Nailbiters

Dave Wilson | 11:57pm gmt 25 Jul 2013

Stuart Broad, shown here not walking.
In my previous feature I looked at ways of identifying close Ashes contests of the past using a number of methods. That feature was a subset of the real work, which was to look at all Tests. The three ways I employed to look at the matches in the previous feature were:-

a) the total number of times the team's win probabilities were virtually equal,
b) the difference in win probability after each match event and
c) total changes in win probability for each match event.

A match event is either a batting partnership or a wicket falling. Since the previous feature, another method occurred to me, which is to count the number of times the lead changed during a match, that is when the win probability of one team exceeded the other's.

So how does Trent Bridge rate in terms of lead shifts?

In the recent Ashes Test at Trent Bridge the lead changed hands no fewer than 18 times - where does that rank in relation to other Tests? With 40 wickets total to fall in any given match, the highest possible score using this measure would be 79 lead changes, if the lead changed hands during every partnership then again with the fall of each wicket. It turns out there have been 36 Tests where the lead changed hands more than the 18 enjoyed by the crowd at Nottingham, the highest being 28 lead changes during the Lord's Test of June 1929 between England and South Africa. The win probability chart for that match can be seen in the illustration. Wisden described the match as 'brimful of incident and varying fortune', opining that 'nothing could have been more sensational than the first half hour's play' when the first three England wickets fell for 18 runs. For a large part of the match the outcome was finely poised, until in the third innings South Africa began to gain the upper hand, reducing England to 117/5. A sixth wicket partnership of 129 between Leyland and Tate put England once again in the ascendancy, though by the time England declared leaving South Africa a target of 291 the game was more evenly matched. Once South Africa had lost five wickets for 85 it seemed victory was England's, however Cameron was then hit on the head by Larwood and had to be carried off, at which point 'all real interest vanished', the match ambling to a draw.

The next most highly-ranked in terms of lead changes are West Indies two-wicket victory over Pakistan at Bridgetown in April 1988, Australia's one-wicket win over West Indies in 1951-52, the draw between Australia and England at Sydney in 1962-63 and the draw between Australia and New Zealand at Melbourne in December 1980.

One interesting aspect of this measure is that there are several Tests in the highest ranked ten which were played very close to each other, in fact the Test between Australia and West Indies in 1951-52 was played simultaneously with the match between India and England at Eden Gardens, these two Tests ranking second and sixth all-time respectively.

It's clear that this method doesn't necessarily identify close matches which went the distance, so to speak, and is therefore lacking in terms of what I'm trying to do, i.e. highlight matches of high drama.

Here are the Tests which rank most highly using each of the other methods.

Close encounters of the first kind - Most occasions with close to equal opportunity

This method totals the number of events after which the win probability of both teams is practically equal, taking 'equal' to be +/-0.025. The match which scores highest using this measure is West Indies victory over Australia at Port of Spain in April 1978. The first three days were described by Wisden as 'enthralling, in which the the balance swung one way and then the other, leaving neither side with an advantage.' Australia then collapsed so dramatically that West Indies won easily by 198 runs. The second highest ranked Test followed a similar pattern when West Indies beat England by eight wickets in August 1963; as Wisden reported 'At the end of three days honours were even...after the tense struggle of the first three days, the complete mastery of the West Indies in the final innings came as a surprise'.

Clearly there are similar issues with using this method to determine the closest matches as with the lead changes method, as a match which is close for much of it but ends in a comfortable victory can still score highly, which is not really what I'm after as the idea, as mentioned earlier, is to identify close, dramatic matches. One possible fix for that might be to weight each innings progressively higher, but then we're getting into the dodgy realm of subjectivity. Interestingly the tied Test between India and Australia doesn't rank too highly using either of these methods, as Australia was on top for much of the match with most of the drama coming in the final innings.

Close encounters of the second kind - Minimum win probability differential

Another way to determine the closeness of a match is to measure the difference in win probability after each match event and total those differences for the whole match - the lowest total would highlight the closest matches. The closest ever Tests are then found to be as follows.

England v West Indies Lord's June 1963
'One of the most dramatic Test matches ever to be played in England' was how Wisden described the Lord's Test between England and West Indies, a Test so enthralling that Alan Ross wrote a whole book about it. The outcome was in doubt right to the end, as Colin Cowdrey, who earlier had to retire with a broken arm, was forced to come out with his arm in plaster for the last two balls. When the last over began all four results were still possible - truly 'a game to remember.'

Australia v West Indies SCG Dec-Jan 1951-52
The next highest ranked Test was the single wicket victory by Australia over West Indies in the winter of 1951-52. 'No more exciting finish could be imagined than that in which Australia made sure of winning the series'. With Australia at 222-9 chasing 260, odds favoured West Indies however a gallant last stand of 38 between Doug Ring and Bill Johnston saw Australia home.

West Indies v Pakistan Antigua May 2000
Top-ranked in terms of minimum win probability differential was West Indies single-wicket triumph over Pakistan at Antigua in May 2000. After West Indies led by only four runs on first innings, Pakistan were able to set a target of just 216, but when the ninth West Indies wicket fell for 197 it seemed victory would be Pakistan's. However, 'in scenes reminiscent of Brian Lara's heroics against Australia in Barbados a year earlier, [Jimmy] Adams piloted his team to a nerve-jangling one-wicket victory.'

Close encounters of the the third kind - Maximum cumulative changes in win probability

This method takes into account the drama of changes in win probability by measuring the degree of the shift. This I feel allows this method to more accurately identify the matches which common consensus rates as the most dramatic ever. The top ranked Tests, in reverse order as Eric D Morley used to say, turn out to be as follows.

West Indies beat Pakistan by 1 wicket, May 2000
See discussion above.

South Africa beat England by 19 runs, January 1910
England bowled out South Africa for 208 after which Hobbs and Rhodes took England to 159-0, suggesting an innings victory. Faulkner and Vogler then saw England off for 310, still a significant arrears but certainly not as catastrophic as earlier expected. South Africa then found themselves only 22 runs on with three wickets down, but an eigth-wicket stand of 74 helped them to 345 all out, a lead of 243 built largely on Faulkner's 123. Requiring only 244, England found themselves still requiring 100 with only three wickets remaining, but despite giving a fight of it in the end they came up 20 runs short. Faulkner scored 201 runs and he and Vogler took all 20 England wickets, the former being carrier around the ground at the close - 'A splendid game'.

England beat Australia by 62 runs, February 1971
'Illingworth steers England to historic win' ran the headline, as England won the sixth Test to claim the Ashes for the first time on Australian turf since Jardine's men in 1932-33. Twelve wickets fell on the first day as England were bowled out for just 184 and Australia fell to 13-2. The crowd let Snow have it for 'persistent' bumpers and Illingworth led his charges off the field, returning after the threat of forfeit. Edrich and Luckhurst then wiped out Australia's first innings lead as England eventually set Australia a gettable target of 223. Things looked good for Australia when Snow broke his hand fielding, but even with Stackpole making 67 they fell to 96-5. With Underwood disappointing, Illingworth stepped up and played a captain's role in dismissing Greg Chappell, Australia's last real hope.

South Africa beat Sri Lanka by 7 runs, July 2000
'A match that was compulsive viewing from the first ball to the last', as first South Africa crashed to 34/5 before being rescued by a 124-run partnership for the sixth wicket between Lance Klusener, left stranded on 118*, and Boucher, before adding a further 80 runs for the last two wickets. Sri Lanka then marched to a 33-run lead with only four wickets down, before Shaun Pollock's efforts saw their last six wickets fall with the addition of just 22 runs. South Africa, largely due to Kallis' 87, led by only 137 with two wickets left and, even though they added 40 more a target of 177 didn't look nearly enough. Amazingly, Atapattu and Jayasuriya were both out first ball, such that Sri Lanka were just 41/4 at lunch on the final day, but a 109-run stand between Ranatunga and Arnold seemed to ensure victory for the Sri Lankans. Even after these two went, only 16 runs were required with three wickets remaining. But Zoysa's runner, Jayasuriya, ran out Vaas before Murali was 'unkindly' given out caught behind.

South Africa beat New Zealand by 30 runs, December 1961
McGlew, captaining his country for the first time, marked the occasion by carrying his bat for 127 as South Africa gained a slight edge on first innings. However, despite Waite's 63 they could only manage 149, setting a modest target of 197 in a little over a day on a 'perfect wicket'. Cue Peter Pollock, the 20-year-old's six wickets seeing the New Zealanders fall 31 runs short.

India beat England by 28 runs, December 1972
'A memorable match' with 'fascinating changes of fortune, the outcome unpredictable until the last ball' was watched by crowds in excess of 70,000 every day. Tight bowling and splendid fielding limited India to just 148/5 on the first day, but Engineer rescued the situation somewhat with a fine 78. England could count no batting heroes in its ranks and fell to 174 all out, Chandra bagging five wickets. After some exceptional fielding from Fletcher to begin India's second innings, Greig then stepped up, taking 4 for 4 in 33 balls, 5 for 24 in all. Now it was Bedi's turn as England, chasing a modest target of 192, fell to 17/4. Greig at last gave England a batting hero, his fifth wicket partnership with Denness adding 97 and taking England to 114/4 and surely on to victory. Chandrasekhar had other ideas, putting together a spell of 4.3-2-5-3, but then Bedi dropped Cottam and, after another escape he helped England to 160/9 at lunch, but Chandra got him shortly after lunch to give India an exciting victory.

England beat South Africa by 23 runs, August 1998
'An epic Test' was how Wisden described this match after four days of 'gripping, finely balanced, hand-to-hand combat had created an unmissable climax.' Mark Butcher played one of the all-time great innings in crafting 116 of England's 230 first innings total, his maiden century in Tests, after which England lost six wickets for just 34 runs. Thankfully for England, Angus Fraser's third successive five-for meant South Africa could not capitalise, racking up 252. With Atherton leaving early, Nasser Hussain was now England's saviour with the bat, though his 94 could not prevent England from once again losing its last six wickets for 34. So South Africa needed just 219 runs to take both the match and the series, yet within 15 overs they were left reeling on 27/5, Gough taking three for ten. Rhodes and McMillan steadied the ship, taking them to 144/5, however Darren Gough finished them off with six for 42. Cue 'faintly delirious rejoicing.'

West Indies drew with Pakistan, February 1977
'A fascinating match, which ended with the West Indies tailenders defending stubbornly amid high tension to avoid defeat.' Both teams exceeded 400 first innings runs, Pakistan's tailenders, in particular Raja, rescuing them from 269/6 to 435 all out while Clive Lloyd was West Indies saviour, his 159 taking West Indies from 183/5 to 421. The match swung first one way then the other over the final two days, as the West Indies pace attack left Pakistan almost floored on 158-9, before Raja and Bari added 133 for the last wicket, thanks to some poor fielding allowing a record 68 extras. West Indies thus required 306 to win, with Richards and Fredericks apparently setting them on the way, however after their departure seven wickets went down for 51 runs, leaving the tailenders to survive 20 nervy overs.

Australia beat West Indies by 1 wicket, December 1951
See discussion above.

England beat West Indies by 72 runs, June 1995
'A match of startling fluctuations and compelling cricket was finally settled by a historic bowling performance' as debutant Dominic Cork returned the best analysis ever by an England player. A fourth wicket stand of 111 put England on top in the first innings, though the visitors enjoyed a slight advantage by the time they had dismissed England for 283, which advantage they maintained ater a gaining a 41-run advantage on first innings totals. Andy Roberts added spice by claiming the pitch was deliberately under-prepared, but England wrested back the lead after a partnership of 98 between Hick and Smith and heroics from Thorpe, returning after a night in hospital following a blow to the head off Ambrose to help add a further 85. Chasing 296, West Indies got on top briefly with Lara in sublime form, but when Stewart acrobatically dismissed him England, despite Campbell's 93, were on top for good. Cork finished with figures of seven for 43.

England drew with West Indies, June 1963
See discussion above.

Australia drew with New Zealand, December 1987
A Test which contained 'all the ingredients of a classic match, including not just exciting performances but also controversy and a heroic finish. The 127,184 spectators could not have wished for more.' The controversy came when Jones was given out to a ball which Dyer appeared to scoop off the ground before appealing, and the same fielder also disposed of Wright when one short of a ton. 221/3 soon became 317 all out, however Hadlee had Australia struggling on 170/6, though a ninth-wicket stand of 61 saw Australia enjoy a 40-run lead. Dodemaide's six-wicket haul had Australia, chasing 247, installed as firm favourites, and at 176/4 they appeared to be coasting. Richard Hadlee had other ideas; his record eigth ten-wicket match haul had Australia teetering on 227/9. High-rating quiz shows were cancelled as the TV stations stayed with the cricket; but McDermott and Whitney held out for five tense overs, Hadlee putting an arm around Whitney's shoulder and shaking his hand at the end.

India beat Australia by 2 wickets, October 1964
India won by two wickets after what was described as a 'close fight'. Australia were under the cosh at 53/3 before Veivers and Jarman helped them to 297/5, though they then quickly collapsed to 320 all out. India then themselves collapsed somewhat from 142/2 to 188/6, until Pataudi shepherded the tail to add another 153. Australia were sitting pretty on 246/3, before an even more dramatic colapse than their first innings had them all out for 274. India, chasing 254, looked beaten on 122/6, but once more Pataudi helped see them home with half an hour to spare.

10. England beat Australia by 12 runs, February 1929
England had already won the series by this fourth Test at Adelaide, but there was no let up in the excitement in a match notable for the sparkling debut of Archie Jackson. Hammond, not to be outdone, managed two centuries in a high-scoring game where Jardine just failed to also reach that milestone with 98. Australia, requiring a distant 349 for victory, fell just 13 runs short as Jack White took eight second-innings wickets and 13 for the match. Wisden noted that "a match with even scoring throughout, had a most exciting finish."

9. England beat West Indies by 26 runs, March 1974
Greig and Boycott were England's heroes, Boycott taking advantage of a missed run-out when he was nine to reach 99 from England's first innings total of 267, though at 204/4 a higher score had looked on the cards. With West Indies at 110/0 and then 223/3 England's total looked paltry, but Greig's return of 8/33, 'a spell of bowling that will rank among the best in Test history', restricted the lead to 38. Boycott, whose first innings had been totally defensive, achieved his century with 112 of England's second innings 263, though it took him all of 500 minutes and his dismissal was not without controversy as he stood his ground with a bail lying on the turf. West Indies needed only 226 and at 63/0 they looked to be well on the way, however three wickets in nine balls completely changed the complexion of the match with England now favourites. A stand of 31 for the ninth wicket had West Indies right back in it, but Grieg took his 13th wicket to put the issue beyond doubt.

8. West Indies beat Pakistan by 2 wickets, April 1988
Pakistan looked like winning a series in West Indies for the first time late in the fourth innings. They had started brightly at 128/2, but needed an eigth wicket partnership of 67 between Salim Yousuf and Wasim Akram to total 309, honours about even at that point. West Indies lost two quick wickets but recovered to 198/3 thanks largely to Richards' run-a-ball 50. A ninth wicket stand of 58 between Marshall and Bejamin saw the match once again finely poised, West Indies closing just three runs behind. Once again Pakistan started brightly, being on top at 152/2 but which position they gave up by losing their next five wickets for 30 runs. Imran and Yousuf added 52 for the eighth wicket and once again honours were even, Pakistan setting a target of 268. Looking good at 118/2, West Indies then found themselves on 207/8 with a historic victory in Pakistan's grasp, until Benjamin and Dujon snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with an unbroken 61 to register a two-wicket victory.

7. India beat Australia by 1 wicket, October 2010
In a memorable finish, a great innings from Laxman saw India home with one wicket to spare. A first innings total of 428 was built on Shane Watson's third century in a week. At 230/4 following a 38-ball fifty from Sehwag, a total in the 300s seemed most likely for India however Tendulkar's 98 helped them to a competitive 405. Watson again starred as Australia moved to a lead of 110 without loss, but three wickets in two overs from Ishant turned things India's way, Australia eventually falling for 192. That set India 216, but at 124/8 things looked lost. However a magical innings from Laxman, ignoring back pain, sealed a thrilling one-wicket win.

6. England beat Australia by 1 wicket, January 1908
In Jack Hobbs' debut England were 116 to the good on first innings totals and firm favourites, Hobbs having made 83 in his first Test innings. Australia then made up the difference without loss and indeed set England a taxing 282 to win. The lead fluctuated throughout the final innings, as first England lost Hobbs and Gunn in quick succession, then Fane and Hutchings added 67, but England were soon 207/8 and staring defeat squarely in the face. They were saved by the batting of the great Sidney Barnes, his 38 not out seeing England home as 73 runs were added for the last two wickets. However if Hazlitt had hit the stumps on the winning run cricket would have had its first tie.

5. England beat Australia by 2 runs, August 2005
No introduction necessary for this one in terms of the development of action, so I'll describe the lead changes. England started well and maintained their advantage thoughout Australia's first innings also with a 99-run lead, only surrendering the upper hand for the first time in ther second innings after collapsing to 75/6. A blistering 73 from Flintoff eventually set Australia a reasonably challenging 282, but after a reasonable start at 82/2 they sank to 137/7. A stirring performance from the tailenders then took Australia to the brink of victory, requiring just two more runs when Geraint Jones broke Australian hearts by ending Kasprowicz's innngs off Harmison.

4. England beat Australia by 14 runs, July 2013

3. West Indies beat Australia by 1 run, January 1993
A great West Indies team coming to the end of its reign met an Australian team about to begin its own ascendancy to greatness - the result was gripping, according to Wisden 'one of the greatest of all Test matches', the drama resulting in record TV viewing figures. West Indies' first innings total of 252 was the highest of the match, while no fewer than 17 wickets fell on a rain-shortened third day. Local boy Tim May took five for five in 32 balls, West Indies second innings 146 being thanks mainly to Richardson's 72. Thus Australia needed just 186 to win, but when the eight wicket went down for 102 West Indies smelled blood. Langer and May then added 42 and when May and McDermott took Australia within two, refrains of 'Waltzing Matilda' filled the ground. Then McDermott gloved a chance from Ambrose and the crowd was stunned into silence as the West Indians celebrated joyously.

2. England beat Australia by 3 runs, December 1982
All four innings ended within 10 runs of each other as a fabulous tenth-wicket stand of 70 between Border and Lillee came up a whisker short of regaining the Ashes. Wisden sums it up - "A magnificent Test match, to be ranked among the best ever played, produced a finish of such protracted excitement that it had the whole of Australia by the ears...No-one who played in the game or watched it, or who saw it on television, or who listened to it on the radio, many of them from halfway across the world, could have been left unmoved." Indeed.

1. Australia tied with West Indies, December 1960
As if it wasn't bad enough having to face Sobers in his pomp, a newspaper article prior to the Brisbane Test of 1960-61 which claimed he would have trouble with Benaud's bowling spurred the great man on to a superb 132. Norman O'Neill topped that with 181 as Australia's 505 gave them a first innings lead of 52. At 210/4 West Indies were in a strong position, but Alan Davidson's six wickets gave Australia a reasonable target of 232. At 92/6 however, Don Bradman asked Benaud at tea if he was playing for a win. When assured that he was, Bradman's response was a curt "I'm very pleased to hear it". Suitably chastened, Benaud and Davidson crafted a seventh wicket stand of 134 which turned things completely around, Australia then requiring just seven runs with four wickets remaining. What happened next, with three wickets falling in the final over, caused such confusion that many were unsure of the result - with so many run-outs it was difficult for the scorers to determine if runs had been completed; Joe Solomon, who threw down the wicket at the close, was certain of a West Indies victory while his captain, Frank Worrell was sure they had lost. As a weary Worrell walked off at the end, Benaud came out to greet him, the two skippers walking off with arms round one another's shoulders, Worrell exclaiming 'Man, this was a game for cool fools'.

This has been a very interesting exercise for me, highlighting many close matches which I wasn't previously aware of and providing a lot of enjoyment researching them. Which is, after all, what it's all about.

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