September 30, 2011

Has fourth-innings batting lost its terrors?

More than 17% of all fourth-innings centuries scored in Test cricket came in the five-year period between 2006 and 2010

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.

Fourth-innings batting stats over the last two decades
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.

Fourth-innings averages in each year since Jan 2006
Year Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s Inngs per 100
2006 277 6830 31.04 8/ 35 34.63
2007 166 4307 33.38 6/ 22 27.67
2008 242 6690 35.02 8/ 42 30.25
2009 227 5506 28.82 6/ 29 37.83
2010 215 5018 30.22 6/ 26 35.83
2011 117 2379 25.30 1/ 10 117.00

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-wise batting stats between 2006 and 2010
  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.

Fourth-innings batting stats between 2006 and 2010, by host country
Host Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Bangladesh 84 2507 39.17 5/ 12
Sri Lanka 104 2862 35.33 5/ 18
India 107 2543 33.46 3/ 14
England 167 4134 32.29 6/ 17
Pakistan 44 1039 30.55 3/ 3
Australia 174 4422 30.08 5/ 25
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.

Highest batting averages in fourth innings between 2006 and 2010 (Qual: 400 runs)
Batsman Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • david on October 3, 2011, 13:35 GMT

    if a wicket starts flat there a fair chance the forth innings pitch will still be good to bat on. with the lack of top notch spinners like warne and murili no longer about. dpk

  • Aalok on October 3, 2011, 8:45 GMT

    @BravoBravo - When Sachin scored 14 and remained not out, Laxman was at the other end on 32 not out. So India did not end up losing that particular test match in a humiliating fashion as you so describe. Also, this article does not refer to second innings performances for batsmen but to fourth innings batting performances of a test match. So no point comparing apples with oranges. Next time, do your homework before you post comments.

  • Syed Arbab on October 3, 2011, 7:48 GMT

    @Beazle: I agree with you, Younus is a fighter, especially against the Indians, I surprised to read that "Younis Khan is the only batsman to score three fourth-innings centuries in Tests in a single calendar year" & we all know about legends of Bradman, Viv, Miandad, Gavaskar, Sobers, Hutton etc but they never accomplished that, BIG surprise.

  • AMEER on October 3, 2011, 4:52 GMT

    This is statitics for last 5 years. Overall only Ponting, Gavasker has better 4th innnings average. In australia 4th Innins does not much difference, because of quality of pitch. In indian / Srilankan condition 4th 5th day very difficult to play becuase of Turn and qualitiy of spinners. Lara's forth innings also below par. (Average 35 only). Sanggakkara's overall 4th innngs also 39.

  • Rishi on October 2, 2011, 2:33 GMT

    Well written article, like it. Many time stats reveal things which people either really don't know or rather tend to ignore it. The batsmen listed in table are those who are fighters and matchwinners, not fluke. @aalkool IND lost by an innings to SA on their recent trip to SA while certain 'established' batsman ended his 2nd innings (3rd innings of the match) on a high note, he scored 14 and remained not out, watching IND humiliating defeat. That was some killer instinct and fighting spirit shown by IND batsman, WOW, ofcourse not outs are confounding factors in Batting Stats.

  • jawaid on October 1, 2011, 18:09 GMT

    Has any other Pakistani besides Younis Khan scored a century in fourth innings ever.

  • indra on October 1, 2011, 11:57 GMT

    what ever anyone say against SACHIN, whether it may be to support him or against him, fact is cricket revolves around SACHIN. Whatever the page is about, the fight will be on him. That is enough to say how big a legend he is. the other one is, cricket i not all about 4th innings. A team has to do its best in all innings, then only it can win. A performance remains a performance, whether it be 1st innings or 4th innings. It really hurts, when one say that he does not play during pressure situations, for that, see the scorecards of matches he hit centuries, u will find that, mostly he was the lone fighter.

  • Anjana on October 1, 2011, 6:13 GMT

    The list of batsman here well represents the real fighting batsman during the period considered.

  • ian on September 30, 2011, 22:27 GMT

    So, it seems that obtaining runs in the 4th innings has got easier in the last 5/6 years. The major contributing factor has to be the improvement in pitches world-wide (with the odd exception like the dust-bowl at Galle). Why would this be? Such a tough one - Not! Groundsmen are instructed to make pitches that last, otherwise there'd be no gate (or more importantly, TV viewers) on days 4 & 5! Incidentally, this flawless batting pitch era has also been responsible for some highly inflated run-scoring, mainly on the subcontinent, and that has produced much cricket where the vital balance between bat and ball has swung heavily in favour of the batters. This, in turn, has impacted on Indian cricket especially, where the techniques of their test batsmen has been found wanting time and time again, once those batsmen are away from their home pitches. Only those who learnt their cricket in the '90s, like Dravid and SRT, have the technique to cope when the balance is true between bat and ball.

  • sajjo on September 30, 2011, 18:27 GMT

    everytime i see a list of impressive stats like this one, i always see the names of shivnarine chanderpaul and ramnaresh sarwan, which goes to show how valuable they are. playing for a struggling team they are always undder pressure when they come out to bat. very rarely can they bat at ease or with a free mind, yet they are able to perform like this, and yet they are still so heavily criticized. they do not get enough credit that they deserve, but they have been west indian heroes and match winners over the last decade

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