Crouching Tiger

Just follow me and run like your life depends on it. Because it does. (James Dashner)

In the first over of the match, the batter plays a glorious  straight drive, the bowler puts a hand out in the follow-through and diverts the ball onto the stumps. The batter at my end is backing up, he swivels and by the time his bat is down, the bails are already off. But I don’t give it out. It is the worst decision I have ever made (the registry office episode thirty-two years ago is for another book).

Law 38 (Run out) is the ultimate challenge for an umpire. In my three years in the lower Divisions, I was pressing the trigger or declining an appeal far too quickly. Over the years I have got much better (despite the incident above) 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 portfolio contains a 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. It’s interesting to watch the dynamics between the two batters; some give it the full Joe Orton profanity treatment on the spot, others throw some verbal toys out of the cot as they trudge back to the pavilion. The majority, however, take it on the chin and walk off and only when they reach the  dressing room do they fill the magazine with a full round. I like this respect for the integrity of cricket.

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 wicket-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, called my partner for a run, and then sent him back. Instead of pulling rank as it was his call, he ran and turned halfway down the wicket as I watched the carnage over my shoulder. I arrived back in the pavilion a few overs later and was met with: You ***ing t***. (That was his mother, one of the tea ladies).

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. 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 going to be an Out call 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 (Mr Umps, may I remind you that you are under oath), 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, you won’t be in danger. If you and your partner are communicating in code (yes, no, wait, okay, yes, maybe, hang on, wait, yes, yes, yes, no) then you won’t make it to the other end.

So why don’t I send the batter from the opening paragraph packing? The ball is hit ferociously and could be coming my way. I jump and am off guard. But I see the deflection and that the backing-up batter does not ground the bat in time. I base my decision that the momentary lack of balance is mitigating evidence against a guilty verdict.

On the way home, I think of the ECB Level One course and the experienced tutor’s comment. Give it as you see or hear it. And that is why it remains as a very poor decision.