Why are we so terrible in nail biters?

“Pressure is a funny thing” said Steve Waugh in the wake of Australia’s ground breaking triumph in the Caribbean in mid-1995.

“It causes you to do things you don’t think you would do (good or bad).”

Cricket is full of different pressure-type situations which can even vary from format to format, while also remaining fundamentally the same.

A batting side grimly holding on trying to force a draw on the last day of a Test they cannot possibly win is different to a defending team in a one-day match exploiting the chasing team’s need to score quickly in order to dismiss their batsmen.

Then there’s a team just containing the others so that when they run out of overs they do not have enough runs, remembering obviously that a draw is not an option in the abbreviated one innings form of the game.

I do not have the precise statistics, nor shall I search for them unless this Covid Crisis sees me out of work for years to come, but I remember vividly, during the Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting eras, as well as to a lesser extent the Michael Clarke era, and even during Mark Taylor’s brief stint in charge of the one day team, the phenomenal frequency that Australia would prevail over small, even single figure run margin victories sealed in the dying overs of the run chase in limited overs matches.

This being the case, why then is our record in similar nail biters in the purer form of the game so abysmal in my near 40-year career as a follower of the international game?

Since 1981, there have been 18 Tests involving Australia that have been decided by less than 20 runs or only two or one wickets – and Australia have been the vanquished on 15 of those occasions.

What has proved a repetitive heartbreak for those of us willing them on is that they always fall prey to the same twist in the script time and time again.

We have only prevailed on a mere three occasions – and two of those were against the Saffies during their choker era – and one of them was a dead rubber. The third occasion was against an emerging nation of the time, Sri Lanka in 1992.

Marnus Labuschagne plays a cover drive

Marnus Labuschagne plays a cover drive. (Photo by Stephen Blackberry/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Why do we always get so near and yet so far?

Here is the statistical breakdown from those 15 losses from 18 nail-biter games since 1981.

Of the 15 chokes, ten involved us chasing, of which six featured a significant partnership for either the last or second-last wicket after we had been all but dead and buried and nowhere near the target.

Of the five where the other country was chasing, four also involved a significant partnership for either of the final two wickets, the difference being that when we were chasing we fell over at the final tiny hurdle, whereas on the occasions the opponents were chasing we were not able to induce them to do the same.

I do not have the answer to the forlorn question ‘why?’, but I aim to provide a brief summary of the 18 matches in question in chronological order.

I am not so interested in the match scores, or whether someone followed on, or who made centuries but will merely provide the venue, the year, the opposition (for games in Australia) as well as the result in runs or wickets.

The only other thing I will provide is the occurrence, if applicable, of a significant partnership for the final or second last wicket in the chasing team’s innings. This didn’t actually occur in any of the three nail biters that we won in the 39-year period under scrutiny.

The ones we lost
Headingly 1981
Lost by 18 runs

Melbourne 1982-83 v ENGLAND
Lost by 3 runs

Last wicket stand of 70 when 74 more were needed (for victory)

Adelaide 1992-93 v WEST INDIES
Lost by 1 run
9th wicket stand of 42 when 84 more were needed followed by a 10th wicket stand of 40

Sydney 1993-94 v SOUTH AFRICA
Lost by 5 runs
9th wicket stand of 35 when 42 more were needed

Karachi 1994
Lost by 1 wicket
Last wicket stand of 57

The Oval 1997
Lost by 15 runs

Melbourne 1998-99 v ENGLAND
Lost by 12 runs

Bridgetown 1999
Lost by 1 wicket
9th wicket partnership of 54 when 60 were needed

Chennai 2001
Lost by 2 wickets

Edgbaston 2005
Lost by 2 runs
Last wicket stand of 59

Mohali 2010
Lost by 1 wicket
9th wicket stand of 81 when 92 were needed

Hobart 2011-12 v NEW ZEALAND
Lost by 7 runs
Last wicket stand of 34 when 42 were needed

Trent Bridge 2013
Lost by 14 runs
Last wicket stand of 65 when 80 were needed

Dhaka 2017
Lost by 20 runs

Headingly 2019
Lost by 1 wicket
Last wicket stand of 76

The ones we won
Colombo 1992
Won by 16 runs

Port Elizabeth 1997
Won by 2 wickets

Johannesburg 2006
Officially won by two wickets but it was a virtual one-wicket victory given that Justin Langer was never going to bat in second innings.

That victory in Johannesburg was also a dead rubber. Of the losses already listed, there was only one ‘pure’ dead rubber – The Oval 1997 – while Melbourne 1998-99 was a virtual dead rubber in the context that England could still square the series, but Australia had already retained the Ashes.

It is interesting that all three of the wins came during Australia’s great era that began in the twilight of Border’s career and ended pretty much with the retirement of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. However, eight of the 15 losses under consideration also came during this same period.

Shane Warne of Australia and team-mate Ricky Ponting celebrate

Shane Warne of Australia (Photo by Hamish Blair/Getty Images)

To finish off, it should be recognised that such narrow margins of victory or defeat are far rarer in Test cricket than one day cricket (I am not interested in T20). Test cricket, as the ultimate form of the game, brings with it considerable other types of pressure situations that make a team great or simply break them or even something in between.

For example, Steve Waugh might go in on the first morning at 3 for 30 and halt the rot before fighting his way back on top and Australia might go on to win convincingly by 100 runs or more.

Or conversely, a team batting first might be skittled for 170 and then fight back to have the side batting second 4 for 40, only for a vital catch to then go down which ultimately proves costly as a huge partnership is subsequently built that paves for way for a comprehensive innings victory or even ten-wicket triumph.

That is ultimately what superiority is about in Test cricket.

However, it does not hide the white elephant in the room that we simply suck in Test matches that go right down to the wire.