Australia’s exceptional and gritty fightback on Day 3 of the opening Ashes Test Match against England left them in the box seat, proud owners of a 26-run lead on first innings that hadn’t yet been erased before Alistair Cook and James Vince had been dismissed second time around. Yet the omens are not great in Queensland for those looking to hunt down a fourth innings target, so all is not lost for the tourists.
There have been seventeen Tests at The Gabba since the turn of the century and only twice have they been won by a team chasing down a total in the last innings of the match. In 2014, a half-century from Chris Rogers got the hosts over the line in pursuit of 130 against India with six wickets down after a more straightforward chase of 19 concluded something of a formality against New Zealand three years before.
That doesn’t necessarily say that Brisbane produces tracks that deteriorate in a major way over five days, making such pursuits impossible. More to the point, sides have been accustomed to posting large first-innings totals and allowing scoreboard pressure to dictate matters from thereonin; after all, over a sixth of the matches on the ground have ended in victories by an innings.
The dynamics of this match give England an opportunity to apply some real pressure to Steve Smith’s side, with the highest successful run chase of 236 coming 66 years ago. Back then, Australia – who dominate the list of fourth-innings chases on the ground – quietened a West Indies attack including the great Frank Worrell, Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine to win a tense affair and given the far-from-perilous nature of batting towards the end of a match here, it is a surprise that a target of 200+ has only been successfully hared down once since.
Looking at recent conclusions to Brisbane Tests, batsmen have enjoyed their latter stages. In last year’s day-nighter, Pakistan were set a nominal 490 and thanks to the brilliance of Asad Shafiq and his brilliant century, the visitors only fell 40 short. In 2012, the Aussies had bullied their way to a declaration on 565/5 on the last morning of a rain-ruined match against South Africa thanks to Michael Clarke posting an unbeaten 259 and in The Ashes opener two tours ago, England’s top three all registered big hundreds (Cook ending 235 not out) in a second innings of 517/1 that saved the match. That all scarcely paints a picture of a pitch riddled with gremlins.
So, when Mark Stoneman and Joe Root resume, they will know that batting for 80 overs is likely to make life very interesting indeed. They pick up with a slender advantage of seven runs and if the fourth day follows the match scoring pattern of around 2.4 runs per over, crease occupation would give them the chance to set a target over 200. The stats tell us that such a scenario would grant us a fascinating final day with a very unpredictable outcome.
Largest fourth-innings totals to win in Brisbane
236/7 Australia v West Indies 1951/52
219/2 Australia v West Indies 1975/76
190/3 Australia v England 1982/83
157/0 Australia v England 1990/91