[The gripping, thrilling, compelling drawn Test in Sydney prompts me to re-post this old piece from 1996. The background to it was as follows: Jagmohan Dalmiya, the then Secretary of the Indian Cricket Board, proposed to the International Cricket Council that the draw be abolished from Test cricket. He wanted Tests to be played over two innings of specified duration, with each team having (as I recall) a maximum of 90 overs each in their first innings and 60 overs each in their second innings. He thought eliminating the possibility of “no result” would find favour with fans. Dalmiya’s proposal was that of a cricket-illiterate, and provoked me to write this defence of the draw. To the list of epic drawn Tests mentioned in the article one must now add the Test played between India and Australia in Sydney in January 2021.]

There are two kinds of Indians who dislike cricket. Economists mourn its impact on productivity in offices and factories, while followers of the leftwing critic, Edward Said, think it proof of the “persistence of the hegemony of colonial discourse in post-colonial conjunctures”. This claim might pass in New York or Chicago, but not in Mumbai or Calcutta. For we know that cricket is not a colonial imposition but an import made indigenous, part of the fabric of our culture.

It is easier to document and celebrate the Indian love of cricket than to analyze or explain it. Some think it fits easily with the rhythms of our civilization. Five days is an unconscionably long time for the industrious German but a bare wink of an eye to the Indian, who thinks in cosmic and calendric rather than clock time. Others prefer a more straightforward political explanation. Cricket, they say, provides the perfect vehicle for the once colonized to settle accounts with the erstwhile colonizer – by beating him at his own game.

Indians of the pre-Kerry Packer and pre-KFC generation (a category into which this writer just fits) have another reason to celebrate the sport. For in its traditional form, cricket opens up the possibility of an outcome that goes beyond the crudely one-sided win or loss. I refer of course to the draw, that most enchantingly ambiguous of results, the result, or “no result”, which has given the cricket lover the richest of memories and the cricket writer the raw material for some of his finest work.

Let’s pass quickly over some of the great no results of cricket history. In my father’s generation, there was the Old Trafford Test of 1946, when the 10th wicket pair of S.W. Sohoni and D.D. Hindelkar played out the last 15 minutes in the dark and damp of a Manchester dusk. Also the Lord’s Test of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation year, when Trevor “Barnacle” Bailey and the footballer-cricketer Willie Watson kept out, for hours, the pace and swing of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller.

In my uncle’s generation, there was the match at Sabina Park when the original “little master”, Hanif Mohammed, batted for the better part of three days – 999 minutes in all – to save the match. On the first of these days he was watched for a time by a young Jamaican, perched high on a palm tree overlooking the ground. The heat and Mohammed got to the boy, who fell crashing to the ground, landing on his head. He was rushed to the Kingston general hospital, coming to his senses 48 hours later. His first question on waking up was, “Is Hanif still here?” The affirmative answer sent him back to sleep.

Moving on to our own time, there are the brave battling displays of Mohammed’s spiritual disciple, Sunil Gavaskar. Remember, if you will, Gavaskar’s innings in the latter Tests of his first tour in the Caribbean, which helped India safeguard an early one-nil lead to win the series. Remember, also some of his hundreds in the Pakistan tour of 1982-83, which would have saved that series if he had had more than Mohinder Amarnath to support him. Remember above all his glorious double century in the Oval Test of 1979, which early won the match for India and certainly saved it.

I grew up on stories about Mohammed, and many times watched or heard on radio the resolution of the man who in my book is the greatest defensive batsman of all time. But my 15-year-old cousin thinks that the mantle rests rather on the shoulders of Michael Atherton. An aspiring pace bowler himself, he marvels at the vigil of the England captain last winter, when he scored 185 not out, the runs spread out over nine hours, against the fastest white men in the world, Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock.

This was till last month; for now, in the endearingly fickle way of the young, he has abandoned Atherton for Saurav Ganguly, in the absence of whose finely crafted hundreds India might well have been whitewashed three-nil. The boy lives in Bangalore, but there are old men in Calcutta who at this moment are talking not of Ganguly but of the immortal Vijay Hazare, in their mind’s eye still at the crease at Eden Gardens, keeping out the wicked wrist spin of George Tribe on the last afternoon of a match India cannot win but might yet not lose.

“Show me the Tolstoy of the Zulus”, asked Saul Bellow once, a remark that brought the not inconsiderable wrath of the politically correct down on his head. “Show me the Neville Cardus or the Jack Fingleton of pajama cricket”, I shall now ask. The question is less controversial than Bellow’s, and the answer more clear cut: there are none, and there shall be none. To watch a one day match is akin to smoking a good cigar; nice while it lasts, but impossible to write about afterwards. Or to talk about a month later, after another 20 doses of strike rates and Manhattan skylines.

By contrast, a Test match can be recreated in loving detail decades afterwards. I can see, as I write, Geoff Arnold coming in to bowl to Gavaskar, the first ball of the first test match I ever watched. I remember dozens of incidents from that Test of a quarter century ago, but scarcely a ball or a stroke of an allegedly “classic one day match” seen but four months previously, India versus Pakistan in Bangalore. It is only the longer game that unfolds the range of possibilities that encourage the writer and in time enchant his reader – the exquisite crafting of an innings, the changes in fortune but always with the opportunities of redressal in a second innings, the skill of a spinner on a wearing wicket, and not the least, the great defensive innings that saves the match.

The draw is central to the magic and mystique of cricket, and not for cricketing reasons alone. Recall the Melbourne Test of December 1985, when Kapil Dev and company overcame the bats of Allan Border and his men as well as the fingers of the umpires, stuck in their pockets, to reach a winning position. On the last day, India needed 126 to win in four hours; they were well placed at 59 for two at tea, but were then (cruelly or thankfully, depending on the colour of one’s passport) denied by a thunderstorm.

Take your mind further back, to the Bangalore Test against Alvin Kallicharan’s West Indian side, which arrived on the fifth morning nicely poised, the tourists 266 runs ahead with only two wickets standing. Two hundred and eighty in five hours, Gavaskar and Gundappa Vishwanath versus Sylvester Clarke and Vanburn Holder, a chase that partisans of both games (one and five day) would pay to watch. But Indira Gandhi had been arrested in New Delhi the previous day, and her supporters in Karnataka decided there was to be no more cricket in Bangalore.

Last of all, ask your grandfather about the strangest of draws, the Durban Test of 1939. The fifth of the series, ostensibly timeless, the match went into its 10th day, with England at 654 for five, needing another 40 odd runs to defeat South Africa. But the ship for London was leaving that morning, the last boat for months. With war on the horizon, prudence dictated that the test be abandoned, or rather, “drawn” on account of the unavailability of transport to take the cricketers home.

Watching, reading about or listening to an undecided match has provided much pleasure to the cricket lover down the years. The secretary of the Indian cricket board, Jagmohan Dalmiya, would now deny us, all of us, this pleasure, for he wishes to abolish the draw in Test cricket. The curious thing is that the result of his own campaign to capture the presidency of the International Cricket Council must definitely be reckoned a draw. A legal sleight of hand denied him the office on this occasion, but the votes he gathered have made sure that next time the president-elect (Clive Lloyd perhaps, if not Dalmiya himself) will be more responsive to the claims of the black and brown nations.

“No result” was also, happily, the outcome of the other off-field battle of recent weeks. Imran Khan was acquitted of libel, but had to explicitly and humiliatingly concede that he could not call Allan Lamb and Ian Botham racists or cheats. The Englishmen had their honour restored, but do however have to pay court costs for a litigation they rather unnecessarily initiated.

In allowing for, even encouraging, an honourable truce, the structure of cricket serves as a model for other spheres of social life. Theorists will tell you that in any political or legal system, fairness consists in leaving space for negotiation and compromise, for means of redressing balances so that there are no ultimate losers or winners. We understand that Dalmiya does not read political theory, but neither does he seem to know the game that is the source of his power and advancement. I dare say he doesn’t discuss cricket matches, won or drawn, with his father or nephew. His proposal shows an astonishing insensitivity to the traditions of cricket, an appalling ignorance of what makes this the best loved of match cricket? One might as well bring down the Taj Mahal and build the new corporate headquarters of the ICC in its place.

This article first appeared in The Telegraph.

Ramachandra Guha’s The Commonwealth of Cricket has just been published. His email address is ramachandraguha@yahoo.in.