July 10, 2015

Has fourth-innings batting become easier?

Are teams finding it easier to score big runs in the last innings, or was Pakistan's outstanding run-chase in Pallekele a one-off?

Out of the 49 instances in Test history when teams have scored 350-plus in the fourth innings, 21 have comes since the beginning of 2006 © AFP

All kinds of records were set by Pakistan during their incredible fourth-innings chase against Sri Lanka in Pallekele. Younis Khan was magnificent in getting his fifth century in the fourth innings - a record in Test cricket - while Shan Masood's 242-run stand with Younis is the sixth-highest ever in the fourth innings of a Test. In the first three innings of the Test, the teams scored 278, 215 and 313 - an average of 26.86 runs per wicket; in the fourth innings, Pakistan scored 382 for 3, averaging 127.33 runs per dismissal. For the only the second time in Sri Lanka, the highest total of a Test match came in the fourth innings.

Batting in the fourth innings is still considered tough, but targets of 300 or 350 are no longer in the "impossible", or even "improbable" category. With Test matches moving faster due to higher scoring rates, teams are starting their fourth innings in a Test match earlier than before, while more and more pitches are tending to stay true throughout the Test instead of crumbling on the final day. The result has been a slew of 350-plus fourth-innings totals in the last ten years: out of 49 such scores in the entire history of Test cricket, 21 have been scored since the beginning of 2006. There have only been nine such totals in wins, and four of those have been in the last ten years - Sri Lanka's 352 for 9 against South Africa, India's 387 for 4 versus England, South Africa's 414 for 4 against Australia, and Pakistan's 382 for 3 against Sri Lanka. Add West Indies' record chase of 418 in 2003, and there have been five such successful chases in the last 12 years. In contrast, there were none in over 20 years between May 1978 and October 1999.

The table below shows the increased frequencies of 300-plus totals and centuries in the fourth innings in the last ten years, compared to earlier ten-year periods. There has been a 300-plus total every seven innings (by a team), and a century every 38 innings (by a batsman) in the last decade; in the previous decade (between 1996 and 2005), there was a total of 300 or more every 16 innings, while a batsman reached a hundred every 51 innings.

However, the batting averages haven't gone up quite as significantly as those ratios, suggesting that big scores have been interspersed with low totals as well. The average runs per wicket (excluding runs from extras) in the fourth innings in the last ten years is 29.67, which is about 10% up from the average of 26.88 in the previous ten years. The overall batting average has also gone up during this period - to 32.90, from 30.57, an increase of about 7.5%. However, the fourth-innings average has increased about 36% more than the overall average.

Fourth-innings stats in ten-year periods since 1966
Period Average 300+totals Inngs* per 300+ Inngs^ per 100 Overall ave
 2006-2015  29.67  42  6.8  38  32.90
 1996-2005  26.88  19  16.0  51  30.57
 1986-1995  25.62  16  11.1  53  30.09
 1976-1985  26.72  16  10.5  39  29.95
 1966-1975  27.57  7  17.4  51  30.90
* Team innings
^ Batsman innings

A further break-up into five-year intervals reveals that while the last ten years as a whole have been pretty good for fourth-innings batting, the bulk of those runs came in the five-year period between 2006 and 2010. Pakistan's chase in Pallekele was incredible, while West Indies made 350 for 7 in a drawn game against England in North South earlier this year as well, but those are two of only five instances of teams scoring 350 or more in the fourth innings of Tests since the start of 2011.

Between 2006 and 2010, though, there were 16 such totals - there were five in 2008 alone, and five more in 2009. In 2008 itself, there were two instances of successful chases of 350 or more within a week of each other: India against England in Chennai, and South Africa versus Australia in Perth; in all of Test history this has occurred nine times. Not surprisingly, the fourth-innings batting average during these five years was 31.60, almost four runs higher than the average in the last five years.

More interestingly, the period between 2006 and 2010 was when the fourth innings batting average came closest to the overall average - it was 94% of the overall average during this period. In other periods over the last 20 years, it has been around 85-90% of the overall average.

Fourth-innings stats in five-year periods since 1991
Period 4th inngs ave Inngs per 100 Overall ave Ratio*
 Jan 2011-2015  27.68  45.6  32.29  0.86
 Jan 2006 - Dec 2010  31.60  33.1  33.46  0.94
 Jan 2001 - Dec 2005  28.11  51.1  32.05  0.88
 Jan 1996 - Dec 2000  25.52  50.1  28.74  0.89
 Jan 1991 - Dec 1995  24.63  55.3  29.82  0.83
* 4th-inngs ave to overall ave

The team with the best fourth-innings batting average over the last ten years is Sri Lanka - they've averaged 34.58, which is very close to their overall average of 35.48. South Africa is the other team with a 34-plus average. Australia, India and Pakistan are bunched together at around 30, while the others all average in the 20s. Australia and England are the two teams with the poorest ratio of fourth-innings average to overall average, while Bangladesh have the unusual stat of having a better fourth-innings batting average to an overall one.

Team batting stats, fourth innings and overall, since Jan 2006
Team Inns 4th inngs ave Overall ave Ratio
 Sri Lanka  159  34.58  35.48  0.97
 South Africa  226  34.31  36.78  0.93
 Australia  237  31.01  36.78  0.84
 India  293  30.57  35.29  0.87
 Pakistan  290  30.16  32.99  0.91
 West Indies  279  28.34  28.44  1.00
 England  308  28.34  34.28  0.83
 New Zealand  222  26.86  29.21  0.92
 Bangladesh  154  26.68  25.89  1.03
 Zimbabwe  55  21.22  23.49  0.90

And finally, a look at the batsmen with the best fourth-innings averages in the last ten years. Younis stands well above everyone else with an incredible average of 80.86, while Graeme Smith is the only other batsman on this list to have 1000-plus runs in the last innings during this period. Alastair Cook has more than 1000 too - 1212 - but he has played 39 innings to get those runs, and averages 37.87. Tendulkar averages 39.63 (753 runs in 31 innings), Jacques Kallis 36.94 (628 in 26) and Kevin Pietersen 36.20 (869 in 33). Younis Khan is the rare gem who averages 32% more in the fourth innings than he does overall (despite an overall average of more than 61). Scoring runs in the last innings has become relatively easier in the last decade, but surely not as easy as Younis makes it look. His series in Sri Lanka has elevated him to the levels of Javed Miandad and Inzamam-ul-Haq, among the truly great Pakistan batsmen.

Batsmen with highest 4th-inngs averages since Jan 2006 (Min 600 runs)
Player Inns NO Runs Average 100s Overall ave*
 Younis Khan  25  10  1213  80.86  5  61.11
 Virat Kohli  13  3  666  66.60  2  45.73
 Misbah-ul-Haq  20  10  651  65.10  0  52.43
 VVS Laxman  21  9  678  56.50  1  48.67
 Kumar Sangakkara  20  4  891  55.68  2  65.25
 Graeme Smith  27  6  1144  54.47  3  45.97
 Ricky Ponting  16  3  661  50.84  2  46.44
 Ross Taylor  19  4  723  48.20  1  44.99
 Shivnarine Chanderpaul  22  5  794  46.70  1  58.87
 AB de Villiers  23  4  865  45.52  2  52.33
* Since Jan 2006

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter

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