“Win, lose, or draw.” It’s a neat phrase, making you think the speaker is willing to accept the results of their efforts, no matter what those results may be; but as a society, do we really believe in this?
American sports leagues really don’t do draws; we want one clear winner for all stakes. Us versus them. Total victory or utter defeat.
I mean, draws (ties) happen, but they’re seen as equivalent to a cat marrying a peacock – it might look okay, but what just happened here?
The show Wide World Of Sports never talked about the ‘Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Defeat, and the Meh of a Tie’.
Baseball games, designed for nine innings, really have no upper-limit end-point, leading to 18-inning marathons (not that I’m complaining; Brandon Belt’s 18th-inning blast in 2014 is etched in legend).
When you hear about a tie, you’re strangely unsatisfied, like when you get a full refund from Uber Eats for another messed-up order, but you still didn’t get the garlic bread you ordered.
Even in the National Hockey League, when being tied at the end of regulation time guarantees each team at least one point in the league standings, the notion of a winner is so sacrosanct that overtime rules were adjusted to make it easier to score.
Because ties are boring. Only winners have ultimate worth.
And that’s why American sports aren’t the perfect metaphor for modern life we would like them to be. Let’s face it; most days we’re quite satisfied to hold off fate, to come out even. This is especially true in a pandemic. Some days, a draw can seem golden.
There are, in fact, two sports not heavily favored in American society which might offer metaphors more suitable for modern life.
I’ll start with soccer, the easier argument. Then I’ll risk all with a defense of cricket.
Soccer: A Draw Can Save Your Life
The dreaded nil-nil (0-0) draw, or 1-1. That’s the trump card played by Americans who call soccer boring; sadly, trump cards are often flimsy and worth far less than they appear.
There certainly are dour, boring soccer matches that end in a 1-1 tie. But you can also have an American football game slopping to a 3-0 scoreline. And draws in soccer can also be scintillating, full of drama, one team fighting back to salvage a draw at the end of a match.
With the flow of soccer, the hidden geometry of passes and off-the-ball runs and combination can be a beautiful thing, even if all you get in the end is a tie.
And, aesthetics aside, you earn a point in the league standings for a tie. And that matters because of the concept of promotion and relegation.
In the English Premier League, the drama doesn’t end when you know the title is beyond your grasp. Not only can smaller teams fight for the right to play in a European competition the next season (which is a lucrative prize) but they also need to fight to stay up, as the three teams that finish at the bottom of the league will be relegated to the ironically-named League Championship (which despite the name is actually the Second Division), losing millions of pounds in the process, and not in the healthy weight-loss sense.
Look at Aston Villa. A team from Birmingham with a respectable pedigree as a top-flight club, they survived relegation by exactly one point in the league standings by earning a 1-1 draw with West Ham United on the last day of the season.
And even if your favorite team isn’t fighting to survive, there’s a certain release of tension, a certain relief at the point in the season when your team has ensured they won’t finish in the bottom three. Living to fight another season is a valid way of life, both on the field and in life.
Cricket: Lessons In Making Do
Cricket as a metaphor? Really? The list of counter-arguments is daunting.
- Tea breaks.
- Lunch breaks.
- An obscurity of language that threatens to make it inaccessible (if you didn’t grow up with the game).
- For instance, consider this: “It was a perfect pitch this morning, so it was a bit of a shock when the batter was caught lbw and tmi off the stumps by a clean googly delivered over-under and caught at mid-point from the soft slips, gone for a duck off a new ball.” Some of that actually means something.
On the surface, cricket’s an elitist game where not much happens for a very long time. That’s not even mentioning the lingering specter of colonialism with white flannel outfits and England touring through India, Australia, Pakistan, and the West Indies.
Plus, cricket literally takes all day, sometimes five days, and you still might not get a winner at the end. Who has time for that?
And yet, ironically, therein lies the charm. Or at least the roots of the charm.
Cricket demands patience. Depending on whether you are playing in a limited-over match or a Test Series or a One Day International or various other formats, you have to decide how aggressive to be, for fielding or batting teams alike.
There are the moments of intense action, the crack of the bat on ball just like American baseball, dramatic diving catches or wickedly-spinning ‘bowled’ balls eluding a batsman to knock off the bails to break a wicket. The long run-up, the fast delivery, the batsman deciding whether to swing for the boundary or take a more measured stroke to find safe runs.
And there are rough days, such as when weather wipes out an entire day in a 5 Day Test, which might mean your team no longer has enough time to win.
That’s the thing, a question of time.
In some formats such as a Test Series, a particular match (or test) is scheduled for up to 5 days, with each side entitled to two ‘innings’ (as in baseball, it means a chance to bat, with the difference being that you get ten ‘wickets’ per inning instead of three ‘outs’).
This leads to the phenomenon of ‘declaring.’ If one team has scored so many runs that they think they have an insurmountable lead, they can choose to end their turn at the bat, in order to give themselves enough time to take all the opponent’s wickets. Because if the other team can manage to preserve even one wicket from their second inning by the time the scheduled 5 days are over, the best result the declaring team could gain is a tie.
In other words, the declaring team has to decide how much of a good thing is enough. And a trailing team can still set a worthwhile goal; coming from behind to break even in the end.
And that’s a lesson we could all stand to learn again and again.