July 24, 2014

Battling the fear of defeat

A fourth-innings chase can be brutally unforgiving; every wicket can lead to acute anxiety

Any wicket brings pressure in its wake but in the fourth innings, they bring an acute anxiety © Getty Images

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.

The fourth-innings chase chews up and spits out all too many who venture out to master its challenges

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Harsh on July 26, 2014, 7:17 GMT

    The most determining factors are the mental approach of the players and the state of the wicket.In the high scoring games it has often been because of the extra adrelanin flowng within the batsmen while in games with low totals being defended the wicket has a major role to play.The innings that best comes to my mind in a mammoth run chase is Sunil Gavaskar's epic 221 at the Oval which India would have won but for some dubious umpiring decisions.The spell I best remember when defending a low total was Bob Willis's 8-43 at Leeds in 1981 when he steamed in with the fury of a commander in battle with the utmost grit and determination.Close behind were Derek Randall's epic 174 in the Centenary test and Ian Botham's 5-11 at Edgbaston in 1981 versus Australia.

  • Harsh on July 26, 2014, 7:08 GMT

    My best in low scoring defeats 1.England beating Australia by 18 runs at Leeds in 1981.(130) 2.India beating Australia by 59 runs at Melbourne in 1981(143) 3.Pakistan beating India by 16 runs at Bangalore in 1987(216) 4.England beating Australia by 29 runs at Edgbaston in 1981 5.Australia beating Pakistan by 52 runs at Melbourne in 1972-73(159) 6.West Indies beating Pakistan by 2 wickets in 1988(266) 7.England beating Pakistan at Leeds in 1982 by 3 wickets(219) 8.West Indies beating Australia by 1 run at Adelaide in 1992-93(186)

    My best in big chases 1.India coming within 9 runs of winning the 1979 Oval Test(438) 2.South Africa coming within 7 runs of wining the 1st test versus India in 2013-14(454) 3.England losing by 45 runs at Melbourne in 1977 centenary test(463) 4.West Indies beating Australia at Antigua in 2003 by 3 wickets 5.India beating West Indies at Port of Spain in 1975-76 by 6 wickets(406) 6.India losing by 48 runs at Adelaide in 1977-78(493)

  • Harsh on July 26, 2014, 6:49 GMT

    The 4th innings run chases have often produced classic test matches.There have been occasions when totals looking a mere formailty have not been chased down while there have been equal number of targets of mammoth proportions that have been achieved.

    In the low-scoring defeats the wickets have played a very important role which were not true test pitches like in the Leeds test in 1981 when Australia failed to chase a target of 130 runs or India winning the 3rd test at Melbourne in 1981 by 59 runs defending a target of a mere 143.In contrast West Indies achieved a 418 target against Australia at Antigua in 2003,South Africa reached 414 against Australia in 2007-08 and India achieved 406 runs against West Indies at Trinidad in 1975-76.

    In a losing cause I can't forget India coming within 48 runs of their target of 493 versus Australia in the final test in 1977-78 and in a draw the best game was India coming within 9 runs of a record 4th innings target of 438 at the Oval in 1979.

  • pramathesh on July 25, 2014, 14:11 GMT

    Sunny and Vishy both scored 100's to make the chase of 403 easy at Port of Spain 1971 in WI. Sunny made 113 in 1977 Brisbane test where India had to chase 341 but India lost the test by 16 runs. In Adelaide test of the same series, India came close to chasing 493 target but ended up 445 all out due to 50's from Vishy, Vengsarkar, Jimmy and Kirmani. In 1979 Oval test vs Eng, Sunny made 221 and got out. India were left at 429 for 8 wickets, 9 runs away from win to be content with a draw. In 1987 Bangalore test vs Pak, Indian hopes of chasing 222 ended when Sunny got out on 96. Indian teams having Sunny were one of the best in battling fear of loss during chase-they won some, lost some, drew some and tied one but only after giving a fight.

  • kris on July 25, 2014, 12:51 GMT

    A topic well worth discussing Samir. Apart from the pitch and psychological scoreboard pressure, another contributory factor is the physical and mental fatigue of players on day 5. Although both sets of players are affected by fatigue the fielding side can make mistakes (bad bowling or dropped catch) and still get the batman out the next ball. The unfortunate batsmen do not have this luxury. So an already tired batsman on day 5 is more prone to losing than tired bowlers ( although the opposite can happen as seen in India's recent inability to finish games off in SA and NZ). Other bloggers comparing ODI second innings to a test 4th innings are again forgetting the rules favouring batsmen like field restrictions, limitation on how many overs a particular bowler can bowl, having a relatively hard ball to whack as compared to 60-70 over ball in test 4th innings, rules for wides and bouncers and most importantly game being completed in 1 day or 100 overs eases conditions during the chas

  • pramathesh on July 25, 2014, 12:22 GMT

    Also it is only Aus who has been involved in 2 tied tests, WI and India have been involved in 1 tied test each. In Brisbane test of 1960 vs WI, Alan Davidson took 11 wickets & gave Aus target of 233 to win but Wes Halll of WI took 9 wickets. In this test, Hall was bowling the last over & Aus needed 4 runs to win from 4 balls and 2 wickets in hand but run-outs on the last two balls tied the game. In Chennai test of 1986 vs Aus, India were set a target of 348 to win in 90 overs of day 5. Sunny made 90, Jimmy made 51 Shastri was on 48 at bowler end & match was tied as Maninder got out at Indian total of 347. Greg Mathews got 10 wickets. These two tests are examples where a team had decided that if it cannot win then it wont allow its rival to win.

  • pramathesh on July 25, 2014, 9:40 GMT

    SA chased 414 at Perth 2008 vs Aus, WI chased 418 at Antigua 2003 vs Aus. India chased 403 at Port of Spain 1976 vs WI, chased 387 at Chennai 2008 vs Eng but failed to chase even 120 at Barbados 1997 vs WI. Aus also failed to chase 186 at Adelaide 1993 vs WI, 143 at Melbourne 1981 vs Ind, 130 at Headingley 1981 vs Eng, 117 at Sydney 1994 vs SA. India against Pak in India lost unable to chase 222 at Bangalore 1987 , 271 at Chennai 1999 and 279 at Kolkatta 1999. There is no guarantee that a team having best of the players will win by chasing target less than even 150, or by defending a target above even 400 or even after making the opponent to follow-on-Infact Aus have lost not 1 but 3 test matches after making the opponent to follow-on.

  • Ram on July 25, 2014, 5:57 GMT

    @McGorium, I think u have not got my point. I said unstable mind of the batsman whether to go for win or for draw can lead him to play a false stroke, where as in ODIs the batsman are thinking only in one way of chasing the score down, so they are more certain in their shots. I too agree that 300s have been chased down more frequently now a days, it is mainly because of the attacking cricket this generation are playing as opposed to older generation where hitting the ball in air was considered to be unforgivable mistake in test cricket. I am just reiterating that batsman unstable mind can also be included in the pressure listings along with pitch conditions, etc. I am not saying the batsman will be casual on a first day of green top, but they certainly know that they will have another chance to correct the mistake, it doesn't mean they will do the mistake. Team playing four days of good cricket is not sure to win the match, this is the beaut of test cricket.

  • Arun on July 25, 2014, 3:53 GMT

    @ram4crictheory: Not really, it doesn't. The author argues that the pressure of the chase is the reason. The same or worse pressure exists in ODIs but we don't have an overwhelming number of defeats in the 2nd innings, especially in the last decade or two. The same players also play tests. So, it *must* be the pitch and its tricks, not so much batting last. On a pitch playing tricks, this pressure is the same, no matter what innings it is. Do you really believe that batsmen on a first-innings greentop are more casual than on a 4th innings crumbler? Many test pitches are hard to bat on, on day 5. Most 4th innings chases happen on day 5. Why is it surprising then that chasing 300 on such a pitch is likely to end in failure? 300 would be a tough score to make batting on a first-innings greentop too. Also, as I noted before, most games are decided in the first 2-3 innings, which further skews the stats. A team hammered for 4 days has no realistic chance of winning on day 5.

  • Ram on July 24, 2014, 20:00 GMT

    @McGorium, you gave the answer yourself when compared with batting the fourth innings and chasing in the ODIs. In ODIs batsman don't have any other choice except to chase the score down and in Test matches batsman do have a chance to draw the match and here comes the dilemma, uncertainty in the batsman mind whether to score runs or save the wicket, it is this uncertain state of mind along with the pitch conditions makes it difficult to bat in the fourth innings.

  • No featured comments at the moment.