@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read
Ben Gardner opens up his spreadsheet to attempt to work out which Test team, historically, has been the best at holding their nerve under pressure.
In cricket, and all sport, there is a fascination with players, and teams, which are ‘clutch’. Those who, when the game gets close, seem to always come out on top. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are termed ‘mentality monsters’. Virat Kohli’s India made a habit of incredible last-day Test heists. And at the other end, there’s South Africa’s reputation as Cricket World Cup ‘chokers’, with the Proteas taking seven World Cup appearances to win a knockout game, despite being one of the best ODI sides in the world for much of that time.
Related to this are those teams that seemingly can’t help but enliven the action, who find themselves embroiled in thrillers time and again. Their fans’ nerves might be shredded, but at least they get value for money. In Test cricket, taking place over five days and often ending in a comprehensive result or a dull draw, the thriller is even more precious, because of its rarity.
However, much of this discussion takes place in the abstract. A player can earn a ‘clutch’ reputation on the back of one or two performances, but often there is little data to back up such a status. Let’s attempt to do so, seeing which Test teams are involved in thrillers the most often, and which teams have the best and worst record in close games
First, we’ll need to define what a thriller is, and put in a variety of dividing lines to do so. First of all, something which should be uncontroversial: if a Test team wins chasing with three or fewer wickets in hand, that’s a thriller. If there are any more, it doesn’t count. There might still be some borderline cases here, a big chase achieved six down after an early collapse, or a late collapse making a game seem closer than it is. But otherwise this should fit the bill. The bowling side will definitely be into the tail, with No.9 or lower at the crease. The result isn’t truly settled until it’s settled in a three-wicket win.
Figuring out a boundary for wins by a side defending a total is trickier, because the scale is less analogue. Could we really say that a win by 40 runs is a thriller, but a win by 41 runs isn’t? And even if a team are nine down with north of 50 required, Ben Stokes and Kusal Perera have shown that some last-wicket thwacking can achieve the unlikeliest of asks.
What we can do here is use our three-wicket threshold to achieve parity for a side defending. There have been 59 wins in men’s Test history by three wickets or fewer. What is the equivalent for defending? It turns out, it’s 38, with 56 wins achieved by 37 runs or fewer, and 61 wins achieved by 38 runs or fewer. Perhaps 36 would have been neater, the threshold for what can be achieved in an over of madness. But you can’t mess with mathematics.
Naturally, any tie, of which there have been two, is a thriller. But what draws are thrillers? Eight wickets down feels like the right dividing line, and fits with our previous thresholds too: there have been exactly 50 eight- or nine-down fourth-innings draws in Test history. We’ve opted not to include stalemates for a few reasons. Firstly, while a game that could end in a victory for either side has likely been close throughout, a team which scraps to an eight-down draw, having been pummelled for most of the game, can’t really be said to have left themselves in too much credit.
There’s also the issue that, with balls remaining generally not recorded on a scorecard, it can be tough to tell which games have been won by the bowling side with only a few overs to spare, and so the picture will be incomplete. There are also those draws, such as England’s against Australia at Cardiff in 2009, which are achieved by the side batting for a long time in the third innings, rather than the fourth. All of these complications means it is much simpler to leave them out. This makes conceptual sense too. A thriller, really, is a game either side could have won, and while this is true of some draws, in these cases a deadlock can feel unsatisfying.
With that settled, let’s introduce the Wisden World Test Thriller Ranking table:
There are quite a few surprising results here. Australia, despite having been Test cricket’s dominant team throughout history, capable of brushing aside all-comers through much of the 1990s and 2000s, have been involved in the highest percentage of thrillers of any team, with more than seven per cent of their game’s close ones under our metric. Given their supremacy, it is also interesting that they have won fewer than half of their thrillers. Perhaps those defeats at Headingley in 2019 and Brisbane in 2021 are indicative of a wider frailty.
Bangladesh’s high thriller rate is also of note. Generally considered one of the longest format’s whipping boys since their entrance in 2000, they are second only to Australia for close games. Had they won more than one in three of their nine thrillers, would they be perceived differently now?
England’s Test side are middle of the road when it comes to percentage of thrillers, something their wildly oscillating side has attempted to rectify in recent years, but they do at least have an excellent record in nail-biters, winning almost two-thirds of such matches.
But both top and bottom of the pile are New Zealand. Perhaps by virtue of how long it took them to establish themselves in Test cricket – their first Test win arrived in 1961, nearly 30 years after their first Test – their thriller percentage is miniscule. But their thrillers won percentage is sky-high, with the Blackcaps having won two-thirds of their close encounters.
The lesson to the other teams is clear. If you’re facing Kane Williamson’s side, it probably won’t be a close game, one way or the other. And if it is, you’re probably done for anyway.