The holiday season is getting into full swing, but a shadow has been cast by the abysmal failure of our boys to get anywhere near the enormous target of 509 which Australia’s cricketers set them to win in the second Test match. It may seem preposterous even to have thought they would. But a revolution seems to be taking place in the ability of teams to make large scores in the fourth innings.
S Rajesh, the stats editor of the website ESPNcricinfo, has a fascinating piece on whether batting in the last innings has become easier. In the 140 year history of Test cricket, teams have scored 350 or more in the final innings on only 49 occasions. Of these, no fewer than 21 have been in the past ten years. The chances of winning when faced with such a challenge still remain low. Only four sides won in the most recent decade, and only nine in total, but the ability to score heavily seems to have leapt up.
Before the Second World War, teams made 350 or more just five times. Admittedly, one of these was the monumental 654-6 which England made in South Africa in 1939. The match was timeless, with England being set 696 to win. But at the end of the tenth day, the match had to be abandoned as a draw so that the team could catch their ship home. In the five decades from 1945 to 1995, with many more Tests being played, 350 was exceeded only 14 times.
Rajesh offers some explanations for the dramatic rise in large fourth innings totals. Higher scoring rates, boosted by the techniques of Twenty20 cricket, mean that teams tend to start their final innings earlier in the match, when the pitch has had less chance to deteriorate. And in general pitch maintenance is better, so they crumble less.
This all sounds plausible and rational. But the change may not be a permanent one, and the world of email spam filtering illustrates why.
The attacking side, the spammers, constantly change their strategies to try and break through, and the defenders also develop their techniques. At the moment, the latter are on top, with the US company Symantec claiming that spam rates are now lower than ever. But we have been here before. In 2012, the infamous Russian botnet Grum was taken down by spam fighters and spam fell by half, only to bounce back. In the same way, there are two sides in a cricket match, and strategies evolve over time. They just take longer to work out and perfect.
In the inter-war period, massive scores were made very rapidly, as improvements in batting techniques dominated. The fielding side then gained the upper hand. Fielders became more athletic and defensive placements got better. Bowling techniques evolved in their ability to contain the batsman.
In any evolutionary system in which two adversaries face each other, fluctuations in outcomes will take place. Spam and cricket are just two examples. Maybe even England will one day be able to learn how to score more than 103.