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Shortcuts: How to understand cricket

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(CNN) -- The world's greatest cricket contest -- the Ashes -- gets under way on Thursday as Australia host England in one of the world's oldest sporting series. If you're one of those who wouldn't know a beamer until it hit you in the box, then The Briefing Room is here to help.

The laws: Cricket is played by two teams on a large, round-ish pitch. The main action takes place in the middle on the "wicket," where two batsmen attempt to defend the three stumps placed in the ground behind them as bowlers hurl hard leather balls at their ankles and sometimes their heads. Batsmen score points every time they run between the wickets after hitting the ball (hence runs). Or they can just smash it off the field for a "boundary" -- worth four or six runs. They are "out" if the ball hits the stumps, if they're caught by a fielder, if the ball hits their legs in line with the stumps, or if they are "run out" by a fielder hitting the stumps with the ball mid-run. The team that scores the most runs wins -- usually.

Usually? This is where things can get complicated. Traditionally international contests such as the Ashes are played over a series of five-day "test matches" in which each team bats twice. But unless both teams complete both their innings (even if it rains for four days) the match is declared a draw -- so a team can avoid defeat simply by not losing all its wickets, or getting "bowled out." Easier to understand, though less popular with purists, is the shorter one-day version of the game when teams have a limited number of "overs" (six balls in a row by one bowler) to score as many runs as possible. Regardless of who loses the most wickets, the team with the highest score wins.

A history lesson: If cricket sometimes feels like some out-dated backwater of the sporting world that's because it is -- and all the more charming for it. Like many of the world's most enduring sports, cricket owes its origins to the 19th century British enthusiasm for games and pastimes. It was only following the formation of the Marylebone Cricket Club in London in 1787 that a consistent and commonly-observed set of rules came into existence. Much of the importance of "The Ashes" is due to its historical significance. England and Australia first met in 1882, making theirs the oldest international rivalry in world cricket. The name itself refers to a small urn which is said to contain the remains of a bail (the horizontal piece of wood that sits across the top of the stumps) ceremonially cremated after Australia beat England for the first time in 1882, prompting one newspaper to declare that English cricket had "died" -- something it has managed with admirable regularity ever since.

A geography lesson: As a British export, cricket's appeal has been limited to those parts of the world once colored pink on the map. It's huge in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and big in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Caribbean (which still plays under the quaintly anachronistic banner of the West Indies). Perhaps because of the weather, Canadians prefer hockey, while Americans went their own way -- as in most things -- and invented baseball instead. Elsewhere, any mention of cricket is generally greeted with baffled shakes of the head. There is however a game called "French cricket" in which you hold the bat awkwardly in front of your legs. No Frenchman has ever been seen playing French cricket.

Learn the lingo: There is no sport on earth with a richer vernacular than cricket. Unfortunately most of it is impenetrable to non-specialists. Whereas other sports have defenders and forwards, cricket has silly mid-offs, slips and gullys. Bowlers can deliver yorkers, googlies, Chinamen, flippers and bouncers. And in what other sport could you be stumped for a duck on a sticky wicket?

Sledging: On the surface, cricket is a refined pastime that owes its origins to the gentle communion of the English village green. In reality it is a battle of strength and sly wit dominated by hard-faced men from Outback sheep-sheering stations. "Sledging" is basically abuse designed to infuriate an irate batsman into playing an ill-judged shot. At its best the sledge is as well-crafted as a sonnet -- though infinitely cruder and usually involving wives of members of the opposite team. Aussie cricketers are generally acknowledged to be to sledging what Oscar Wilde was to the pithy aphorism. Although sometimes their opponents have had the last laugh. Greeting England's Ian Botham to the wicket during one Ashes tour, Australian Rod Marsh asked, "How's your wife and my kids?" Botham replied, possibly apocryphally, "The wife's fine, the kids are retarded."

Dress for the occasion: Traditionally played by men in perfectly creased whites, getting dressed to watch cricket these days is another matter. A recent tradition, usually associated with England's "Barmy Army" supporters (likely to be seen in their thousands Down Under), has seen spectators attempting to out-do each other by sporting increasingly bizarre and outlandish fancy dress. At test matches, Elvis can frequently be spotted squeezed between Batman and Robin with his over-large quiff obscuring the view of an entire row of Santa Clauses sitting behind. This may or may not have anything to do with the fact that attempting to spot an almost invisibly small ball being thrown around in the distance is actually quite dull.


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Australia's Justin Langer lashes out during the last Ashes series.

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