The Acid Test of Batting Greatness
By H Natarajan
The greatness of a batsman cannot be quantified by one quality. While the entire exercise is subjective, it’s fair to say that some of the things most pundits would consider in while labeling someone great would be factors like high levels of consistency over long periods, success on overseas tours, high degree of excellence against all types of bowling, ability to carry the team along in crisis situations, etc. The list will be long. But if there is one must-have factor that every connoisseur would be in near agreement about, it’s the ability of a batsman to perform at sustained levels of brilliance in the fourth innings of a Test match.
That’s the acid test for any player. It’s in the fourth innings of a Test match that a batsman is faced with the task of winning the match or saving it. And more often than not, it’s a challenging ask because the pressure is enormous. The mental test apart, batting on a fifth day wicket that has been subjected to wear and tear calls for heightened technical skills. The examination is more grueling and the margin for errors is very minimal.
This is where Ricky Ponting stands tall. His average of 59.58 is fractionally higher than his overall Test average – even if marginally at 59.29. That ranks him second, next only to Sir Don Bradman. The averages of even the finest batsmen are much lower than their first innings averages. At the pomp of his career, Sachin Tendulkar was hailed as the finest batsman after Sir Don, but the Indian has a dismal fourth innings average of 33.66 as opposed to his first innings average of 72.49. Even Sir Don himself averages 73.40 from 15 outings in the fourth innings. That’s a 26-point difference from his overall Test average. Brian Lara, who has an overall average of nearly 53, averages 35.12 in the fourth innings. The examples of three batsmen who will go down in the history as among the greatest highlights the lower rate of success in the final innings of a Test.
There are just nine players who boast of a 50-plus fourth innings average in their Test careers: Sir Don, Ponting, Geoff Boycott (58.76), Sunil Gavaskar (58.25), Jack Hobbs (57.59), Javed Miandad (54.40), Keith Stackpole (53.50), Gordon Greenidge (53.19) and Mahela Jayawardene (52.13). Just two of the players are among the current bunch, though Matthew Hayden (48.54) and Rahul Dravid (47.76) are eminently capable of breaking into the elite list.
The fact that there are only six batsmen – Sir Don, Ponting, Boycott, Gavaskar, Greenidge and Graham Gooch - in Test history who have scored three or more hundreds in the fourth innings is indicative of how difficult scoring is in the fourth innings. Only two (Gavaskar and Ponting) of the above have got four hundreds each in the fourth innings.
Gavaskar has a plethora of heavy-duty records to his credit, but it’s his consistency and brilliance in the fourth innings that will earn him the highest marks from every quarter. His figures are so awesome that he is by far the best among all Indian batsmen in Test history. Those figures can also, arguably, rate him the second best after Sir Don, when one considers his many fourth innings classics: the 220 he scored in just fourth Test - following a knock of 124 in the first innings - while battling a toothache. He helped save the Test to help win 1-0 a historic first-ever rubber in the West Indies. In the same series, a Test earlier, he had scored a Test-saving 117 not out in the fourth outing – an innings where no other Indian batsmen got even a quarter century. Gavaskar’s career was noted for marking the Windies attack for special treatment. His third hundred in the last innings of a Test also came against the West Indies in West Indies; his 102 paved the way for India to successfully chase the 400-plus total that Clive Lloyd has set. Then came his innings of 221 against England at the Oval in 1979 that all but helped India get nine short of the target of 438. That knock is still the third highest score on the fourth innings, after George Headley’s 223 in 1930 and Nathan Astle’s 222 in 2002 – both efforts coming in their respective home countries making Gavaskar’s score the highest fourth innings Test score on overseas soil. He is till today the only batsman in Test history with two double hundreds in the fourth innings.
It’s a measure of Gavaskar’s batting genius that his fourth innings average of 58.25 is way above his overall Test average. His cricketing career is still remembered with awe and reverence as he bowed out in style – 96 on a vicious turner against two quality spinners – when he still commanded a place in the team. Had he not got a poor decision not stymied his innings, he would have added a collected a fourth innings hundred and raised India’s hope of a dream victory.
Gavaskar’s tally of 1398 runs in the fourth innings is the second highest in all Test history - just 42 behind Lara. But the West Indian took 13 more innings for that 42 runs.
And even as I am writing this piece, I read in the newspapers Kapil Dev’s criticism of Tendulkar’s failure to deliver in crunch situations. “Every time people hope big things from Sachin Tendulkar, but often it is only disappointment that we are left with. He has thought to be the backbone of the Indian team, but he has not stood up to the occasion. Figures say that Sachin has not been able to perform under pressure. That will remain a blot in his career,” Kapil said.
Strong words, indeed. But this is not the first time one has heard such criticism, but this is probably the first time when an Indian cricketer of the stature of Kapil and a former team-mate of Tendulkar has openly voiced such a strong opinion.
Let us examine if there is truth in Kapil’s criticism. In 40 innings, in a Test career spanning 17 years, Tendulkar has scored two memorable hundreds – one that helped India draw a match and the other that ended in a lost cause. His innings of 1990, when still in his teens, thwarted England’s bid to win the Manchester Test. And in 1988-89, he scored that brilliant 136 against Pakistan at Chennai to all but win the Test off his own bat.
But the one thing that will hurt Tendulkar most is that he, quite incredibly, does not even a single half century to his credit in Tests won by India. Besides the two hundreds mentioned above, he has scored two fifties - both in lost causes. And it’s big innings of substance – like the ones Gavaskar scored, like Lara’s unbeaten 153 at Kensington Oval in 1999 that gave his team a one-wicket victory against Australia and Michael Atherton’s 185 not out at Wanderers in 1995, to name a few – that are remembered long after many others scored around the same time are forgotten. It’s the triumph over intense pressure and grueling examinations of the wicket and the bowling that make such knocks go down as classics.
Sadly, Tendulkar has failed in manner that is quite inexplicable for a batsman of his class. The record book shows that he has failed to get into the thirties 22 times of the 29 times he has been dismissed in the fourth innings of a Test match - a very sad commentary.
In sharp contrast, Dravid earns a very high rating. His batting in all innings have been pretty consistent: he averages 63.45 in the first innings, 60.18 in the second, 49.49 in the third and 47.76 in the fourth for an overall average of 56.83. Though Dravid has scored just one hundred in the fourth innings, he has as many as nine half centuries in the most trying stages of a Test. Three of those nine half-centuries are Test-winning efforts - 70 not out vs Zimbabwe in the 2000 Delhi Test after 200 not out in the first innings; 75 vs Sri Lanka at Kandy in 2001 that helped India draw level in the series, and 72 not out vs Australia at Adelaide after scoring 233 in the first essay. Those two knocks Down Under helped India take an unexpected 1-0 lead in that 2003 series against the world champions. Its efforts like these that have given Dravid a career average of 91.00 in the fourth innings in Tests won by India. Tendulkar, in comparison, averages 54.40 on the fourth innings in matches won by India, with a highest score of 44 not out.
Unless there is a Riplesque turnaround that will help him extend the evening of his career and set right to some extent the glaring imbalances, Tendulkar may have to live with that “blot”, as Kapil termed it.