Television, dominated by impatient Americans and Australians, is devoted to the stark contrast between victors and vanquished: it prefers a penalty shoot-out to a handshake - it likes to cut between laughter and tears. And one-day cricket, which insists on a winner even if it has to resort to some crazy arithmetic to find one, seems to have entered the bloodstream of the modern player. But what Atherton's innings proved was that a draw can be the best - the most dramatic and resonant - result of all. He himself said as much in a post-match soundbite.
It is, on the face of it, ironic. According to the normal criteria for sporting thrills, Monday in Johannesburg was a day of unremitting tedium. Nothing about it could have been captured by a programme of highlights, because there weren't any. England scored a measly 186 runs (two per over); only one wicket fell. Maiden followed maiden in a dumb procession. For the casual spectator, counting down the overs must have seemed about as exciting as a chug-past of empty freight cars. But for fans it was a day of slow-burning drama. Every over represented a steady blunting of South Africa's hopes and nerves. As England prodded their way to safety, you could see shoulders sag in the outfield; when Brian McMillan started mouthing curses at Jack Russell as he scarpered about the crease like, well, a Jack Russell, it was hard to stifle a cheer.
It was only a draw, but as many armchair fans in chilly England were quick to say, in its way it was better than a win. We shouldn't be surprised by this. Some of the greatest games in recent memory have been draws. One thinks of Graham Gooch's grand match at Lord's when he scored 333 against India, Mohammad Azharuddin replied with a dashing century of his own and Kapil Dev tonked four consecutive sixes to save the follow-on. Then, of course, there is the celebrated tied Test, which exists now as a piece of grainy footage showing West Indians sprinting about like pinballs to secure a match-saving run-out on the final ball. One thinks of Cowdrey hobbling out for the last over with a broken arm, or of Gavaskar astounding history by scoring 221 to bring India to within an inch of an improbable last-innings target of 438. What could be more winning than this?
There are many other examples. Yet the draw continues to strike many people as a soft option, an infuriatingly inconclusive waste of time. Americans famously dislike football because of its enthusiasm for low- scoring draws, which must indeed seem pointless to a mentality that assumes the only reason to play sport is to win. But the point is not to win - it is to try to win. There is something quite honourable and moving in the spectacle of two opponents retiring with honours even, having withstood the best the other had to offer, and with a tacit agreement to have another crack next week.
Draws of this sort are peculiar to cricket (and chess), where individual games are part of a larger match. There is a sense of mutual respect, which in the case of cricket, with its five-day tussles, seems well-earned. The mere possibility of a draw gives the game a third dimension, something richer than the monochrome finality of winning and losing. Close draws keep the tension going right down to the wire by keeping alive both teams' hopes of a win; even not-so-close ones, like this week's, give the losing team something to fight for. So it is a shame that the draw has become something of an endangered species. In recent years it has become a rare beast. The bald figures are startling: in the 70 Tests before this tour England drew just 19. In the 70 before that England drew 46.
Atherton's "finest hour" stand in Johannesburg reminds us that a stand- off can be every bit as satisfying as a victory, but also (witness the shell-shocked look on Hansie Cronje's face afterwards) just as mortifying as a thrashing. It was, as they say, right out of the top draw.
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