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The Decline of the Draw

Who'd have thought it? Draws can be exciting.

This hasn't been a great season for my cricket team, The Mandarins CC.  Our results so far have been as follows:

       Lost, Lost, Lost, Lost, Lost, Lost, Lost, WON, Lost, Lost, Lost, Lost

As well as the stark absence of victories, something else is missing.  There have been no draws.

Ten years ago, a typical Mandarins season had a fairly even spread of results in the Win/Loss/Draw columns.

So what has happened?  Well partly, we've got worse.  What we've gained in wisdom we've more than lost in athleticism.

But also the format of cricket that we play has changed.  In recent years most of our opponents have started asking us to play limited overs cricket, in which each side bats for 40 overs, and the team that makes the most runs wins.  A tie in which both teams end on the same scores is possible, but I can't remember ever having one.  And a draw is not possible at all.

Only one of our matches so far this season has been a 'declaration' game.  When I started playing this was the standard format for club cricket, in which the team batting first can choose when to end their innings, and the team batting second then has a deadline (6:30pm perhaps)* by which to try to overhaul the first team.  If the second team fails to reach the target, and the first team fail to bowl out the second, then the result is a draw.

The reason most teams seem to prefer limited overs cricket is that, superficially at least, it seems to be more exciting.  Knowing that they have no choice but to go for the target (or lose), batsmen are more attacking and the game inevitably gets more frantic in the closing stages.

And yet....of our ten limited overs games so far this season, I'd say only three of them have had conclusions that involved anything approaching drama.  In all the other cases, the result was pretty much a foregone conclusion early in the second innings.  Last Sunday in Greenwich was a stark example where, chasing a target of 161 in 35 overs, we found ourselves at 0 (runs) for 3 (wickets) after five penetrating overs from the opening bowlers.  We ended up reaching 121, but that was only because, knowing victory was in the bag, the opposition took their foot of the pedal and brought on some joke, lobby bowlers.

And this is where the subtlety of declaration cricket comes into its own.  Faced with a collapse to 0 for 3 in a declaration game, the batting side changes tactic. "If we can't win, then let's make sure we don't lose."  The batsmen decide to shut up shop and defend.  Now the pressure is on the bowlers.  How can we lure these batsmen into making mistakes?  Bizarrely, one way to do it is to bring on joke, lobby bowlers. The batsmen start hitting boundaries, slowly the possibility of a win returns, and the batsmen take risks.  And because the batsmen take risks, the bowlers now have a chance.  Risks mean mistakes.

When we play declaration games, most of them have interesting finishes. And in the very best games, all possible results are still possible with one over to go - Win, Loss, Tie...or Draw.

Cricket lovers often see the game as a metaphor for life.  The metaphor works when you realise that life is not just about winning and losing: the experiences, decisions and luck along the way are more important.  

Today, England start a "Five Day" Test against the West Indies at Edgbaston.  I'm prepared to bet now that, unless there's a lot of rain, it won't last five days and it won't end in a draw.  And the absence of that possibility detracts from the joy of cricket.


* actually this deadline is normally in the form of 20 overs after 5:30pm.