Has fourth-innings batting lost its terrors?
The fourth innings of a Test match is, according to conventional definitions, supposed to be the most challenging for batsmen: it's when the pitch increasingly helps spinners with turn and bite, and when the inconsistent bounce aids fast bowlers too. In short, it has historically been the most productive time for bowlers and the toughest for batsmen. The stats from 134 years of Test cricket bear this out: the overall first-innings average is 32.27, but in the fourth innings it falls to 27.17, a drop of more than 15%. In the first innings 1342 centuries have been scored, but in the fourth innings only 197; the innings-to-centuries ratio (total innings played by all batsmen to hundreds scored by them) is 15.92 in the first innings, and 48.65 in the fourth.
All of this suggests that batsmen don't look forward to batting in the last innings of a Test, but over the last few years the dread of the fourth innings seems to be vanishing. In the five-year period between January 2006 and December 2010, the fourth-innings average was 31.60, an increase of almost 24% from the five-year period between 1996 and 2000. The frequency of hundreds went up too: the norm had been one in roughly 50 innings for the preceding 20 years, but between 2006 and 2010 the ratio was once every 33 innings, with 34 hundreds being scored in 1127 innings.
Fortunately for the bowlers, 2011 has so far been a much better year: the fourth-innings average has reduced to 25.30 in 117 innings so far, and Mahela Jayawardene's outstanding 105 against Australia on a difficult pitch in Galle has been the only last-innings century this year.
|Period||Innings||Runs||Average||100s/ 50s||Inngs per 100|
|Jan 2006-Dec 2010||1127||28,351||31.60||34/ 154||33.15|
|Jan 2001-Dec 2005||1176||25,416||28.11||23/ 135||51.13|
|Jan 1996-Dec 2000||1053||20,953||25.52||21/ 96||50.14|
|Jan 1991-Dec 1995||774||15,079||24.63||14/ 68||55.28|
|Jan 1986-Dec 1990||503||10,080||27.24||10/ 41||50.30|
|Jan 1981-Dec 1985||557||11,002||26.89||14/ 37||39.79|
The table of year-wise fourth-innings averages since the beginning of 2006 further illustrates the direction in which the numbers had been moving before 2011. In each of the previous five years, the innings-per-century stat was less than 38, with the low of 27.67 coming in 2007. Six centuries were scored that year, with half of them coming from the bat of Younis Khan, who remains the only batsman to score three fourth-innings hundreds in a single calendar year.
In terms of averages, though, 2008 was the best year for batsmen, with the fourth-innings average zooming up to more than 35. Eight centuries were scored that year, with Ramnaresh Sarwan and Graeme Smith notching up two each. (Thus, a feat that has been achieved only six times in the entire history of Test cricket occurred twice in a single year.)
Overall, more than 17% of all the fourth-innings centuries scored in Test history was piled on in those five years between 2006 and 2010, which is a compelling statistic on how the dynamics of batting have changed recently.
|Year||Innings||Runs||Average||100s/ 50s||Inngs per 100|
The innings-wise stats in those five years also show that batting in the fourth innings wasn't such an uphill task: the difference between the fourth-innings and second-innings averages is only 1.7 runs.
|Innings||Runs||Average||100s/ 50s||Inngs per 100|
|1st Innings||2168||69,590||36.15||176/ 300||12.32|
|2nd innings||2180||65,077||33.30||142/ 300||15.35|
|3rd innings||1916||52,003||31.53||99/ 248||19.35|
|4th innings||1127||28,351||31.60||34/ 154||33.15|
In all, there've only been 18 team scores of more than 400 in the fourth innings, of which five have come between 2006 and 2010. The highest of those was New Zealand's 431 against England in Napier in 2008, though New Zealand still fell well short of their target of 553. The next best was even more impressive: South Africa chased down 414 to beat Australia in Perth at the end of the same year, which was only the third instance of a team successfully chasing more than 400 losing fewer than five wickets.
Looking at the country-wise stats for fourth innings, it's clear that a major reason for the overall high averages is the nature of pitches in the subcontinent during this period. In the 1990s, batting last in India and Pakistan was almost always an onerous task: between 1991 and 2000 the fourth-innings averages in both India and Pakistan were less than 24; between 2006 and 2010, the corresponding averages in both countries are more than 30, with the one in India going up to 33.46, almost 10 runs more than the average in the 1990s (23.60). The pitches in Australia have eased up as well (along with the home team's bowling attack): a fourth-innings average of 22.78 in the 1990s has gone up to more than 30 between 2006 and 2010.
The year 2011 hasn't been as easy, but it's far too early to say if the overall trend in favour of batsmen is indeed reversing.
|Sri Lanka||104||2862||35.33||5/ 18|
|New Zealand||134||3205||29.40||2/ 18|
|West Indies||130||3165||29.30||3/ 22|
|South Africa||173||3998||27.76||1/ 22|
And finally, a look at the batsmen who thrived in the fourth innings in the 2006-2010 period. Among those who scored at least 400, Younis is expectedly on top, while nine other batsmen also average more than 50. Between 1991 and 2000, with a similar cut-off, only two batsmen averaged more than 50.
|Younis Khan||12||686||98.00||4/ 2|
|Kumar Sangakkara||7||458||76.33||2/ 0|
|VVS Laxman||13||458||65.42||1/ 2|
|Ricky Ponting||12||561||62.33||2/ 2|
|Shivnarine Chanderpaul||14||578||57.80||1/ 6|
|Graeme Smith||17||855||57.00||2/ 6|
|Michael Hussey||10||444||55.50||1/ 2|
|Daniel Vettori||12||548||54.80||1/ 3|
|Ian Bell||11||427||53.37||0/ 5|
|Ramnaresh Sarwan||12||579||52.63||3/ 2|
S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter