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The Investec Ashes 2013

Australia's close-run history

Australia are a side who refuse to accept the logic of defeat. They sculpt classic Tests out of cussedness; and if they lose the majority, at least they got so close

Rob Smyth

July 18, 2013

Comments: 29 | Text size: A | A

Contrasting emotions: England celebrate as Australia's batsmen look on, England v Australia, 1st Investec Test, Trent Bridge, 5th day, July 14, 2013
A familiar feeling: Brad Haddin and James Pattinson nearly got Australia over the line at Trent Bridge © Getty Images
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There are truths, blessed truths and statistics. Sometimes a body of quantitative evidence is so powerful that it leaves only one credible interpretation: a batting average of 99.94, a bowling average of 99.94, and Australia's propensity for being involved in cricket's most dramatic matches. In the history of Test cricket, and particularly in the last 25 years, they have a monopoly on spandex-tight contests, those that are won by one or two wickets or a handful of runs. They have also been involved in both tied Tests.

To some extent that is not especially surprising: their generally consistent excellence means that their spread of results is likely to be different to other countries'. What is startling is the number of those matches that Australia have lost. It is something we might expect of England, who are traditionally perceived as being vulnerable during squeaky-Pom time, or South Africa, who are stalked by the ch-word. But Australia? It's as incongruous as finding out that Ian Chappell and Dennis Lillee drink alcopops.

Until recently Australia lost most of these matches while chasing a small target; that became the theme on which most focused. But Edgbaston 2005 (target: 282) and Trent Bridge 2013 (target: 311) have changed that and pointed to a different theme: the inability to win close games.

England's win in the first Test was the 17th match in Test history with a victory margin of 15 runs or fewer. Australia have lost 11 of those, seven since 1993. Their three victories in those 17 games all occurred over a century ago. The margin of Australia's Test defeats by runs reads like a particularly bewildering mathematical pattern: 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12, 12, 13, 13, 14. By way of comparison, England's list of tightest defeats by runs is: 3, 6, 11, 17, 19, 22, 24, 28, 28, 28. It is the same with one-wicket wins: there have been 12 overall, five against Australia, three since 1994. Australia have won once by a single wicket.

In the last 25 years, the statistics are even more pronounced. There have been six one-wicket defeats, three by Australia; five defeats by fewer than 10 runs, four to Australia; and 11 by 20 runs or fewer, with eight to Australia, two to Sri Lanka, and one India.

Australia have won a few tight games themselves - particularly in World Cups - but their record in Tests is too pronounced to dismiss as a statistical freak. What is unusual is their pattern of defeats in the last 25 years: they have lost eight Tests by between 1 and 20 runs, but only four by between 21 and 150 runs. The tighter the game, the likelier Australia are to lose. This is an uncomfortable and unfathomable paradox given everything we know about Australian cricket.

Some may see this as delicious evidence that Australia are the real chokers. An alternative and more persuasive explanation is that only they would be in a position to lose such games. It is a subject discussed by Steve Waugh in his autobiography, in reference to Damien Martyn's notorious dismissal against South Africa in Sydney in 1993-94. Martyn, the ninth man out, drove Allan Donald to cover; Australia lost by five runs and Martyn did not play Test cricket again for over six years.

"Damien paid the price for doing the hard work early then tripping up with the finish line in sight," wrote Waugh. "As the last visible top-order player, he became the scapegoat. Greg Norman was a notable sufferer of this curse of being almost too good. Many golfers never got themselves into a position where their moment of weakness was noteworthy. In effect, they weren't good enough to be found out, because their race had already been run and no one took any notice. To succeed, you must be willing to face failure and its consequences. Not to know the depths of despair is to live in a bubble of safety and never test yourself."

Norman won two golf majors and finished runner-up eight times. Jack Nicklaus won 18 majors and was runner-up 19 times. Did he fail on 19 occasions or was he in the top two on 37? The pattern of Australia's defeats, particularly in modern times, suggests that they have not so much underachieved by losing as overachieved by getting so close to victory.

They are baggy green cockroaches. Almost all of their failed run-chases involve lower-order partnerships that capture the essence of defiance, such as the one between Brad Haddin and James Pattinson on Sunday. At 231 for 9, with 80 still needed, most sides would have closed their eyes and gone to sleep, but Australia always rage, rage against the dying of the Test.

At Edgbaston in 2005, when they lost by two runs, they were 175 for 8 chasing 282. Against South Africa in 1994 (a five-run defeat) they were 75 for 8 chasing 117. In the heartbreaking one-run defeat to West Indies in 1993 they had been 104 for 8 chasing 184. When they lost to New Zealand by seven runs in Hobart in 2011, they had been 199 for 9 chasing 241. When they lost by 13 runs in Mumbai in 2004, they had been 58 for 7, needing 107 on a vile track. The pattern goes back further, most notably to Melbourne in 1982-83. The last man, Jeff Thomson, joined Allan Border with 74 needed. They got to within four.

In Adelaide, Edgbaston, Sydney and Mumbai, Australia's highest or second-highest scorer was the No. 9 or No. 10: Tim May, Brett Lee, Craig McDermott and Nathan Hauritz. For every tight Australia defeat there is usually a hero: Haddin on Sunday, David Warner against New Zealand in 2011, Shane Warne in Karachi in 1994-95, the young Justin Langer and May in Adelaide in 1992-93.

This is not to say there hasn't been a failure of nerve or ability in some of Australia's defeats. The lower-order heroism has often come after a top-order collapse, while Ian Healy's uncharacteristic imperfections led to one-wicket defeats against Pakistan in 1994-95 and West Indies in 1998-99. But the nature of the fourth-innings chases, and our understanding of Australian cricket, suggests there is strength as well as weakness.

Australia are a side who refuse to accept the logic of defeat. The bastards won't let themselves be ground down. They sculpt classic Tests out of cussedness; and if they lose the majority, at least they got so close. In short, the opposition have to beat Australia twice. The game is apparently over, then Australia stir like a horror-movie baddie before finally taking a decisive one between the eyes.

A similar phenomenon is evident in football. Germany have lost more World Cup and European Championship finals than any other country - not because they have failed on the big occasion but because they have excelled in getting there. Long after the 1986 World Cup, Franz Beckenbauer, the West Germany coach, was discussing his side's campaign in that tournament when he started laughing. "Well," he said, "can you believe we reached the final of the World Cup with these players?"

Having inferior players is rarely a problem for Australia. Yet theirs is a similar tale: of mental strength and how the habit of victory ensures defeats become more memorable, because of their scarcity and especially their nature. It seems like a contradiction that Australia are both the perennial winners and heroic failures of Test cricket. It is anything but. Their culture of victory is so powerful that it has almost turned defeat into a virtue.

21.18 GMT, July 18: The article was amended to correct Australia's record of one-wicket victories

Rob Smyth is the author of The Spirit of Cricket - What Makes Cricket the Greatest Game on Earth

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by   on (July 20, 2013, 5:39 GMT)

Also need to remember that among those really close losses (which certainly haven't escaped my notice over the years), were a huge number of massive victories. For years, when Australia won, they won big and if they lost, they lost narrowly. It is only recently that they have started losing big again.

Posted by Thegimp on (July 20, 2013, 3:27 GMT)

It took a bowling performance by Peter Pharlap Siddle and batting from a veteran (Haddin) and a teenage kid who doesn't know any different, to get them close in the Trent Bridge Test. Other than that this current group of Aussies have grown up in the namby pamby era of limitless opportunities and Hollywood lifestyles (Didn't Clarke own a Ferari in his early years?). I don't expect too many more close finishes in the years to come. The Domestic comp has become soft, the selectors are soft, the administration is soft. You can't sledge in grade cricket without risking suspension and we expect to breed mentally tough cricketers?? Ian Bell used to be soft until the constant barrage he copped everytime he hit the crease made leather out of his skin. English, South African and Indian cricket has hardenned up while Aust are churning out marshmellows.

Posted by shot274 on (July 20, 2013, 0:01 GMT)

I think what PanGlupek was implying was that there aint gonna be too many close finishes with this Aussie side!! Lets face it Trentbridge was quirky-No11 making 98 doesnt even happen once in a century!! This Aussie side will do very well to make England work hard to get the whitewash which weather permitting they will!

Posted by bundybear55 on (July 19, 2013, 22:48 GMT)

So just run this by me again... Australia lose close matches and we praise their fighting qualities. South Africa lose close matches and they're chokers..? In many of these close losses they were chasing modest totals. For example, it's all very well to talk about them being 75 for 8 against SA in 93/94 and then "recovering" to be all out 5 runs shy of the 117 run target - the fact is at one stage in that run chase they were 51 for 1. Similarly in the 1981 "Botham" test - 56 for 1 chasing 129 for the win and falling 18 runs short..? Australia are well known for their inability to run down modest 4th innings targets. Does that make them fighters or chokers..?

Posted by SnowSnake on (July 19, 2013, 22:25 GMT)

I think on somethings statistics should not be used. Aggregating previous performances means nothing for the performance of the current team. It is only a wishful thinking that this Aussie team is going to even come close. This will be 6th consecutive test match they may lose. Barring pervious match, which may have motivated the analysis, Austraila has lost recent matches with big margins and should they lose this one, the margin will be over 100 runs. Only if they win, they might just win by one wicket. I am betting on former outcome.

Posted by   on (July 19, 2013, 19:45 GMT)

great article rob - but it'd be more interesting and a more compelling story if you could've presented the numbers in an infographic

Posted by amit_1234 on (July 19, 2013, 18:32 GMT)

The era of ponting, gilly, hayden, waugh, warne, mcgrath is over. there was a time when Aus was unbeatable. This Aus Side didnit match even 25% of of the talent of what it was earlier. But one thing that remains till now is the " Never give up attitude". Australia is not having that fire power to win this Ashes but at the same time they are not going to go down without a fight and they proved that in the first test. England will eventually win but they have to really work hard.

Posted by   on (July 19, 2013, 12:19 GMT)

I love watching Australia, I won't lie, they have a certain grit of competitiveness about themselves in any sports. Being a typical South African, I love seeing Australia lose, just because Steve Waugh's team made our lives a living hell once upon a time. "I tend to disagree that Aussies are perennial winners and heroic failures, there have been many times when Aussies were outclassed and yes, like every other loosing side, there will always be a bright star in the making, a bad day in the office is always an opportunity for a new star to be born, this happens for every team, not just Australia. But I love watching this team play, they bring a very good attitude to the game on any given day.

Posted by PanGlupek on (July 19, 2013, 10:48 GMT)

@ on (July 19, 2013, 10:28 GMT), yeah, I get that, but the article is also saying that Aus seem to be able to come close to winning in situations where they should have been dead & buried much earlier.

I'm just saying that Aus do have that ability, just that it doesn't happen as much as it used to..

Posted by   on (July 19, 2013, 10:28 GMT)

@ PanGlupek The whole point of the story was about Australia's ability to almost get to finish line in tight contests. It had nothing to do with large defeats.

Posted by Ozcricketwriter on (July 19, 2013, 10:05 GMT)

Firstly, it is overly kind on the lead-footed Healy to suggest that it was out of character for him to mess up and cost Australia the match - until Gilchrist appeared on the scene, Healy was terrible as a keeper - he only improved once he realised he was about to be cut. Secondly, I'd like to point out that the loss in Edgbaston in 2005 was due to a horrendous umpiring error when Kasprowicz was given out caught behind when it clearly came off his elbow, and a similar shocker of an umpiring blunder cost Australia the last test match. Perhaps it is easy to blame poor umpiring for costing matches but at least on those two occasions it seems almost like the umpires had had enough of them doing so much to win a match that they had no business coming close to.

Posted by PanGlupek on (July 19, 2013, 9:50 GMT)

Nicely written, quite persuasive, and definitely some truth in it.

Although it seems to conveniently forget that Aus have been thumped quite regularly recently. Don't remember any of the games in India being especially close, don't remember the Ashes in Aus being very close, and I seem to remember them being skittled a couple of times by SA?

Not that I don't admire them for being able to dig themselves out of holes over the years, mind...

Posted by lebigfella on (July 19, 2013, 9:46 GMT)

A fantastic set of statistics... however (and I am a great admirer of the Australians) is it complacency and a little arrogance by the top order that gets them in these close situations in the first place? The tailenders have been left a really high pressure task because the real batsmen have failed their duties... is it really true grit? I do remember the Damien Martyn's knock... Australia dominated the first four days (even with De Villiers heroics) and the top order failed... he was used as the scapegoat because his more experienced colleagues failed... focusing on young Damien will take the heat of us... mmmmm... So are the Aussies really that nuggety? I wouldn't say they're chokers but they do appear to take their eyes of the ball at times... think dead rubbers

Posted by harshthakor on (July 19, 2013, 9:33 GMT)

Historically Australia virtually made it a habit in losing the nail crunching thrillers just like against West Indies at Adelaide in 1992-93 ,at Barbados in 1998,against South Africa at Brisbane in 1993-94,against England at Melbourne in 1982-83,against England at Melbourne in 1998-99,at the Oval in 1997 ,at Edgbaston in 2005,against Pakistan in Karachi in 1994,against India at Madras in 2001 against New Zealand in 2012. and finally at Trent Bridge in 2013.It was something phenomenal in cricket annals with history continuously repeating itself.

Something we need to ponder upon is which team deserves to win.Above all I commend Australia's sportsmanship in these defeats and feel though they lost they promoted the competitiveness and intensity of those series.It is the Aussies very losses that led to dramatic turnabouts in the 1992-93 and 1999 Frank Worrel trophy ,the1981 and 2005 Ashes and the 2001 series in India which were all victories for the glorious game of cricket.

Posted by Lara213 on (July 19, 2013, 9:30 GMT)

Nice piece but it does a big discredit to the other teams, who more often that not wrenched victory from defeat, whether through inspirational bowling spells or some phenomenal last stand batting partnerships of their own: Lara's and Walsh's 9th man stand at Bridgetwon in '99 springs to mind.

Just as the Aussies never say die, it's fair to say their own doggedness and reputation brings out the best in other team to make for these unforgettable spectacles.

Posted by Romanticstud on (July 19, 2013, 8:25 GMT)

I am a South African ... I watched that final day of the 1994 test when Fanie De Villiers Started bowling with Alan Donald ... It looked like the Aussies had the test wrapped up 117 was a small target ... At 51 for 1 it looked pretty good for them ... Suddenly it was 75 for 8 and a long way to go ... McDermott looked an unlikely hero as the score got to 110 for 8 ... but then Martyn and Mcgrath fell in quick succession ... it was nail biting stuff ... The key was the fact that Steve Waugh was not playing and he was a difficult customer for South Africa ... It was like they got their revenge in the 1999 World Cup semi-final ... when a tie was a victory for them ...

Posted by   on (July 19, 2013, 8:07 GMT)

The point the Author missed, is Australia chase totals and just sit and grind out a draw, facts show this, how about South Africa last tour of Australia, a get able total was Ignored and SA played for a draw, Thats what makws Australian one of the best Cricket Nations, Always looking to win wether at 120/9 or 120/5, where other Nations shut shop at 7 down for fear of losing

Posted by Gauky11 on (July 19, 2013, 6:25 GMT)

average runs scored for the last two wickets in the 7 games post 93 is 51.Clearly shows that matches have been lost at a much earlier stage.Shows the fighting spirit of Australia. Historically Aus have never been great chasers across formats. Most victories came while batting first. Yes they need to start winning more convincingly.

Posted by Sundararajan on (July 19, 2013, 5:48 GMT)

In professional sport, it does not matter if you win by an inch or a mile. You lose, you lose. That's the end of that. You don't get any points for losing by a small margin. Plus, there would have be a lot of close games because it was the other team that refused to roll over and die and gave a fight and Aus could not close out a dominating position. So yes, Aus may have a never say die attitude, but that's not the only reason why close games would have happened. So lets have a sense of proportion and not unnecessarily romanticize, shall we!!

Posted by   on (July 19, 2013, 5:26 GMT)

Fair enough. I'm an England fan but I've always respected the hard way Oz approach most sports so that even when they are on paper outclassed they still seem to find ways to make the contest closer and tougher than it should've been. To put this in an Ashes context, I've noticed that when Oz are "favourites" to win a series they usuually do so by a wide margin, but when England are deemed favourites it still seems to be a much closer run thing. I suspect the reason is that Ozzies don't like giving in even when the other guy is the superior player, whereas English men, Indians etc. seem to give up easily when they suspect the other guy is better than them.

Posted by din7 on (July 19, 2013, 5:23 GMT)

Nice article infact wonderful....if some1 says they choke...they may be the biggest fools on earth...aussies reminded me in last match when i lost all hope of revival of aus cricket and even commented in 1 of articles that there's no hope left for aus cricket..they reminded me though they may lose..but they wont stop fighting..and im back supportin aus..being an indian i never supported indian team that much than aussies because i just love that never say die attitude..i gave nochance to aus chasin 310 in 4innings with that batting..i got partially right at the end of 4th day..i didnt ON my tv on 5th day until lunch...i was surprised to see aus need 20 runs to win though i expected hightlights to be shown..even when aus lose that match their was smile on my face..the typical aus way of fighting all the way was back...ofcourse thank god they got rid of mickey..they just lost their fightin quality under mickey..hopefully aus will be back to winning again!

Posted by peter.suen on (July 19, 2013, 4:37 GMT)

We got smashed 4-0 by India and it wasn't close Last Ashes lost 3 tests by an innings Against SA last summer, wasn't that close.

Posted by   on (July 19, 2013, 2:06 GMT)

Australia also lost at the MCG in 98-99 and the Oval in 97 by fewer runs chasing small targets.

Posted by PFEL on (July 19, 2013, 0:56 GMT)

It's not an inability to win close games, it's an inability to lose by a wide margin.

Posted by cbaunni on (July 18, 2013, 22:15 GMT)

I loved this article so much that I read it twice. Here is something I wanted to say about the Aussies. Great article by Rob Smyth.

Posted by Biggus on (July 18, 2013, 21:12 GMT)

@whatawicket:-Hard to say exactly why we are like we are. I can only offer my take on that, and my attitudes to competition are probably fairly typical for an Aussie. To indulge in competition and not to give everything you have simply defies logic and is disrespectful to the idea of the contest itself. The Australian public is also quite forgiving of our team having lost if they feel that the players have given it everything which can only give a spur to the players to grind it out . For some fans from other countries there is only win or lose, but for whatever reason we as a people see a certain romance in bloody-minded defiance in the face of a doomed enterprise, as our reverence for the troops involved in the ill fated Gallipoli campaign of WW1 bears out. Underneath the tough guy image we are really quite a romantic lot. Whatever the reasons, love us or hate us, you know we make it interesting and we'll make you earn your victories, something that can only be good for the game.

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