As part of my effort to get people who do not know much about cricket and who think that it is boring to better appreciate the subtle features that die-hard fans appreciate, a recent match between Australia and England illustrates one feature that often baffles those new to the game, that a no-decision can be every exciting.
The international Test cricket matches between nations is a time-limited game, though people unfamiliar with the game may marvel about how a contest that is spread over five days for six hours a day could possibly be considered ‘time-limited’ and end in a no-decision. But that can indeed happen because to win a game, one team has to get the opposing team out twice for a total score less than their own within that five-day limit. Otherwise, the game is a no-decision, called a ‘draw’ in cricket. The fourth Test match between Australia and England recently completed gives a good example of how a no-decision can be as exciting as one in which there is a decision.
Australia batted first and got off to a very good start by putting up a big score of 416 before its captain voluntarily ended the innings, even though only eight of his players had got out. (In cricket, an innings is completed when ten of a team’s eleven players are dismissed.) In cricket, this voluntary closure happens when the batting team feels that doing so is advantageous for various reasons, such as it being late in the day and the fielding team is tired after a long day. The idea is to have the other team bat at the end of the day so that they can try to get a few people out quickly. Australia closed their innings with just about 15 minutes left at the end of the second day but England did not lose any wickets that evening. However, England only scored 294 in their first innings, leaving them with a first innings deficit of 122 runs.
This is where things get tricky. When Australia batted again, they needed to estimate how many runs they needed to score in their second innings so that England would not be able to score enough in their second innings to defeat them. But at the same time, they had to leave enough time for their bowlers to get the entire England team out. They also had to make the target for England tempting enough that they would take risks scoring runs in trying to win and thus more likely to lose wickets. If the target is seen as impossible in the time available, then the batting side would just dourly defend and run out the clock.
The Australian captain closed their second innings near the end of the fourth day after scoring 265 runs with the loss of just six wickets, leaving England with the task of scoring 388 to win, with just a little over a day to do this. Again, England managed to avoid losing any wickets in the last half hour of play that they were given on the fourth day. I think England thought this target was too steep and unrealistic and decided to give up any thought of winning on the fifth and final and just defend and try not to lose. But this is not easy on the last day of a five-day game and by near the end of the last day they had lost nine wickets with 13 deliveries still to go. One more out and they would have lost. Since those who bat last are usually the specialist bowlers who are not that good at batting, Australia had a chance and they tried to get the last batter out by placing all their fielders close to the bat, to intimidate the batters and to scoop up any catch that the batters might inadvertently pop up. But it was not to be as the two England batters weathered the storm and the game ended in a no decision.
Although I was not able to watch the game, the statistics indicate that the England batters, especially towards the end, simply dug in and did not try to score many runs but focused on not getting out. Australia will be second-guessing their decision-making in the second innings, perhaps feeling that they should have closed their second innings earlier, to give their bowlers more time and to give the England batters a more reachable target in order to get them to take risks. It is a quirk of the game that in such no-decisions, the team that had the better of the game feels deflated at not being able to win while the team that was outplayed feels that they achieved a sort of psychological victory by warding off defeat.
For those who value action and high scoring, the last would have been boring as England played not to lose. But for a real cricket devotee, it would have been very tense, a nail-biter even. Even though it was a no-decision, the game has been described as ‘thrilling’.
The allure of cricket can be elusive to those not familiar with the game.