Michael Jeh October 11, 2010

Fourth-innings blues

Most batsmen clearly find it easier to score more heavily in the third innings of a Test

My previous two posts have been focused on the theme of second-innings stalwarts, inspired of course by VVS Laxman's great knock a week ago. We looked at the eight most-prolific second-innings batsmen (minimum qualification: 2500 runs in the second innings) and tried to figure out some theories why. Nothing scientific, just cricket fans chewing the fat and doing what we love doing best - talking cricket with cyber friends from around the world!

In the last post, Satish made a very valid observation, that instead of counting the overall average of all second-innings runs for those eight players, perhaps a more meaningful comparison might be the breakdown between the third innings of a Test Match versus the fourth. Clearly, there are inherently different pressures when setting a target as opposed to chasing one and when you add the fact that the fourth innings is generally in the worst batting conditions of the match, Satish's point is worth exploring.

Here's what I discovered with those eight players who were on our original list.

Third and fourth innings performance of batsmen
Player 3rd innings average 4th innings average centuries in 3rd/4th innings
VVS Laxman 57 39 4/1
Jacques Kallis 66 44 7/1
Garry Sobers 57 47 6/2
Allan Border 63 34 9/2
Sunil Gavaskar 48 58 7/4
Matthew Hayden 53 49 10/1
Kumar Sangakkara 58 42 7/2
Geoffrey Boycott 47 58 6/3

Looks like Satish was 100% correct. Most batsmen clearly find it easier to score more heavily in the third innings of a Test. We know that pitch conditions are one factor and it would be safe to assume that the pressure of chasing a score (or saving a game) must also play it's part in bringing those fourth-innings numbers down.

The lower-middle order batsmen like Laxman and Allan Border have slightly lower averages in the fourth innings, presumably because the pitch is that much more unfriendly by the time they bat, quite often late into the fifth day. They're also likely to be facing more spinners at that stage of the game when the ball is likely to be turning out of the rough created by four-plus days of bowler's footmarks.

Interestingly, the only two batsmen who average more in the fourth innings are openers: Sunil Gavaskar and Geoff Boycott. Matthew Hayden's differential isn't much either, which perhaps lends credence to my original theory that opening batsmen were always likely to be the players who had the best averages in the second innings, mainly because I felt that they would often be disadvantaged by batting first on a fresh pitch, full of moisture and early seam movement on day one.

Clearly, Gavaskar and Boycott were also masters of absorbing pressure, as evidenced by the fact that they both averaged 10-plus more in the fourth innings. Perhaps their tight technique and risk-free style of batting lends itself to batting last on a 'tired' pitch. I can't remember watching them bat on TV so I can't offer comment on whether they played late or with soft hands or with short backlifts or any other technical adjustment that would help them to score so prolifically in the final innings. Perhaps some older bloggers who remember watching them bat can offer some insights into whether they changed their technique or approach in fourth-innings run chases.

In terms of centuries, Hayden seems to have the biggest difference, but this could be explained by the fact that in his era, Australia often had just a few runs to chase in the fourth innings to win matches and he did not have the opportunity to make big scores.

One final reason why Gavaskar and Boycott may be the only two on this list to average more in the fourth innings - they are both right-handers. Could this be attributed slightly to the fact that it must be a lot more difficult for left-handed batsmen late in the game because of the amount of rough outside their off stump? Generally speaking, there would be a lot more 'traffic' in the channel outside the left-handers off stump because of the right-arm over the wicket bowlers and this was bound to have resulted in a pretty scuffed up danger area for left handed batsmen. Just a thought ... it may be nothing more than coincidence but worth a debate anyway.

Pitch conditions apart, we shouldn't discount the mental strength necessary to score so heavily in the fourth innings, under immense pressure no doubt. You can't read too much into this statistic though, because when it comes to the player with the biggest gap between third and fourth innings averages, Border heads this list. And one thing that was never in question was his mental toughness or courage under pressure. In fact, the tag of the biggest 'choker' must surely belong to The Don - he averages 130 in the third innings, dropping to a mere 73 in the fourth innings. Clearly an underperformer.

My seven-year-old son just read this piece and gave me a quizzical look that suggested I might consider more useful activities on a rainy day in Brisbane. Like bowling to him on the verandah for example where a cover drive that bisects the pot plants are worth two runs but a careless pull shot that hits the slumbering Labrador on the full is not only out but calls for a new ball for the fourth innings. The blank look on his face when I asked him about statistics reminded me of this old quote:

You're trying too hard to find a correlation here. You don't know these people, you don't know what they intended. You try to compile statistics and correlate them to a result that amounts to nothing more than speculation. - Marc Racicot

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane