See-saw series

ind beat SA 2Early evening in Nagpur on 9 February 2010, India succumbed to South Africa. India’s twentieth and final wicket fell six runs short of the South African first innings total, amassed for the loss of just six wickets.

Nine days later, 1,100km east in Kolkata, India bowled out South Africa in their second innings to claim a victory by an innings and 57 runs. India, this time, saw only six of their wickets fall in the match.

In a recent post, I wrote about Test cricket’s paradox of evenly matched teams producing one-sided matches. In the period 2008-12, 21 of the 33 series between the six major teams were drawn or won by a one victory margin. Yet, 75% of the match results were ‘major’ victories. The aim of this piece is to delve deeper into individual test matches to identify how two well-matched teams come to diverge so significantly.

I have looked at seven pairs of matches (each pair from a single series) which feature a major victory and defeat for each team – as in the example of South Africa and India in 2010.

Some of the findings are tabulated below.

Yes No
Victory after toss won 8 6
Victory after batting first 8 6
1st test in series 4 3
– of which, Home team victory 3 1
Decisive advan established in 1st inns 6 8
Decisive advan established in 2nd inns 6 8
Decisive advan established in 3rd inns 1 13
Decisive advan established in 4th inns 1 13
Defeated team dismissed <200 11 3
– of which, after long time in field 2 9
Winning team inns total > 450 6 8
1st inns deficit >150 12 2
Selection changes 1 11

Albeit with a small sample, the strongest associations appear to be that major victories are more likely to occur when a decisive advantage is secured early in the match (first or second innings); and where there is a batting collapse that sees a team dismissed for under 200.

Arbitrary, structural and environmental features of the contest appear to have limited bearing: the toss, batting first, match in the series. There was only one instance – England’s selection of Monty Panesar for the 2012 Mumbai Test – where a fundamental change to the balance of a team seems to have directly influenced the result; so most pairs of matches involved largely the same playing personnel over- and under-achieving. The pitch is not a factor quantified above. However, review of cricinfo match previews did not reveal any expectation that the conditions in the second test would favour the team who had lost the first of these pairs of matches. Nor were the playing conditions considered to be much more favourable to bowling on the day of a collapse and batsman friendly when the opposition built a lead.

Home advantage is, of course, neutralised in this sample by picking two matches of contrasting outcome per series. However, the preponderance of close series identified in the previous post indicates that home advantage is less telling than sometimes imagined.

What does this tell us about the nature of Test cricket as a competitive sport?

It does appear that the outcome of a match lasting up to five full days can hinge on the action of one session – barely 7% of the match’s duration. This does not mean that the result is inevitable when one team is dismissed cheaply in the early innings of a game. Since 2008, in match-ups between the six strongest test nations of the period, 84% of the 37 teams dismissed for under 200 in their first innings have lost the Test. There have been three instances (8%) where the team went on to win. In each case, they managed to dismiss their opponents for less than 200 as well.

For one team to be dismissed for a score sub-200, and then concede a score in excess of 400 suggests that there is a cascade effect as advantage begets greater advantage. And remember, these two teams have been (or shortly will be) in the opposite situation a few short weeks earlier (or later). We are not observing the effect of the different abilities of the teams, but something about the way a test match can progress. And then, when a new match begins, balance be restored or the opposite imbalance established.

A cascade effect that is familiar to us is a team being skittled, fatigued after spending hours in the field. I was surprised that of the eleven scores below 200, only two followed lengthy spells in the field.

I have emphasised the association of sub-200 innings totals and defeats by ‘major’ margins. How significant an observation is this? Are scores that low simply a requirement of a defeat by a major margin? I speculate not. Any team totalling under 500 in two completed innings is vulnerable to a major defeat. That sum could be amassed by two innings falling in the range of, say 210 and 290. That happens in this sample less often than one innings below 200 and another above 300. The score below 200 seems to have the effect of handing over the initiative for the other team to capitalise upon.

This review barely takes the shine off this red cherry of a paradox. Each game had its own peculiar rhythm and individual feats and failures. I would be really interested in the views of Test cricket aficionados: is this a feature of the sport you recognise? Are there aspects of the game I’ve not considered that explain these results? Did you follow the series in question – listed below – and can point to events or circumstances that can explain the large margins of victory and switches in fortune?

In conclusion, here are some thoughts on what this means for Test cricket as a spectacle. Few games, even between well-matched teams, culminate in a tight finish. In many matches, one team has established an upper-hand quite early in the contest. But closely fought cricket will have happened in these matches over spells, sessions and even whole days of the match. While the match outcome is very important to followers, we do consume the match in chunks and get satisfaction from those passages of play we get to see. Few viewers and fewer live spectators will watch the entire game. This sample of matches points to batting collapses being pivotal. A clatter of wickets may be one-sided, but it is also one of the most exciting ways for a game to progress and will often showcase high quality bowling and fielding. Of cricket’s major formats, Test cricket relies for its appeal less on exciting finishes than one-day and limited overs matches.

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Matches reviewed

Sri Lanka v India 2008: 1st Test, Columbo (SL by inns and 239); 2nd Test, Galle (Ind by 170 runs)

South Africa v Australia 2008/09: 2nd Test, Durban (Aus by 175 runs); 3rd Test, Cape Town (SA by inns and 120)

England v Australia 2009: 4th Test, Headingley (Aus by an inns and 80); 5th Test The Oval (Eng by 191 runs)

South Africa v England 2009/10: 2nd Test, Durban (Eng by inns and 98); 4th Test, Johannesburg (SA by inns and 74)

India v South Africa 2009/10: 1st Test, Nagpur (SA by inns and 6); 2nd Test, Kolkotta (Ind by inns and 57)

South Africa v Sri Lanka 2011/12: 1st Test, Centurion (SA by inns and 81); 2nd Test, Durban (SL by 201)

India v England 2012/13: 1st Test, Ahmedabad (Ind by 9 wkts); 2nd Test, Mumbai (Eng by 10 wkts)

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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

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