."
While soccer -- called football here and in the rest of the world -- is by far the county's most popular sport, cricket is enjoying a renaissance because of England's newfound success and telegenic superstars like Pietersen. Revelers in the streets and commentators on the airwaves, happily talking about how more women and youths are engaging in the age-old sport, were declaring 2005 to be its finest summer. For the moment, everyone seemed to forget the terrorist attacks.
"It's very nice to stand here in the sunshine in such high spirits. It's a marked contrast to the low spirits of July," said Charles Strick, 42, a management consultant who also joined the celebration.
Played every two years, the Ashes contest between England and Australia draws its name from a satirical obituary published in 1882 following a match in which Australia beat England for the first time. The obituary said English cricket had died. A small urn said to contain the ashes of British bails -- sticks that sit atop the three stumps that make up a wicket -- came to symbolize the matchup. A replica of that urn was paraded through the streets Tuesday.
Cricket's popularity in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other Commonwealth countries caused England's dominance to be eclipsed in recent decades. Australia has taken three of the last four World Cup tournaments, begun in 1975 and held every four years; England has never won. But England's first Ashes triumph in almost two decades "lit up the whole summer," said Prime Minister Tony Blair, who hosted the winners Tuesday at 10 Downing Street.
Queen Elizabeth II, said to have watched the series from Balmoral Castle, her home in Scotland, called it a "truly memorable series." Rolling Stones lead singer and cricket fanatic Mick Jagger sent congratulations from the band's U.S. tour.
Some got poetic. Simon Barnes, chief sports writer for the London Times, wrote Tuesday that "cricket has always been the bedrock of the English summer; it has just been obscured by the terrible years. Cricket has not been reinvented; it has reawoken, and that is a far more glorious thing."
As ticker tape rained down on Pietersen and the other players in Trafalgar, Phil Thornton, 54, a civil servant, was practically bursting out of his gray suit. "What is the big deal? It's the biggest deal of my lifetime!" he exclaimed. "Even though the game was originally from England, it must be said, that Australia has been better -- until now."