Test cricket: Is it getting easier to bat last?

Written by Rohan Joseph

At the elite level, cricket is an unforgiving game. It requires a high level of skill to be performed within tiny margins of error. The game’s pinnacle, test matches, are gruelling, relentless affairs spread across five days of demanding play. Traditionally, batting last in a test match is seen as a disadvantage, putting the batting side at the mercy of deteriorating pitch conditions. The traditional ‘rule of thumb' thinking is that successfully chasing a score of any significance is unlikely.

In the last few years, however, there has been a resurgence of success in fourth innings chases. The exploits of Ben Stokes at Headingley, Dean Elgar in Johannesburg, and Jonny Bairstow at Edgbaston have got me wondering if this assumption stands up to scrutiny, so I decided to ask: is fourth-innings batting getting easier?

The Dataset

To answer this question, data has been sourced from ESPN Cricinfo’s Statsguru [1]. This database contains fourth innings data from all international men’s test matches since 1970, with 1228 entries from matches that ended in a win, loss, or draw. This period’s solitary tied test has been excluded. The data has been refined further to only examine chases of more than 200 runs as these make up 92.8% of unsuccessful chases or drawn matches during the sample period.

In order to tackle our question, we will divide the timeline into three distinct sections and examine the data in each: historical precedent, the anomaly in question, and the present reality. By looking at the past, we will have the standard against which to measure current fourth innings batting.

The Precedent (1970-2012)

This era is defined by a steady reduction in the frequency of drawn matches. The average falls from 50% likelihood of a draw in the early 1970s to a 26% chance in the early 2000s. This reduction is largely driven by an increased number of losses. From a cricketing point of view, we can say that bowling attacks developed and became more effective at taking 10 wickets to close out a match during this period. The implication of this for our question is that for this period, batting in the fourth innings became more difficult in the sense that a team was less likely to draw and more likely to be bowled out.

Making sense of the wins in this period is slightly more difficult. From 1972 to 1988, the likelihood of winning fluctuates around a mean of a 13.2% likelihood of successfully chasing more than 200 runs. One in eight is pretty terrible odds, further suggesting that during this period batting in the fourth innings was no easy task.

According to the data, the story got even worse for batsmen before it got better. With the exception of three tests in 1994, there was not a single successful run chase of more than 200 between 1989 and 1996. These are the years in which it was the most difficult to win in the fourth innings in the era of modern cricket. This invites the question: is fourth innings batting easier now than it was then? The answer must certainly be: yes.

The cricket tragics among us may recognise this era as the golden age of test bowling. It is perhaps no surprise that chasing a target of 250 runs on a deteriorating pitch when Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis are at the other end bowling 90mph reverse-swinging yorkers is an almost impossible task.

Following this period of bowler domination, from 1994 to 2012 the likelihood of chasing a target of more than 200 runs rebounded to an average of 16.2%. But even then, fourth innings batting was still mired in difficulty: one in six is still not great. In fact, this slight increase was largely down to flatter pitches, with the bowlers of the previous era retired or past their prime.

In this era, fourth innings run chases were no easy feat. The likelihood of winning was similar at the beginning to at the end of the era, with a particularly barren few years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Not only were batting teams less likely to win, they were also more likely to lose, with drawn matches less common.

The Anomaly (2013-2020)

Something dramatic occurred from 2013 to 2020: the likelihood of losing when chasing more than 200 runs was 78.9%. The frequency of draws also dropped to a record low of 5.2% in 2019 as bowlers became more adept at taking 20 wickets across a match. The infamous declaration of former England captain Joe Root against the West Indies and Ben Stokes’ heroics at Headingley were very much the exception rather than the rule. It is not surprising, then, that in these circumstances wins were hard to come by for the batting team with only 6.9% of chases successful across this period.

A discussion of the cricketing factors that led to this anomaly would fill a whole new series of blogs, so it is largely outside the scope of this piece. If I had to come to a conclusion, I think it would be mostly down to the trickiness of the conditions in this time period. Australian pitches became faster and bouncier. English conditions swung more than ever, and my beloved Indian team doctored pitches so heavily the wicket looked more at home in a Somerset field than it did in a Delhi stadium.

If I had sat down to write this blog in 2020, the answer to my question would have been an emphatic ‘no’. Up until that point, fourth innings batting was at its most demanding and it seemed to defy the general trend of test cricket. Despite this, it is these years which form the backdrop against which we view run chases in the present day.

Outcome1989 - 19962013 - 2020


So now we have finally come to the present day and can almost answer our key question: is it getting easier to bat in the fourth innings?

Over the last two years, it has been more favourable for chasing teams The average proportion of wins has shot up from 6.9% to 23.8% during 2021 to 2022. Chasing teams have gone from losing 78.8% of chases to only losing 52.4%. However, it is important to mention that these figures from the last 18 months are not unprecedented. There are a number of years, particularly between 1998 and 2008, when the win proportion (23.8%) is comparable. The loss proportion (52.4%) is also consistent with the precedent set from 1970-2012 (48.7%).

Outcome2013 - 20202021 - 2022

In considering the question posed at the beginning, the answer will change dramatically depending on our point of reference. If we have the last 15 years in mind, then the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. Fourth innings batting is easier now than it has been in the decades before, and by quite some margin. In other words, if you have only been watching test cricket for a short time, then it is understandable to laud Bazball and other fourth innings heroics as a new phenomenon in test cricket that makes chasing seem simple.

But if we look back further than the last 10 to 15 years, then what we see is that the present situation is not radically different, but rather similar to the 1980s or the early 2000s. To answer our question with a longer-term lens, fourth innings batting is not substantially easier now: it was just a whole lot more difficult in the most recent era of the modern game.

This leads us to the conclusion that the current era is not the anomaly when it comes to batting in the fourth innings: the last 10 years are. It is easier to bat last now than it was in the ‘anomaly' era, but it is about as hard as it was in a large portion of the ‘precedent’ era.

Perhaps this also serves as an example of recency bias. I have been very happy to declare that modern batsmen led by Brendon McCullum’s England are dragging the game into a new age. However, if one takes a step further back, you can see that really this is a repeat of what has already happened. These fourth innings chases are not a reinvention of the wheel, but a reversion to that which has come before. To steal a phrase and apply it to cricket, it seems there is nothing new under the sun.

Please note that this blog post was written in 2022.
Image by Ben Sutherland.