Playing for a draw: Anna Karenina, Test cricket, story and context

“All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.”
– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina


Anna Karenina

Recently ABCTV aired a program called “The Beautiful Lie.” I saw bits of it. Regardless of the script-writing, acting and set design, regardless of the casting, catering and lighting, this show was done an enormous disservice by the summary: “…The Beautiful Lie is a contemporary Australian reimagining of one of the greatest ever relationship dramas, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.”

Anna Karenina?!? Sometimes declared as a pinnacle of fiction (“A flawless work of art,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky; “The best ever written,” William Faulkner; “The greatest novel ever written,” Time magazine, 2007), the only similarity I could discern with Anna Karenina was the idea of a wife straying from the marital home. This precise event happens daily, and while doubtlessly dramatic and in some ways scandalous, today’s infidelities cannot be compared with the story of Anna Karenina. Tolstoy’s story works for many reasons: because of the empathic story-telling, the views we are afforded of this event from all manner of individual vantage points, and the personal foibles revealed to exist within everyone. It works, mainly, because of the magnitude of the scandal. In 19th Century Russia (and many other places), women were deemed ‘fallen’ should they leave a marriage. Already, the independent financial status of women was poor.  Leaving a marriage was something not contemplated. In many ways, a woman was beholden to a man.


Princess Anna Arkadyevna Karenina’s step in pursuing the charming but somehow superficial Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, but moreover choosing to leave the stable, careerist and stale Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, was an immense act of romanticism over pragmatism. The choices facing Anna, viewed within the context of social norms and opprobrium of the time, are incomparable with those of a woman of present day Australia. Context is everything.


Indeed for any story, context is everything. It informs our viewing platform. It is our viewing platform. It tells us whether we’re hot and sweaty, cold and clammy. It tells us whether we’re ahead or behind. How much longer there is to go. It places us within events. We’re there. In the right spot.


Sport is nothing if not a story. Australia v New Zealand just now will be remembered less as a highlights reel; more as a story. Something like: “Two dull, desolate Tests in Brisbane and Perth, played in Spring on flat tracks with mountains of runs scored. A Day/Night novelty Test was held in Adelaide, after which yes-men declared it a success before the El Niño dust had settled. The difference being that Adelaide was a bowlers’ game, which correspondingly more exciting and more rapidly over. And Llong is a legitimate surname.”


Playing for a draw is an art form in the context of some English sporting codes. In Association football and cricket, playing for the draw is a viable option, along with victory and defeat. Contextually, this has huge ramifications in competitions that are decided upon aggregates of wins, draws and losses. For instance, in the English Premier League it matters whether you win, lose or draw. In tournament play, a team may be content with a draw in a particular match, if it aids the overall goal of progressing in the tournament. Context is everything.


Similarly, a game of Test cricket is not a highlights reel. Every game has a context. It has venue, opposition, series score, result of the previous series, weather, team composition, form, and the individual contexts of each player, which can lead to selection itself. (Despite surprisingly narrow-minded views of national selectors, team composition should be less about arbitrary measurable artefacts of performance (e.g. bowling speed), and more about contextual performance (e.g. ability to bowl spells of consistently probing and economical overs; to bowl in partnership)).


South Africa in India. The fourth Test ended yesterday in an Indian victory, but not before South Africa tried to draw it. In what context were they motivated to play for the draw? In a series context, the series was irretrievable. In a political context, South Africa was probably sick of the dustbowls served up as Test wickets. From a national and individual pride context, South Africa would have wanted to survive. And good on them. It’s an admirable trait, once victory is out of reach, to seek not to lose. It’s something that requires a different mindset, certainly. And is a wonderful test of the physical and mental skills of cricketers (of both teams).


As an aside here, South Africa was set 481 to win against India in Delhi, or 5-and-a-bit sessions to survive. They were five out at tea on day 5, but lost. R Ashwin and UT Yadav took wickets in each of the first three overs after tea. The end came swiftly.

Check out these runs (balls faced) statistics for South Africa:

T Bavuma 34 (151)
HM Amla 25 (288)
AB de Villiers 43 (345)
F du Pleissis 10 (117)

And some of the bowling figures for India:
I Sharma  20  12  23  0
R Ashwin  49.1  26  61  5
RA Jadeja  46   33   26   2
UT Yadav   21   16   9     3


That Test match is cricket as a story. Unfolding drama. It is not a highlights reel, but a story, to be lived and re-visited and re-told and remembered. That is Test cricket’s strength and its ongoing future. It is a game very different to limited overs cricket and to T20. There are similarities, but at times different skills are required. It’s something forgotten in the crash and bash ‘that’s-how-I-play’ attitude of many contemporary Australian cricketers (and selectors and commentators and coaches). Contrast the effort of AB de Villiers above with anything we saw from Australia in Cardiff 2015. Had that Test been saved (saved!), the rest of the Ashes series would have had a different context.


Anna Karenina didn’t have the Book of Life, advocating itself as a secular Bible, on which to draw when she was living her story. Tolstoy neither. But we do. Our context is different.


On the topic of Stay or Leave, the Book of Life says this:

“The choice is perhaps more common now than it ever was. We expect to be deeply happy in love and therefore spend a good deal of time wondering whether our relationships are essentially normal in their sexual and psychological frustrations – or are beset by unusually pathological patterns which should impel us to get out as soon as we can. What films or novels we’ve been exposed to, the state of our friends’ relationships, the degree of noise surrounding new sexually-driven dating apps, not to mention how much sleep we’ve had, can all play humblingly large roles in influencing us one way or another.

“Awkwardly, it seems that no one else actually really minds what we end up doing, which gives the decision a degree of existential loneliness it might not always have possessed. Historically, the choice was in a sense a good deal easier because there were simply so many stern external sanctions around not leaving. Religions would insist that God blessed unions and would be furious at their being torn asunder. Society strongly disapproved of break-ups and cast separating parties into decades of ignominy and shame. And psychologists would explain that children would be deeply and permanently scarred by any termination in their parents’ relationship.

“But one by one, these objections to quitting have fallen away. Religions no longer terrify us into staying, society doesn’t care and psychologists routinely tell us that children would prefer a broken family to an unhappy one. The burden of choice therefore falls squarely upon us. The only thing determining whether to stay or leave is how we feel – which can be a hard matter indeed to work out for ourselves, our feelings having a dispiriting habit of shifting and evading any efforts at rational clarification.”


It’s a big confusing world out there (here). But it’s heartening to know that while the T20 brigade fill the highlights reels, until we have seen every possible permutation of sixes and ramp shots and slower balls, cricketers capable of playing for the draw still exist. Long may Test cricket and its vagaries throw up the notion of playing for the draw.


More Almanac Cricket here


About David Wilson

David Wilson is a writer, editor, flood forecaster and former school teacher. He writes under the name “E.regnans” at The Footy Almanac and has stories in several books. One of his stories was judged as a finalist in the Tasmanian Writers’ Prize 2021. He shares the care of two daughters and a dog, Pip. He finds playing the guitar a little tricky, but seems to have found a kindred instrument with the ukulele. Favourite tree: Eucalyptus regnans.


  1. Yes. Great stuff.

    For a moment there I thought you were going to channel Hal Hartley.

  2. Beautiful ER.

  3. Agree wholeheartedly, e.r.

  4. Dear Fiction Nazi,
    You’ve been at the absinthe bottle again, haven’t you? Soon you’ll be seeing flying horses with Clarrie Grimmett wheeling them down to Jack Hobbs.
    I am firmly on the other side of this debate and find Test Cricket now largely a waste of time. I take a passing interest, much as I do with ex-wives and partners. I check the score sporadically and gaze in through the window at proceedings occasionally, hoping that they are doing well (but not too well).
    I think its got something to do with my getting old and impatient and raging against the dying of the light. Test cricket celebrates the dying of the light and wanders off into the dressing room to sulk given the vaguest passing shower.
    Your disdain for Ken Hinkley’s reading habits in your Perth Test review really got to me, as Kenny’s tastes and habits are largely my own. I never had much time for literary fiction. Omar Sharif and Julie Christie was the closest I got to the Russian masters. Zhivago stepping onto that train platform in the middle of Siberia, and bugger me dead, there’s Lara standing and apparently waiting for him. All of the war ravaged, blizzard driven train platforms in White Russia and you have to walk into mine? What are the chances I thought? About the same as a big quaddie in my experience. Not worth staking a life on.
    So good stories and good movies were life with the boring bits of the other 999,999 train platforms left out. Test cricket and it’s diehard aficionados celebrate the boring bits being left in. Brisbane, Perth, Delhi and whatever the child molestation of the WIndies tour becomes. And almost disdains the “cheap commercialism’ of a riveting Adelaide Test. Because of the lights; the pink ball; the 3 days – or because the opera let the plebs in and ruined the experience for the season ticket holders?
    I’m with Geoff Dyer – I don’t have the time and patience for the worthy but obscure – in books or sport.–geoff-dyer-fine-line-between-fact-and-fiction-nonfiction
    Am I impatient or are you blokes indulgent? Leave that to the Russian judge.

  5. P Warrington – Hal Hartley? I don’t get this reference, but I like it.

    PB – “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Albert Einstein.
    Rehashed life lessons and non-fiction self-help books are usually 1 page of interesting content to every 200 pages of filler. No one has all the answers.
    Better to open up to the improbable.
    Head out with Clarrie.
    Things always look different from there (and that alone makes it worthwhile).

    Never mind.
    I’ve found my path.
    Glad you’ve found yours.

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