Battling the fear of defeat
The difficulty of the fourth-innings chase is an abiding legend - with adequate basis in fact - of Test cricket.
When England set out to chase 319 in the recently concluded Lord's Test, the statistics were overwhelmingly against it: in the history of Test cricket, in some 2130 Tests, a fourth-innings target above 300 had only been chased down a grand total of 27 times. Strictly speaking, this statistic is misleading: a more revealing one would also tell us how many times such a target has been set. But we do gain an inkling of how difficult this task has been in the history of the game.
What makes it so?
There is a simple environmental reason, of course, one having to do with playing conditions. Fourth-innings chases take place late in a Test, often on fourth and fifth days; by then, a typical cricket pitch will have started to wear and tear and take increasing amounts of turn; the bounce of the playing surface will have become more variable, producing head-high snorters and ground-sniffing grubbers with equal felicity; mere survival and crease-occupation can very often take precedence over run-scoring. Small wonder, then, that all too many sides, when faced with a substantial chase, will simply opt for the seemingly safer option of merely surviving and batting for a draw.
But far more important than such environmental considerations is the simple fact that the fourth innings is the final innings of the game. Beyond this innings, no comebacks are possible; a batting error here has import greater than any committed in the first three innings of the game. For the team batting first, in the first innings, a batsman can reassure himself he will have a second chance to make good; in the second innings, he can comfort himself with the thought his bowlers and fielders might still make up for his errors. This knowledge, by clearing his mind of excessive anxiety, can lend his efforts some freedom and sparkle. But for a team batting second, in their second innings, batsmen have no more chances to make good. This innings, this moment, this opportunity, is all that is left.
All that has come before: the toss, the first three or four days' play, the acquisition and surmounting of first-innings leads, the declarations, the fightbacks, the setting of targets, the momentum swings, now appears as merely preamble, as an extended preliminary of sorts. The moment of truth, and the most brutally unforgiving of cricket equations is at hand. Make the runs - or bat the overs - without losing ten wickets. Or lose. There is a brutal clarity to this task, a hard, unforgiving one.
Every wicket that falls in the fourth innings then, is a potential herald of doom for the batting side, and they know it. A wicket in Test cricket is always cause for celebration, but when one falls in the fourth innings, the bowling side's jubilation is tinged with just a little more passion; they know they have accomplished another 10% of their task; they can sense, just a little more strongly, that victory is there for the taking. This knowledge can spur their efforts on to greater heights. (It can also turn up the volume on their sledging.) They know that the fall of a wicket will bring a new batsman to the crease, aware, just like those who preceded him, and those who will follow, of these simple incontrovertible facts. Wickets in Test cricket bring pressure in their wake; when they fall in the fourth innings, they bring an acute anxiety, a fear of defeat, now suddenly made more proximal, with them.
It is this fear of defeat, which infects fourth-innings chases and makes them as difficult as they are. There are moments aplenty, when sides chasing fourth-innings targets get off to good starts, or put together substantial partnerships. These can momentarily dispirit the fielding side, causing their shoulders to droop and their heads to hang. But the smart ones know that the next wicket to fall will all too quickly reintroduce the batting side to the bottom line of the fourth innings. This knowledge, if kept at hand, can animate their efforts and keep them unyielding. The batting side, for their part, know this. They may despair of ever breaking the spirit of the bowling side.
England's manner of defeat at Lord's - caused in part by a series of trigger-happy hooks and pulls - might have been surprising. But the defeat itself was not; the fourth-innings chase chews up and spits out all too many who venture out to master its challenges.
Legend has it that WG Grace - or perhaps some other, equally enterprising, captain - is supposed to have said that on winning the toss, a captain should think carefully, consider the playing conditions, and then, decide to bat anyway. The fourth innings chase makes this piece of advice a very sensible one indeed.
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here