Thrilling finishes and the 50 over game
…Allan Donald standing, turning, dropping his bat, then running, but too, too late, as the celebrating Australians converge (Edgbaston, 1999)…
…Ajmal Shehzad clubs a first ball six as England’s 8th wicket pair gather 13 runs from the final over to tie the game on the final ball (Bengalaru, 2011)…
…Grant Elliot launches Dale Steyn over long-on, over the boundary from the penultimate ball of the 2015 semi-final… (Auckland, 2015)
These are the dramatic conclusions to One Day Internationals (ODIs) that come to my mind when I think of what makes the 50 over format so exciting. Matches that have run for hours but are decided by a pressure-forced error or a single audacious act. Games when all 22 players look back and can each reflect on just one thing had they done differently – pushed to turn a long single into a two; not bowled that wide; collected the ball cleanly on the boundary – that may have made all the difference.
Major tournaments are felt to be smouldering, not truly catching alight, until they feature at least one of these thrilling finishes. TV stations shelving the next scheduled programme so they can stay with the action until the very end. Pictures of fans chewing fingernails, or covering their eyes from the spectacle that both holds them rapt and that they cannot bear to watch.
Thrilling finishes seem to be the essence of one day, limited overs cricket. Yet how representative are they of the format? How often is the team batting second still chasing in the final over, or with their lower order batsmen stretching for the target? To approach an answer to these questions, I have analysed results and victory margins for ODIs since the last World Cup (March 2015 – January 2018). To provide some context for that analysis I have completed similar reviews of national, list A competitions and two non-full member 50 over tournaments from this year.
To be engaging, ODI cricket doesn’t have to culminate in a final over where all three results are possible. 100 overs gives plenty of opportunity for fortune to swing back and forth, with the final decisive swing happening deep into the second innings and producing a convincing margin of victory, rather than a nail-biting conclusion. An individual innings or bowling spell may blow away the opposition, yet provide adequate reward for the spectator or viewer. But still the sport yearns for the crazed uncertainty of a match that hinges on cricket’s high pressure equivalent of the duel.
The ODI sample I have assessed comprises 312 completed matches: 157 won by the side batting first; 153 by the side chasing; and two ties. The tied matches (0.6% of the total) qualify automatically as thrilling finishes.
Looking at the matches won by the side batting first, 13 (8.2%) were won by single figure margins (fewer than 10 runs) and so were likely to be in the balance going into the final over. Another 12 had victory margins of between 10 and 19 runs and so delivered some degree of jeopardy for players and fans deep into the game.
The chart below shows the distribution of victory margins for sides batting first (one decile is 10% of the matches in this sample). Not only are tight finishes relatively rare, but substantial wins are the norm: the median victory is by 70 runs and almost 30% of matches are won by 100 runs.
ODIs won by the team chasing were unresolved until the final over on 10 occasions (6.7% – excluding five matches decided by Duckworth Lewis when the side batting second was already ahead of the par figure when weather intervened). 27 (18.2%) reached the target in the penultimate over. Over half (14) of these had five wickets or more in hand, suggesting a well-calibrated chase rather than genuine uncertainty over the result.
The tactic of chasing teams to set a pace to their innings based on the target set, rather than the optimum score they might achieve, can make victory margins based on ball remaining in the innings misleading. Nonetheless, the chart below, showing the distribution of balls remaining in matches won by chasing teams, again shows that convincing victories are far more common that thrilling conclusions. The median margin is almost five overs and more than 30% of these games are won with 10 or more overs to spare.
A chasing side, of course, risks losing a game by being bowled out. There were eight (5.4%) instances where the game was won by one or two wickets. Five of these are already recognised as tight finishes as they finished in the last or penultimate over. At the other extreme, 35 games were won with the loss of three or fewer wickets.
Of the 312 completed matches in the sample, 28 (9.0%) appear to have delivered a truly tight game to the end, giving about a one in eleven chance of seeing a thrilling finish. Those do not seem unreasonable odds of a game staying alive until its very last passage of play.
More concerning is that 30% of the sample produced games that were not just comfortable victories but, achieved by margins of over 100 runs or with more than 10 overs to spare, were veritable blow-outs. Excluding matches involving non-Test playing nations made little difference to the incidence of crushing defeats/victories.
International sport has in-built inequalities with the population size and wealth of countries acting as constraints on their performance. The same is less true (although it remains a feature) of domestic sport where counties, states, provinces and clubs are able to recruit to strengthen sides and players migrate to where there are better opportunities to play. List A (i.e. top level domestic 50 over competitions) matches, therefore, provide something of a control sample to test whether the frequency of one-sided ODIs is a function of the match format or of international competition.
I drew my sample of domestic 50 over matches from the most recently completed List A competitions in Australia, South Africa, Pakistan (2017/18), England (2017), India, New Zealand and West Indies (2016/17). The results of 315 completed matches were analysed.
Using the same criteria for a thrilling finish (victory margin: batting first < 10 runs; chasing in last over or by 1 or 2 wickets; or a tie), there were 51 (16.2%) games that stayed alive until the very end. With odds of a little over one in six, List A matches produced tight finishes nearly twice as frequently as ODIs.
At the other extreme, trouncings were also rarer – but only slightly. 28.6% of the matches were won by 100 runs or more or with 10 or more overs to spare.
There were significant variations between the national competitions. England and New Zealand produced closer matches – shown below with the median margin of victory for each competition. The incidence of games curtailed by bad weather and decided on the Duckworth Lewis system may have played a part in creating closer finishes in those two countries.
Returning to international competition, two recent tournaments provided contrasting records for tightness of matches. At the 2018 under 19 World Cup, the median margins of victory were:
– batting first: 101 runs (ODI median: 70 runs)
– batting second: 63 balls, 7 wickets (ODI median: 29.5 balls, 6 wickets)
Only two of the 48 matches in the tournament (4%) met my criteria for a very close finish: batting first – victory by less than 10 runs; batting second – victory in final over or by two wickets or less.
Fans of thrilling finishes should pay attention to World Cricket League, Division 2. Six of the eighteen matches in the recent tournament qualified as very close finishes, with one team featuring in four of those games. On that basis, Nepal deserves to be the favourite team of every cricket fan who cherishes the tension of a 50 over game fulfilling its potential of going down to the wire.