Suresh Menon

Has the modern player lost the art of playing for a draw?

Which cricketer would you like to have batting for your life? Such thought experiments are fun. It says as much about the person answering as the player chosen. In the years before super slow motion and Cricinfo, discussions on the game went beyond wow-making television and Statsguru.

The top choice was the player least likely to give up, the one with the best equipment to deal with the vagaries of the weather, pitch and bowling, the one who played as if his life depended on it.

For years in Pakistan that player was Javed Miandad. He embodied many of the clichés: a never-say-die spirit, a street-fighting temperament and a technique if not out of the text book, certainly out of something he had written himself.

New Zealand had Glenn Turner, maker of two double centuries in the same series against the West Indies, and one who went from being a strokeless wonder to a leading one-day player and maker of a hundred first class centuries.

England’s best-known was Ken Barrington who, in the words of one commentator, walked out with the Union Jack fluttering on his bat handle. Patriotism meets forward defence!

India had Sunil Gavaskar, either controlling a run chase, as he did at the Oval (draw), or Port of Spain (victory), or dropping anchor to bat for four or five sessions to keep defeat at bay.

Dependable Dravid

India’s golden age batsmen could both defend stoutly and take up a chase with alacrity, as Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman, Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly demonstrated. But even in that galaxy, the man to bat for your life was probably Dravid, although Gautam Gambhir once batted ten hours to save a Test in Napier.

All of which is by way of leading up to the question: has the modern player lost the art of playing for a draw?

Two recent Tests in England finished in four days, providing fodder for those who believe that Tests should only last four days, not five.

In Sri Lanka, Australia’s later batsmen hung on, once going through 25 overs without a run, but lost anyway. They had the heart but lacked the technique or a plan. As Ashley Mallet, an off spinner who once bowled Australia to a series win in India, has pointed out, the batsmen didn’t rotate strike. This allowed the bowlers to settle down and wait for a mistake.

“Playing for a draw” was India’s default setting for many decades. The current team might look down upon such a negative approach, but the teams then lacked both confidence and all round skills. A draw was as good as a win.

Two kinds of draws

There are two kinds of draws: the safety-first, boring draw (India and Pakistan played out an entire series of draws as did India and England, both in the 1960s) that brings no credit to the game. Then there is the hard-fought, back-from-the-dead kind of draw inspired by batsmanship full of character, a triumph of hope over probability.

Hanif Mohammed’s monumental 337 against the West Indies in the course of which his eyelids nearly disappeared in the heat is the best example of the latter. The innings stretched from the end of the second day’s play to the middle of the sixth, and is still the longest innings in Tests, a small matter of 16 hours and some.

That is the kind of rearguard action that other rearguard actions aspire to. In recent years, Faf du Plessis, on debut, batted over seven hours to save a Test against Australia, in the company of A.B. de Villiers who made 33 in four hours. Mike Atherton’s unbeaten 185 against Allan Donald and South Africa in ten hours to save the Johannesburg Test of 2005 is part of legend.

Four-day Tests?

A four-day Test will reduce the room for such heroics. The cricket committee of the International Cricket Council recently turned down a recommendation for four-day Tests. But it is an idea which has been in the air for a while. The broadcasters are for it, so perhaps it is only a matter of time.

It does not need a great batsman to play a great innings. Sri Lanka’s Kusal Mendis in the Test against Australia referred to above made 176 while only one other batsman made a half century in the match. Mendis is 21 and was playing his seventh match. Greatness as a player is a measure of time, but he did play a great innings.

Could Australia have saved that Test or England the one at Lord’s with out-of-the-skin batting? Perhaps.

By definition, though, the monumental match-saving innings is a rarity. But playing for a draw is not, and that might be what we are missing.

There are exciting draws just as there are bland victories. The draw is part of the game.

“No result” is a result too, even if that is too subtle for those brought up on run rates of ten an over and matches that finish in three hours.

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2021 11:44:40 AM |

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