Running out of team

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 one that tests the limits of an umpire. Some of the worst decisions I have given were run-outs – I know they were bad because as soon as I gave them I knew I had got them wrong. These howlers were in my apprenticeship years in the lower divisions of the league when I would press the trigger or decline an appeal far too quickly. Since my elevation to the Panel in 2012, 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. But I want to make this point from the outset; judging a run-out is often a literal ‘too close to call’ exercise which is why umpires on the big money in sell-out stadia have an army of television engineers to do the job for them.

My run-out archive contains very few 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. Either way where the batter has or has not made his ground, is of far more interest.

Broadly speaking 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 thrown into the keeper’s gloves for him to break 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.

Humans are fallible, that is how run-outs occur. I’ve seen established partnerships of 70-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 because catching or gathering a ball to break the stumps takes a surprisingly longer amount of time than you might think. The batter who uses the 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 because of course, from their point of view, the bails were off immediately so the batter must have been out. Along with this look comes 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.

In an earlier posting I talked about how much fielding has improved. And I am always impressed with fielders who emulate Ricky Ponting and Ben Stokes with direct hits. Interestingly, running between the wickets and communication between batters has not improved at the same pace. The lethal Definitely Maybe cocktail of miscalling, inspired by Noel and Liam Gallagher, inevitably ends in tears.

A prosecuting barrister may ask: Why do you give different decisions on what looks like, from the evidence presented, the same situation? This is a pertinent question. These close run-out calls all look and feel similar. I reply: I do not know. I give it as I see it. But I can tell you that I have had as many batters and fielders after a game telling me I had called run-outs correctly (for and against them) as those who said they thought the decision I had given was anything ranging from incorrect to incompetent.

Let’s be honest, on a tight run-out an umpire is making nothing more than an educated guess, which, at the very least, is better than a guess made through ignorance.