Fourth innings Test chases no longer a drab affair

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In consecutive home Tests against New Zealand, England have chased down 277 at Lord’s and 299 at Trent Bridge. Earlier this year, South Africa chased 240 in Johannesburg and 212 in Cape Town to bounce back from 0-1 down to win the series against India. Thus, four times in the last six months teams have successfully achieved tough fourth-innings chases. Individual batting too has been impressive. Four out of the five highest scores in the fourth innings in the last 10 years have come since 2018—149 in 2018 (KL Rahul at The Oval), 153* (Kusal Perera (SL) in Durban) in 2019, 210* (Kyle Mayers (WI) in Chattogram) in 2021 and 196 (Babar Azam (Pak) v Australia in Karachi) in 2022.

All these numbers raise a pertinent question: Are teams batting better in the fourth innings? Since 2019, there have been 12 successful chases of 200-plus targets. In comparison, there were six successful chases in the 2014-18 period and 11 in 2009-13. It is a remarkable rise considering there was very little cricket in 2020 due to the pandemic. When you break down the effort year-wise, we get a clearer picture of how teams went about their business. Like in 2022, 14 times teams were asked to chase 200-plus targets and four resulted in wins—a success percentage of 28.6.

Even on the intent scale, teams are approaching Tests with an open mind, as is evident from the spike in win percentages while batting last—jumping to 41.02% in 2019 from 20.83% in 2018, peaking at 45.45% in 2020 before steadying at 43.18% in 2021. It is 39.13% in the first six months of 2022. This period is in stark contrast to the previous years, going back to 2014 (26.82% win). This change in attitude could be due to the introduction of the two-year World Test Championship that rewards teams for wins.

You see that urgency translated into team batting run rates. Take for example the Trent Bridge Test where New Zealand scored 553 at 3.8 runs per over in their first innings. In reply, Joe Root hit 176 with a strike rate of 83.41 to help England pile up 539, scoring at 4.14 per over. And the highlight of the innings? The first five overs of the fourth day when England hammered 43 runs. By the time both sides had batted once, the combined run-rate was an incredible 3.98, but England had more in their tank when they sauntered to 299/5 on Day 5 riding on Jonny Bairstow’s 92-ball 136. Their second innings run rate of 5.98 is the highest for any successful team chase of 200 or more targets. This was still Nottingham, one of the flattest pitches in the world and where England had posted two world record ODI totals (481/6 in 2018 and 444/3 in 2016).

But when you look back at Johannesburg, one of the quicker and more challenging pitches in world cricket, and still find South Africa racing to 240 at a run rate of 3.59 and losing just three wickets, you begin to be convinced that it isn’t only about the pitch. All four successful 200-plus chases were orchestrated against two of the best bowling attacks in the world—India and New Zealand—meaning runs too had to be earned.

All these factors point to a well-rounded inference that batting indeed has become better in the fourth innings of Tests. And a straightforward validation of that lies in that fourth-innings average of 29.64 in 2022, the highest since 2012 when it was 31.06.

Interestingly, four-day Tests help teams batting last as the pitch would play better than on the last day. SA won batting last against India on Day 4 at Johannesburg and Cape Town, as did England at Lord’s against New Zealand.

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