The greatest sporting draws in history

The England cricket team’s draw against the Aussies reminds us that, sometimes, not losing is everything.

Duleep Allirajah

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The point of sport is to win. I’ve laboured this point over the years in this column. My polemic is aimed at the neo-Corinthians who think that moral values (sportsmanship, graciousness in defeat, walking when you’re out, etc) take precedence over the venal ‘professional’ win-at-all-costs mentality. However, England’s heroic, backs-to-the-wall draw in the first Ashes Test was a timely reminder that, sometimes, getting a draw is just as important as winning.

A few years ago Fifa president Sepp Blatter made the absurd suggestion that draws should be abolished. ‘When you play cards or any other game, there’s always a winner and a loser’, said Blatter. ‘We should have the courage to introduce a final decision in every game of football.’ Blatter’s suggestion was greeted with widespread derision, and rightly so. Only a philistine would fail to appreciate that, in certain circumstances, a draw is just as important, and indeed thrilling, as a win.

The overarching objective of any sporting tournament is, of course, to win. But, in a league format, a draw can be a crucial stepping stone to victory. It’s important for any championship winning team to create an aura of invincibility. And that means, first and foremost, making sure that you don’t lose. Even in a knock-out tournament a draw can be a vital prerequisite for victory. Getting a draw away from home in a difficult FA Cup tie can give your team a better chance of winning in a replay on home turf.

There’s no doubt that the denouement of the First Ashes Test was nerve-frayingly dramatic. I was glued to the radio listening to the last sessions of play and the tension was excruciating. Squeaky bum time, as Alex Ferguson would say. Scrambled runs were cheered. Dot balls were applauded like boundaries. When the match ended there were wild celebrations among the England fans. Anyone would have thought we’d actually won something. The important thing, in this instance, was that England hadn’t lost. They’d heroically snatched a draw from the jaws of near-certain defeat.

As draws go it was certainly memorable and thrilling. But how does it rank with the great sporting draws of history? Here are my top five sporting draws:

    1. Italy 0 – England 0, 11 October 1997. England secured qualification for the 1998 World Cup Finals with a superb controlled performance in Rome. England kept possession well, Gazza pulled the strings in midfield, and Paul Ince soldiered on with a bandaged head a la Terry Butcher. It was one of those stirring performances that got England fans all thinking: ‘Hell, we can win this thing.’ The Lightning Seeds even wrote a song about it. Or rewrote a song to be precise. ‘And then one night in Rome, we were strong, we had grown’, sang Ian Broudie on Three Lions ’98. The game was drawn but we’d bagged the big prize: World Cup qualification.

    2. England v Australia, Fifth Test, September 2005. Leading 2-1 in the series, England needed just a draw from the final Test at the Oval to regain the Ashes. At lunch on the final day England were 133 runs ahead with five second innings wickets remaining. If Warne and McGrath had managed to skittle out England’s lower order cheaply, the Aussies were in with a shout. The hero on this occasion was Kevin Pieterson whose maiden test century steered England to safety. The game was drawn but the Ashes were regained.

3. England 2 – Greece 2, Old Trafford, 5 October 2001. England came into the game knowing World Cup qualification was in their own hands. Having trounced Germany 5-1 in Munich they surely couldn’t cock things up against Greece, could they? By Christ they nearly did. This game was memorable not for England’s performance, which was largely wretched, but for its dramatic culmination. Deep into stoppage time, with England trailing 2-1, Teddy Sheringham backed into his marker, theatrically collapsed, and won a free kick on the edge of the box. Up stepped David Beckham and, well, you know what happened next. Cue pandemonium and the media canonisation of Sir Becks.

4. Australia v West Indies, Brisbane, December 1960. Draws are ten a penny in test cricket but a tie is as rare as rocking-horse shit. In fact there have only ever been two ties in cricket history. The first and, as far as I’m concerned, the definitive tied test was at the Gabba in 1960. Australia needed six runs to win off the final over (eight balls in those days) with three wickets in hand. They contrived to lose two wickets but still only needed a single off the last two balls. On the penultimate ball the Aussies set off for a run but Joe Solomon at square leg aimed a shy at the stumps from 12 metres out and hit. The Aussies were all out with the scores level. The game was tied.

5. Germany 4, Allies 4, Escape to Victory. Okay this was admittedly a fictional football match but it remains one of the greatest fightbacks in football history. Four-one down at half time with a bent referee, a rookie Yank keeper, and their star player Pelé crocked, no one would have blamed the Allied POWs for disappearing down the escape tunnel with the French Resistance. But what the Nazis didn’t reckon on was the never-say-die Dunkirk spirit of Ipswich Town’s Russell Osman, whose immortal ‘But we can win this’ intervention inspired an heroic Allied comeback. They pegged back the Germans to 4-4 and Sylvester Stallone’s last-minute penalty save not only prevented defeat but provoked a pitch invasion. Game drawn but a moral victory to the Allies.

How does England’s valiant draw in Cardiff compare to these great sporting draws? Exhilarating, yes. But a cause for celebration? I don’t think so. England were outplayed for most of the game. Frankly they got out of jail. Giddy with pre-Ashes optimism, some pundits were tipping England to win the series. England’s bowling attack was more dangerous, we were told. The euphoria soon evaporated. Three days into the First Test Vic Marks wrote in the Guardian that England’s bowlers ‘will start the next Test with their confidence badly dented, wondering how the devil they are going to muster 20 wickets’ (1).

A draw is only worth celebrating if, in the ultimate reckoning, it contributes to victory. It’s far too early to say whether the Cardiff draw was a turning point or simply a reprieve which temporarily slowed the inexorable Aussie march to victory. If Australia retain the Ashes this year then the Great Escape at Cardiff counts for nothing.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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spiked-issue: Sport

(1) England bowlers left to wonder how they will ever take 20 wickets, Guardian, 10 July 2009

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