Winning isn’t everything – Cricket and the beauty of the draw in sport

by Steve

England’s nail-biting draw with South Africa yesterday reminded me of how much poorer cricket would be as a sport if it was purely based on wins and losses. Cricket is an idiosyncratic sport, and it is hard for an outsider to to appreciate how a game can last five days, with a draw being a good result. But I think yesterday’s game showed how.

By the last day of play England had only the remotest chance of winning. If a draw wasn’t an option in cricket, the final day would have been incredibly dull and frankly pointless. Instead, it provided incredible drama and the stage for some genuine sporting heroics. This was a stoic, resolute rearguard action. There was something incredibly noble in batsmen heading to the crease knowing they cannot possibly win, but determined to not lose.

Paul Collingwood is the king of this scenario. He is the kind of batsman who has the character to bed in and bat for hour after hour, repelling whatever the opposition has to throw at him.

The oft-maligned Ian Bell accompanied him, who up to that point had never really displayed the mental toughness to match his innate ability. Yesterday, he put in a watershed innings. He was no longer the batsman who throws his wicket away with a lapse in concentration or technique. This time he would stand firm.

As hours passed, the draw looked more and more likely, but things are never that simple for England, are they? Yet again, a mini-collapse led to a dramatic final phase. England were down to their last wicket. One more out and South Africa would win.

Graeme Swann (my current cricketing Man Crush, for those keeping score) and Graham Onions somehow held out against South Africa’s fierce fast bowling. Onions faced the final over, and for the second time this series survived. Twice England’s worst batsman has been called upon to salvage the game. Twice he has answered that call successfully, bravely and calmly.

Despite only managing to follow the game over the internet (damn work!) this was still a gripping, intense finale. Waiting for a webpage to reload has never engendered such nerves. The draw was finally secured, and England live to fight another day.

I think yesterday’s game really shows how other sports that forego the draw are missing out. A draw can mean as much as a victory, as it did for England, or a defeat, as perhaps it did for South Africa, who had clearly been the better side over the five days. Fighting for the draw did not require a swashbuckling effort or a brief flash of uncommon skill. It required character, determination and patience. Sport would be poorer for lacking those qualities.

‘Sudden death’ or similar was not needed to make the game compelling. And maybe this particular narrative was more intriguing, engrossing, complex and satisfying than just a simple win and loss.

Photo by vagawi via Flickr