Hit and run

What is leadership, after all, but the blind choice of one route over another and the confident pretense that the decision was based on reason. (Robert Harris)

Law 38 (Run out) is the ultimate challenge for an umpire. In my three years in the lower Divisions I was dishing them out like confetti, pressing the trigger or declining an appeal far too quickly. Over the years I have got much better, mainly through the excellent training my association provides, along with a forensic collection of nuanced examples that have helped me construct a run-out crime scene and act accordingly. Judging a run-out is often a literal too close to call exercise which is presumably why umpires in sell-out stadia have an army of television engineers to do the job for them.

My run-out archive contains few Laurel and Hardy incidents where both batters end up at the same end as the ball is casually thrown to keeper or bowler to politely nudge a bail out of the groove. Similarly, I am not interested in the three-yards-short of the crease variations where the batter knows his fate and continues running directly to the pavilion. The meat-and-two-veg of the Run out Law which is enacted at every level is simply whether the batter has made his ground.

There are two types of close run-out calls; the pick-up and throw at the stumps from within the 12-yard circle (whether imaginary or real) and a boundary field and throw that might break most laws of physics with a direct hit, or the more common throw to the wicket-keeper who breaks the wicket while the batters are trying to steal a second or third run. There is also the bowler in follow-through deflecting a straight drive onto the stumps leaving a batter backing up with egg on his face in his attempt to poach a run. I’ve been caught on the hop a few times on that one.

Humans are fallible, that is how run-outs occur. I’ve seen established partnerships of seventy-plus come to a dramatic demise because one of the guys sees a run that doesn’t exist and ruins his partner’s weekend. Club level cricket is no different to any competitive sport, the folk that excel intuitively know how to walk the line of seizing the moment without taking unnecessary risks. Run-outs occur because batters are unable to concentrate at the required level all of their time at the crease.

On a close call run-out the batter who gives up on the chase lives in hope that there is no direct hit – catching or gathering a ball to break the stumps takes a surprisingly long time. The batter who uses a bat to make his ground (with or without a dive) at least gives himself a chance. It took me a few years to fully understand the dynamics of this race: the batter who is unhappy with a decision because he is three yards past the stumps does not realise how far the momentum of his despairing efforts has carried him, and more importantly the dive has absolutely nothing to do with where he was as the bails came off.

Similarly, I have seen plenty of keepers give me the look after I turn down a run-out appeal – from their point of view, the bails were off immediately so the batter must be out. Accompanying the look is a triumphant strut to his teammates and high fives all round as if the umpire is abusing the keeper’s human rights by even considering a not-out.

And while fielding has significantly improved, running between the wickets and communication between batters continues to provide a Noel and Liam Gallagher Definitely Maybe cocktail. I remember a game from my misspent youth where I played the ball to short third man and called my partner for a run. Instead of pulling rank as it was his call, he ran and I watched the carnage over my shoulder. I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t best pleased when I returned to the pavilion a few overs later.

To make a good run-out call you need to be relaxed. Some umpires set up their stall with a crouching posture that resembles discharging a number two on a Megabus lavatory. Crouching does not help me make a decision. I like to chill out and work with the forensics on the crime scene. Occasionally, when batters are going for a quick two or three and the ball is on the flight path from the boundary, I tell myself that a direct hit is definitely out but the keeper having to break the stumps may be too close to call.

And there is nothing wrong with unsure. On a tight run-out an umpire is making an educated guess, which, at the very least, is better than one made through ignorance. What I have learned the hard way is that I am not going to take the rap for a player’s rush of blood. I don’t wake up on a Saturday morning and relish the thought of ruining a batter’s weekend, although I acknowledge that a close run-out call can have that effect. It’s actually quite a simple proposition – if you don’t try and steal an extra run, it’s unlikely you will be in danger. If you and your partner are communicating in Morse code (yes, no, wait, okay, yes, maybe, hang on, wait, yes, yes, yes, no) then your chances of making it to the other end become slimmer by the second.

I turn down more run-outs than I give. If it’s too close I give the batter the benefit. No amount of screaming, high fives and back-slapping is going to sway me. Wicket-keepers and fielders regularly acknowledge that I am right not to uphold an appeal because they too are unsure. I’m consistent on Law 38, if there is enough evidence I will give it. If you don’t want to do the time, then don’t commit the crime of trying to pinch runs.