Cricket. A funny old game, as they say. The purest form is the five day Test Match, widely believed to be an anachronism, surpassed by shorter, more exciting forms of the sport.
For some, Test cricket is utterly incomprehensible, for others, a wonderful way to spend the best part of a week absorbed in a game where objectively, not very much happens. In fact, more than a third of Tests end in a draw.
I’m far too wise to attempt an explanation of cricket. You can buy tea-towels that do that job admirably.
In April 2022, a chap called Ben Stokes was appointed as Test captain along with a new head coach, Brendon McCullum. A bold pair of appointments; McCullum is a Kiwi, and Stokes is well, not always genteel. If not the bad boy of English cricket, he’s had a brush or two with the cricketing authorities and even the authorities proper. Worse, he’s half-kiwi to boot. These Kiwis were tasked with resurrecting Test Cricket. I have no idea how they discussed it, but I imagine it went like this.
“G’day Ben. Fancy a beer?”
“G’day Baz. Yep.”
“What are we going to do?”
Pause, as both men finish their cans of beer.
“We’re going to play every single game to win. We will win, we will lose, we will never draw.”
“Right. Good talk.”
Draws most often occur in Test matches when one, or both captains choose to play ultra-conservatively. The accepted convention is for a captain to first seek not to lose, and thereafter, to win. Often, choosing to create an opportunity to win, increases the possibility of losing. England, touring Pakistan, would see a series of three draws as a huge achievement. Imagine if England could draw twice, and then a pinch in the third and final test. Wouldn’t that be a thing? Champagne all round.
The first Test began on a flat pitch, with England batting. It became apparent that batting was going to be relatively straightforward. England amassed a huge score. This would usually signal an impending draw. The thing was, they scored their runs at breakneck speed. Might there be time to bowl Pakistan out twice (the only way to win a Test Match)? Pakistan settled in, and made stately progress, also amassing a big score, albeit at a more conventional pace. Definitely going to be a draw.
Then, England went into bat, and smashed the ball all over the place. This was risky. The thing to do was to settle in for a day, and ensure that they were so far ahead of Pakistan, that the only possible results were a draw, or a slim chance of an England win should the opposition collapse. Stokes wanted none of it. Balancing runs and time, Stokes declared England’s innings over, with plenty of time in the game. For Pakistan to win, they needed to score 343 runs and had plenty of time to do it. England needed to take all ten wickets. Pakistan had scored 579 in first innings, and had only to score steadily to win the match. They were probably favourite. To create a chance for the win, Stokes was prepared to lose. The game was poised.
The result? The record will show that England took the final wicket minutes before a draw would have been declared. The last hours were thrilling, compelling cricket. England trying everything to get the last wicket. Pakistan doing everything to survive, and eke out the draw. It was brilliant.
Most importantly, it was a rubicon moment. That simple decision to always play to win, has changed the game forever. People will look back, shrug their shoulders and say, “wasn’t it obvious?”
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