What are the Ashes? Cricket's oldest rivalry explained

James Anderson and Alistair Cooke with the Ashes trophy.

The Ashes are taking place in Australia at the moment and England are doing badly. But what's the Ashes all about?

The Ashes is the name given to any Test cricket series involving England and Australia.

The two nations meet roughly every two years, with the winners claiming one of the most famous (and smallest) trophies in sport, the Ashes urn.

The matches are held alternately in England and Australia. They consist of a series of five Test matches, each lasting up to five days.

Why are they called The Ashes?

The story of the Ashes began way back in 1882 when England were beaten at home for the first time by Australia.

Sporting Times It all started with a joke obituary in a newspaper

The series defeat shocked the sporting world at the time, and prompted The Sporting Times newspaper to print a joke story on the 'death of English cricket'.

The newspaper said the body of English cricket would be cremated and the ashes sent to Australia.

When England next toured Australia those ashes became real - a pair of bails were burned and the ashes put into the now-famous urn.

The winning players are given a replica to celebrate with, as the real trophy is far too fragile.

Who's the best?

England had won the last three Ashes series, at home in 2009 and away in 2010/11, and at home again in 2013.

But now they've lost the current series against the Baggy Greens - the nickname given to the Aussie side which refers to the caps they wear on their heads.

Stuart Broad with Ashes trophy in 2009 England won the tiny trophy in 2009

The last time Australia had won the series was in 2006/07, when they beat England 5-0 in Australia.

Australia were utterly dominant for nearly 20 years before that, winning nine out of 10 series played. That's why there was such a huge fuss when Michael Vaughan's England side won in 2005.

Players to watch

England captain Alistair Cook is one of the top players to watch out for.

He's got a whopping 7,800 Test runs to his name at the age of just 28. Against Australia he's pretty good too, with four centuries and a top score of 235 not out.

Kevin Pietersen is never far from the headlines, sometimes for the wrong reasons - and there's no doubt the Aussies will try to get under his skin.

But he can completely turn a match around in a very short space of time and could be a very dangerous weapon.

James Anderson England's top bowler, James Anderson

England bowler James Anderson will be leading his side's attack.

He's already the second-highest England wicket-taker of all time, and has been a key player in the last three Ashes series victories.

Michael Clarke Australian skipper Michael Clarke

Australia's skipper Michael Clarke is his team's top batsman.

His average batting score is the best out of both sides at over 52 runs per innings, and he's reckoned to be a great tactical captain too.

Australian fast bowler Mitchell Johnson could be a decisive figure in the series.

He's been the target of a lot of mickey-taking by England fans in the past because he can sometimes be a bit erratic. But when he's good, he's devastating.

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