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First innings versus second: Does the timing of runs matter?

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Roar Rookie
25th August, 2021
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1352 Reads

I would rather a half-century scored in the game’s first innings than a century made in the last.

Accurate, controversial, ridiculous? I wonder how Roarers feel about this statement given no other information.

Perhaps we can reframe this and ask: are runs made in the game’s first half more important than those made in the second, and if so, to what degree?

In order to enable discussion, it is important to establish what constitutes a match situation that is evenly poised at the halfway mark. Contrary to popular belief, this is not with the first-innings scores dead-even.

One of the peculiarities of Test match cricket is the way that batting conditions deteriorate as the game unfolds. With all due acknowledgement of the exceptions, the general trend is unmistakable: over 145 years of Test cricket the averages for top-order batsmen are:

First match innings: 39.43.
Second match innings: 37.65.
Third match innings: 32.87.
Final match innings: 30.63.

It turns out this trend has intensified in recent times. Here are the Australian top order averages for the 21st century:

First match innings: 46.02.
Second match innings: 40.84.
Third match innings: 33.00.
Final match innings: 25.02.

This eight-run differential between the third and final innings translates into a team differential of 64 runs. In other words, the exact same team is expected to be more productive to the tune of 64 runs, third innings compared to fourth. This does seem rather high, and the corresponding historical figures taken from the first data set are a more modest 20-run differential.

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The explanations for this disparity are well known to enthusiasts: pitch deterioration and the pressure of saving a game are among the reasons.

In any case, there appears to be a disadvantage for the team batting last that is somewhere in the order of 20 to 64 runs. To explore this concept a little more, there have been a total of 25 decided Ashes contests where the third team trailed by a margin somewhere between 25 and 75 runs. The results appear below:

Decided Ashes Tests (third team trails by 25-75)

Outcome Deficit at halfway
Won 48, 25, 45, 35, 42, 74, 41, 69, 66, 40, 70, 65, 32
Lost 74, 64, 40, 27, 31, 52, 49, 62, 40, 36, 63, 26

Of the 25 decided matches where the deficit was approximately 50, the team batting third won 52 per cent of the time (13 from 25). Regard this as one piece of evidence, perhaps ‘exhibit A’.

Now consider a comparable scenario where the team batting third trails by roughly 100 runs, say between 75 and 125. Since 1877 there have been 16 decided matches where the third team faced a deficit within the required range. The results were as follows.

Decided Ashes Tests (third team trails by 100)

Outcome Deficit at halfway
Won 78, 93, 80, 90
Lost 105, 120, 103, 121, 115, 117, 121, 110, 122, 102, 116, 81
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Of the 16 decided matches, the third team won 25 per cent (four from 16). Now, compare this with the situation where the team batting last faces arrears of roughly 100.

Decided Ashes Tests (last team trails by 100)

Outcome Deficit at halfway
Won 96, 112
Lost 114, 122, 91, 114, 118, 109, 77, 121, 124, 119, 106, 124, 124, 99, 114, 96, 107, 110, 119, 115, 101, 77, 79, 107, 114, 102, 99, 81, 122

This time the weaker team was successful in just two of 31 matches (6.5 per cent) or roughly one every 16. Call this ‘exhibit B’. It is worth recalling these two exceptions: in 1897-98, when Australia beat England in Sydney after Joe Darling made 160 in pursuit of 275, and in 2019, when England beat Australia at Headingley after Ben Stokes made 135* in pursuit of 359.

It is surprising to see that for the side batting last a deficit of 100 proves to be almost fatal. After the fifth Test of 1898, the next episode of a fourth innings turnaround would require 121 years, or 25 consecutive defeats. It can be said with confidence that arrears of 100 are almost terminal to the side that bats last. Alternately, in practice, the same deficit is frequently overcome by the side that bats third, roughly once every four occasions.

Finally, ‘exhibit C’ is a list of greatest comebacks in Ashes history, measured in terms of the deficit at the change of innings.

Deficit Season Decisive factor Victorious team
261 1894-95 Rain Third
227 1981 IT Botham 149*; RG Willis 8-43 Third
177 1961 AK Davidson 77*; R Benaud 6-70 Third
163 1891-92 JJ Lyons 134; AC Bannerman 91 Third
144 1907-08 VT Trumper 166 Third
142 1978-79 DW Randall 150 Third
141 1902 GL Jessop 104 Fourth

As one can see, the six largest turnarounds in Ashes history belong to the side which batted third.

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Suppose one accepts the given proposition – that is, the side that bats last bears a disadvantage in the order of 50 runs. In other words, a game between evenly matched teams shall be considered level when the side that bats last leads by 50 at the halfway mark. Adjusting for this factor, the greatest come-from-behind victories in Ashes cricket are as follows.

Adjusted deficit Season Decisive factor Victorious team
211 1894-95 Rain Third
191 1902 GL Jessop 104 Fourth
177 1981 IT Botham 149*; RG Willis 8-43 Third
162 2019 BA Stokes 135*; Fourth
127 1961 AK Davidson 77*; R Benaud 6-70 Third
113 1891-92 JJ Lyons 134; AC Bannerman 91 Third
101 2013-14 NM Lyon and MJ Johnson; Fourth
96 1990-91 TM Alderman 6-47 Fourth
94 1907-08 VT Trumper 166 Third
92 1978-79 DW Randall 150 Third

This means that in 145 years of Ashes cricket only ten sides have managed to turn the tables when faced with a handicap of 90 (using my adjustment for fourth innings disadvantage). This carries implications for the preeminence of runs delivered in the first innings.

First half versus second

The previous table reveals that since 1920, when the prevalence of sticky wickets had passed, only six teams have managed to overcome a disadvantage of 90. That is, from the 124 occasions where a lead of 90 was established in a decided match the weaker team won only six (or one every 21 occasions).

Even when the deficit was relatively moderate, in the range 45 to 90, the outcome for the weaker team was miserable. Again, since 1920, there have been 26 matches where such an advantage was created in a game that ended decisively. Only five of these finished in favour of the weaker side, or one every five.

Below is a complete breakdown of the results in Anglo-Australian cricket since 1920 based on the position at halfway and adjusting for fourth-innings disadvantage.

A breakdown of the 180 decided Ashes Tests (since 1920)

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Adjusted deficit 0 to 44 45 to 89 90-plus
Number of games 30 26 124
Wins by weaker side 16 5 6
Percentage wins 53 per cent 19 per cent 4.80 per cent

This is table brings to light a remarkable fact. In 83 per cent of decided games the stronger team leads by at least 45 runs (using my adjustment), and of these they will win 93 per cent. This means that by the halfway stage, notwithstanding the occasional come-from-behind victory, 77 per cent of matches have virtually been decided (for those not mathematically inclined: 0.83 x 0.93 = 0.77).

The implication here should be as plain as a pikestaff, Test matches are overwhelmingly determined through performances over the first half of a match. This is not to ignore the heroic rescue act, like that of Ben Stokes in the most recent series, but surely one must concede that such episodes are very much the exception and taken all through. The first half of the match is the business half, when the fate of most games is settled.

Logically, in the evaluation of top-order batsmen, the team’s first innings must take precedence. It can be declared that first-innings performances are three to 3.5 times more important than those from the second. Without doubt by the halfway stage at least 60 per cent of decided games are well and truly over.

Steve Smith.

(Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Why does this happen? What underpins such a phenomenon?

Some may attempt to explain away this happening by contending that it is the stronger team who establishes a first-innings lead and, naturally, will go on to win a majority of these contests. However, a close look at hard-fought series seems to refute this contention.

Consider the Ashes series of 2015, which ended in the home side’s favour 3-2. One might suspect that each game was a ding-dong battle where fortunes oscillated from one side to the other. Instead each ended in a runaway victory, with the stronger side’s (adjusted) advantage at halfway: 178, 304, 95, 281 and 382.

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Plus, not only was each game indisputable at halfway but all had been decided by the end of the first day. In each Test, the first team either did brilliantly (England: 430, Australia: 8-566, Australia: 481) or underperformed spectacularly (Australia: 136, Australia: 60). There was not a single match in which the first team posted a mid-range total to leave the contest evenly poised.

Obviously the teams for this series were evenly matched, yet the results were all roaring victories. Why?

The explanation appears psychological in so far as success breeds success. Consider the second Test, where Australia began with 8-566 declared. Evidently the wicket at Lord’s was offering bowlers very little, and this was underscored by Australia’s second innings of 2-254 declared. Nonetheless, England could respond with only 312 and 103. The first-day success of the Australian batsmen guaranteed their bowlers would hold the upper hand.

On the second day, England’s batsmen were faced with the unenviable duty of playing for stalemate while faced with attacking fields and a buoyant opposition. The momentum generated by Australia’s first-innings success proved to be unstoppable.

In the next two Tests this situation was wholly reversed as the Australians started with 136 and 60 respectively. Each time the home side’s reply unfolded with a backdrop of complete superiority. Suppose the Australians make early inroads to have England 4-100, their position remains precarious as they still find themselves just one good partnership from oblivion.

Dramatic success by the bowlers lays the foundation for a subsequent triumph by their batting counterparts. One implies the other.

Another example comes from the series way back in 1911-12. In consecutive Tests the home side began with miserable scores of 133 and 191. Despite having not passed 318 in three previous innings England were able to capitalise to the tune of 501 and 589. The momentum created by Sydney Barnes and Frank Foster meant that the Australian bowlers were faced with a herculean task. The failure of the Aussie bats meant that their bowlers were facing a metaphorical headwind.

Of all the problems typically associated with the batting average – weak opponents, outlier scores, dull draws, meaningless not outs et cetera – the disparity between the value of first and second-innings performances seems to be overlooked, and I cannot recall reading an article that drew attention to the matter.

To this day first and second-innings runs are treated as if identical and thrown together to produce the famed ‘average’. To me this seems ridiculous. If 77 per cent of matches are decided by the halfway stage, shouldn’t we put a heavy emphasis on first-innings performances?

Roarers may have noted that in my pieces on Victor Trumper the analysis has usually focused on the first half of important matches, such as in this comparison piece.

So back to the original statement: I would rather a half-century scored in the game’s first innings than a century made in the last innings.

Any takers?

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