By Leo Roberts, Daniel R. Little, Matthew J. Spittal, and Mervyn Jackson
With dual men’s and women’s Ashes series under way, the performance of elite Test cricketers is in the spotlight. For psychologically minded researchers like us, one aspect of play is attracting particular interest: the performance of batters progressing through the famed “nervous nineties”.
Popularised by commentators, this terminology captures the idea that batters with 90 or more runs become anxious about reaching (or not reaching) a century (100 runs).
Commentators and journalists (and Wikipedia) often portray the nervous nineties as a problematic moment for batters. This anxiety, the story goes, leads to lost ability, slow run-scoring and timid play.
These ideas are intuitive – but are they correct?
In fact our new research, published today in PLOS ONE, shows batters approaching 100 runs typically increased their scoring rate (more runs per ball) and became more likely to score a boundary (a four or a six), without being any more likely to get out than at any other point between 70 and 130 runs.
100 is not an arbitrary number
While cricket is a team sport, the individual accumulation of 100 runs is universally hailed as a major batting achievement.
Notably, 99 runs is an impressive individual total; yet in cricket culture, 99 is a world away from 100.
Watching a batter reach 100 runs reveals its significance. Jubilation and relief flood out, teammates stand and applaud, and crowds respond. Even nearby opponents offer congratulations.
Scoring centuries builds a batter’s reputation, while enhancing their legacy, their chance of team selection and, let’s not forget, their team’s chances of winning.
In stark contrast, getting out just short of a century is a bitter experience.
Who wouldn’t be nervous?
Challenges of realising success
Many people can think of a time when a desired achievement slipped through their fingers just when success seemed assured.
Humans have imperfect thought control and can experience unhelpful thoughts at inconvenient times, like pondering the consequences of failing when success is in sight.
The possibility of gaining or losing reputation is also a common source of performance anxiety.
For athletes, performance anxiety places extra demands on the ability to execute precise actions.
To counteract this, performers need to apply coping strategies to maintain performance, such as the acceptance of negative thoughts or directing their thoughts to a single focus, like the ball in cricket.
According to the mythology of the nervous nineties, these strategies could include more cautious behaviour to try to avoid getting out.
What does the data say?
In our new research, we examined data about every ball bowled in 712 men’s and women’s Test matches played between 2004 and 2022 (over 1.4 million deliveries).
In stark contrast to the colloquial phenomenon of the nervous nineties, we found batters in their 90s generally scored faster without increasing their chances of dismissal.
Importantly, accelerated scoring – that is, a progressive increase in the average runs per ball and the probability of a boundary – was uniquely large throughout the 90s when compared to the 70s, 80s and immediately after 100.
Some key examples from this year’s Ashes series bear out this finding. When Usman Khawaja brought up his century in the first men’s Ashes Test of 2023, it was with a boundary.
When Ellyse Perry was caught out on 99 runs in the women’s Test match, she was dismissed playing an aggressive shot destined for the fence – not exactly the timid play expected of the “nervous nineties” phenomenon.
In fact, Perry’s forceful batting is precisely the kind of playing our analysis predicts for those nearing a century.
And throughout the 90s, we estimated the probability of a batter getting out on any given score to be about 1.3% – much the same as throughout the 70s, 80s and just after 100.
Managing the nerves
We have come up with several explanations for the productive batting observed in the 90s.
Possibly, batters rush to escape their nervous discomfort by batting aggressively or with more urgency (such as running faster between the wickets).
The bowling team could also play a role. Bowling sides often try to limit run-scoring as batters near 100 by bringing fielders closer to the pitch, hoping to build pressure and encourage a mistake.
Ironically, a field packed tightly around the batter may offer a faster path to a century by leaving the boundary unprotected from any shot that passes through or over the infield.
While we can’t judge a batter’s emotional state from historical cricket data, we suspect many players are actually nervous when progressing from 90 to 100 runs. But we find no evidence the “nervous nineties” leads to widespread poor functioning or timid play.
International cricketers appear to typically manage any nerves and capitalise on the situation. It’s a fine example of coping among an elite population in a career-defining situation.
Leo Roberts, Research Fellow, Centre for Mental Health, The University of Melbourne; Daniel R. Little, Associate Professor in Mathematical Psychology, The University of Melbourne; Matthew J. Spittal, Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, The University of Melbourne, and Mervyn Jackson, Associate Professor, STEM|Health and Biomedical Sciences, RMIT University