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Nervous 90s? How about calling them selfish instead?

Mike Atherton is on his knees after being run out for 99 PA Photos

Mike Atherton clips the ball calmly to midwicket. He runs the first run hard, and then the second. He begins his third - the run he needs to make his first Test hundred at Lord's. Then he realises he is running prematurely. He turns back to the safety of his crease, but slips, fatally. On his knees at Lord's, he is run out for 99: the defining image of the pitfalls of the nervous 90s.

Yet the image is essentially a myth. Some batsmen, of course, do become more vulnerable as they approach their hundred - Michael Slater reached the 90s 23 times, but only made 14 centuries; Alvin Kallicharran was dismissed eight times in the 90s, compared to his 12 hundreds. More often, though, the motivation to reach three figures spurs batsmen on.

The real danger zone for batsmen in Test cricket is not the 90s but just after they have passed 100. In Test cricket's history, 392 batsmen have been dismissed from 95 to 99, while 423 have been dismissed from 100 to 104. While 8.85% of innings that reach 95 end by the batsman being dismissed before he has a century, 10.57% of innings that reach 100 end when the batsman is dismissed before he adds another five runs.

"In short, people are less hungry to bat after a milestone," believes Ed Cowan, the former Australian Test opener. "There's a bit of a job-done mentality."

"It is not that batsmen are impervious to nerves in their 90s, but that in international cricket most of them are so good that these nerves are a help, not a hindrance"

This reflects how human beings are driven by targets. It is why when people have lost weight and achieved their target, they tend to put it back on again soon after. It is why, as fund-raising targets are neared, contributions become much more generous: not because those donors feel the charity is any more worthy than those who gave earlier did, but because they are motivated to help the target be reached. And it is why teams commonly flounder once they reach No. 1: staying there is even harder than getting there.

There are clear parallels between such teams - like England after becoming the Test No. 1 team in 2011 - and batsmen finding the 100s harder to navigate than the 90s, believes Jeremy Snape, former England cricketer and founder of Sporting Edge, a life-coaching and development consultancy. "It's the same sort of psychology that when you've reached this extrinsic goal of 100 runs, it's very difficult to keep the same level of hunger that you had on the way up to a century."

It is not that batsmen are impervious to nerves in their 90s, but that in international cricket most of them are so good that these nerves are a help, not a hindrance. "Anxiety serves a motivational purpose that in skilled performers will usually lead to increased focus and effort," explains Lew Hardy from the Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance at Bangor University. "Post-100, or when any major goal is achieved in life, the performer will to some greater or lesser extent experience a sense of relief and therefore relax." That's hardly the best state to be in when facing Test match bowlers.

Snape believes that the sheer adulation of scoring a century - the act of removing the helmet to soak up applause, and disruption of routine - can disorient batsmen. "You get distracted by the outcome of scoring a century and that's when you'll start thinking about what people will be saying, how this affects your record, maybe some rivalries with people, maybe what the newspapers are going to say. You start to think about other people and the longer term. The century mark becomes contamination."

This effect is even more noticeable in ODI cricket. Here, 181 batsmen have been dismissed between 95 and 99, but 261 from 100 to 104. The difference is so stark that it not only backs up the notion that batsmen are more susceptible after reaching a century than just before, it also raises the question of whether players are selfish in their 90s, costing their teams runs overall.

Consider Sachin Tendulkar's 100th international century. He took 125 balls to reach 94. Then, just as he should have been accelerating, Tendulkar started batting with all the intent of a sloth. He took 13 balls to get his next six runs - a remarkable go-slow, considering that this was from the 40th to 44th overs, and India were only two wickets down. Tendulkar then sped up, scoring 14 off his last nine balls, but it was too late to lift India up to a match-winning total. They lost the ODI to Bangladesh.

"You get distracted by the outcome of scoring a century and that's when you'll start thinking about what people will be saying, how this affects your record. The century mark becomes contamination"

Jeremy Snape

It was a microcosm of how slow scoring by a batsman in the 90s in ODIs can cost his team runs and even the game, by squandering his side's overall batting resources. "I definitely think that milestones lead to errors and selfish batting," says batting coach Trent Woodhill. "The 'alpha' batters sometimes put too much value on their wicket rather than the strike rate."

ESPNcricinfo data of ODIs in the past 15 years supports this theory. In 43% of cases, batsmen in the 90s have slowed down by more than 10% of the rate at which they were scoring between 70 and 89; in some instances they may have done so because of a particularly dangerous bowler, but the numbers are still striking, as batsmen generally accelerate later on in their innings. The trend is slightly more pronounced batting first, suggesting that chasing can make batsmen less immersed in their own individual landmarks.

Some countries are particularly affected. Since the start of 2012, West Indian batsmen are far more likely than anyone else to slow down nearing an ODI century: they decelerate by more than 10% on 58% of the times they pass through the 90s, compared to 34% for New Zealand. The discrepancy hints at a demise of the team ethos - perhaps unsurprising considering that West Indies have not just had an underperforming side but a notoriously erratic selection policy and deleterious relationships between many players and the board, while international cricket has almost become a shop window for domestic T20 leagues.

The burgeoning number of T20 leagues provides one explanation for why slowing down near a hundred is becoming ever more common, even as overall totals are rising. In 2012, 28% of ODI century-makers slowed down by over a tenth compared to their scoring rate between 70 and 89 runs; this year, the corresponding figure is 54%. The statistics support the idea that cricketers believe that ODI hundreds provide greater cachet for their prospects of securing lucrative T20 contracts. Maybe ODI hundreds, and the headlines they bring, are simply a good way for players to remind franchises of who they are. As players are increasingly treated as numbers on spreadsheets by T20 sides, it's hardly surprising that they should start to view themselves in the same way.

One conclusion is inescapable: when cricketers declare themselves unmotivated by personal milestones, some might be telling the truth, but judged on their actions when batting, most are patently lying. In the 90s in ODI cricket, many batsmen - whether consciously or not - prioritise their looming landmark ahead of their teams' best interests. And in Tests, their personal relief over reaching a hundred makes them more vulnerable immediately after.

Can this be overcome? The example of New Zealand suggests that a more selfless team culture can reduce - though not quite eradicate - the importance of milestones. "The best thought process is that every run is for the team, and regardless of how many you are or how they come - leg-byes etc - the team is better off," Cowan reflects. "The best players work in partnerships rather than personal milestones." In Test cricket, Snape advocates players focusing on batting time after reaching a century, to get them through the danger zone, and teams clapping 125, rather than 100, to try and change the batting culture, and reward those who escape the tetchy period just after reaching their century.

These steps might be easy to mock, but they recognise that any side able to stop batsmen slowing down before reaching a century in limited-overs cricket, or from losing concentration in Tests after reaching the landmark, could lift up their performance significantly. Yet, fighting the damaging impact that the 90s can have - either getting there, in ODIs, or getting out after, in both ODIs and Tests - will not merely involve battling against cricket's obsession with statistics, but something deeper in human nature.