December 19, 2008

A lowdown on fourth-innings run-chases

Of late, sides have achieved targets batting last far more often than they used to

India's win in Chennai was the highest successful run-chase in the country, beating the earlier record by more than 100 runs © AFP

Over the last two months Test cricket has witnessed two stirring fourth-innings run-chases: in October in Chittagong, New Zealand overcame a first-innings deficit of 74 and Bangladesh's spin attack to chase down a victory target of 317 with three wickets in hand. The opposition admittedly wasn't of the highest quality, but it was a huge achievement for New Zealand, considering their flaky batting line-up - they scored only 171 in their first innings - and that Bangladesh's spinners were bowling in familiar home conditions. By far the more high-profile chase, though, was India's 387 against a spirited England team in Chennai, after falling behind by 75 in the first innings.

In 1898 Tests, only 24 times have teams chased in excess of 300 to win, and two of those chases happened within the last couple of months. It's a phenomenon that is on the rise: since 2000, this feat has been performed eight times, the highest in a single decade; it happened six times in the 1990s, and just once in the 1980s, when Gordon Greenidge's sensational double-century helped West Indies chase down 344 for the loss of just one wicket at Lord's.

Perhaps it's because pitches today are better than they used to be in the past, or perhaps Test cricket progresses at such a frenetic pace these days that teams play their fourth innings well before the final day, when the pitch is usually at its most unpredictable. The reasons could be many, but the result has been several exciting and successful run-chases, and records being rewritten. India's 387 is by far the biggest target ever chased down in the fourth innings in India: it beat the earlier record, West Indies' 276 in 1987, by more than 100 runs, and is only the fifth instance of a successful chase of more than 200 in India.

As the table below indicates, the 2000s have been the best years for run-chases: of the 66 times 200-plus targets have been achieved since 1970, 31 have been since 2000. This isn't only due to the increased frequency of matches this decade. If you define the relevant games as decisive fourth-innings matches that had teams chasing between 200 and 420, or draws where teams had to bat at least 80 overs to save the Test, the win percentage in the 1970s was a meagre 14.29; in the 2000s it has doubled to 28.44. In the 1990s there were 53 losses in such games to only 15 wins; in the current decade the losses have only gone up by one while the wins have doubled.

Fourth-innings performances over the decades
Decade Wins (target>=200,<=420) Losses (target >=200,<=420) Draw (>=480 balls) Total games Win %
1970s 9 34 20 63 14.29
1980s 11 24 16 51 21.57
1990s 15 53 23 91 16.48
2000s 31 54 24 109 28.44

Breaking down the numbers in the 2000s, it's clear that England and South Africa are the best venues for these run-chases: each of those countries has witnessed six successful chases in excess of 200 this decade. Among the six in England, the home team have been the winners on five occasions, including the famous chase against Australia when Mark Butcher led them to 315 for 4, the highest of the lot. New Zealand have been on the receiving end thrice, while South Africa are the only overseas team in the list, thanks to their excellent chase of 283 at Edgbaston earlier this year. The South Africans aren't as dominant in their own list of six, featuring only thrice, including the superb win in Durban against Australia in 2002.

Sri Lanka and West Indies, on the other hand, are the worst venues for these run-chases, with nine losses in each. Sri Lanka have been at the receiving end on four of those nine instances, including one at Galle when they were bowled out in just 45.2 overs against Australia. On five occasions the team losing has been dismissed for less than 200. West Indies have fared even worse, losing seven out of nine times.

Host-country-wise fourth-innings results since 2000
Host country Wins (target>=200,<=420) Losses (target>=200,<=420) Draw (>=480 balls)
Australia 2 7 3
Bangladesh 3 1 1
England 6 8 3
India 2 4 2
New Zealand 3 4 2
Pakistan 3 2 2
Sharjah 0 1 0
South Africa 6 7 3
Sri Lanka 2 9 4
West Indies 4 9 3
Zimbabwe 0 2 1

A team-wise list also reveals that England and South Africa have been the most successful, winning six times each in these chases. The interesting number, though, is in the losses column for West Indies: they lead the way comfortably with 13 defeats, including seven at home, three each in Kingston and Port-of-Spain. Out of those 13 losses, seven times they were bowled out in less than 75 overs, and an equal number of occasions for less than 200.

Team-wise fourth-innings results since 2000
Team Wins (target>=200,<=420) Losses (target>=200,<=420) Draws (>=480 balls played)
Australia 5 4 3
Bangladesh 0 1 1
England 6 7 3
India 4 5 4
New Zealand 1 3 2
Pakistan 3 4 3
South Africa 6 8 3
Sri Lanka 2 5 1
West Indies 4 13 4
Zimbabwe 0 3 0

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo