October 5, 2016

Hit and run

The evolution of running between the wickets

The 22-yard dash: batsmen need to be aware not only of their surroundings and the fielder's abilities but also how much they can expect from their partner © AFP

People only tend to remember how a batsman runs between the wickets when something goes wrong. Geoff Boycott running out Derek Randall, on Randall's home ground, Trent Bridge, in 1977. Allan Donald and Lance Klusener in the 1999 World Cup semi-final. Ricky Ponting and England super sub Gary Pratt in 2005. Inzamam-ul-Haq and pretty much everyone.

Yes, no, wait. And then, the inevitable sorry. Unless you're the one on the way back to the pavilion.

It's odd that nobody really notices the running when things are going well, considering it's such a crucial part of the contest between bat and ball.

Imagine fielding against two of today's better runners, say Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root, or AB de Villiers and JP Duminy. Not only have you got to watch out for booming drives and pulls, deft cuts and dabs, the odd sweep, reverse sweep and even the occasional ramp, you also have to deal with two players who can turn the strike over, keep the scoreboard ticking, score off decent balls and often even the good ones.

By running well between the wickets, these players can capitalise on attacking field placings, weaker opposition fielders, or a team that has a defensive mindset. On bigger fields, good running can add to the total impressively. When boundaries are hard to come by, good running takes the pressure off. So too when a new batsman arrives at the crease.

If, however, batsmen are reluctant, nervous, or worse still, fearful or negative runners, the fielding side can create its own pressure. Bowlers get one batsman to work over for a prolonged period, and the batsmen are under more pressure to hit boundaries, which can provide the bowlers with wicket-taking opportunities.

"Deano knew what hand all the fielders threw with, their strong side and weak side. He was probably the best judge of a run I've even seen"
Mike Whitney

Back in the 1970s, running between the wickets didn't have to be exceptional. Most fielders were cricketers rather than athletes, and even when one-day cricket started, scores of 200 could be chased down in 50 or 60 overs without taking too many risks with the running.

The 1975 World Cup final marked a change. West Indies racked up 290, a pretty formidable total back then, even on a good Lord's wicket. And then, when the Australian batsmen tried to pinch a few singles to keep up with the run rate, one West Indian took centre stage and showed the world that the old methods of running between the wickets were no longer sufficient against the very best fielders.

The score was 81 for 1 and the non-striker, Alan Turner, was backing up a foot or so when Clive Lloyd bowled a length ball to Ian Chappell, who nudged it into the leg side and called for a run. Turner hesitated only slightly, but there was enough delay for Viv Richards to swoop in and run him out with a direct hit. Richards later also ran out both Chappells. It changed the game.

Over the next few years, batsmen were more cautious when they hit one anywhere near the likes of Richards. You would get the odd scurrier, like Sussex's Paul Parker, or Middlesex and England's Clive Radley, who had his own technique, sliding in, touching down lightly. But for most players, running between the wickets continued to be a conservative business.

Dean Jones wasn't interested in any of that. When he played his first game for Victoria in 1981-82, batsmen still leaned on their bats at the non-striker's end when the ball was being delivered. Plenty who were on strike dropped defensive shots down by their feet and, job done, wandered off towards the square-leg umpire to prepare for the next delivery in their own little world.

Jones wanted to run between the wickets like Richards fielded. He wanted to take the fielders on, capitalise on any error - maybe even induce a few himself.

Dean Jones wanted the fielders to react to him rather than the other way round © Getty Images

Like Kevin Pietersen, two decades later, Jones was often on the move when he played his front-foot shots, particularly in one-day cricket, where he would walk down the wicket to the seamers. He worked out that doing this gave him a headstart on the fielder. That if he made a quick-enough decision and his partner backed him up, he could be well on his way to the other end before the fielder picked the ball up.

While most other players still preferred the cautious approach, reluctant to put additional risk into their batting, Jones wanted the fielder to react to what he did, rather than the other way round. That way the pressure was on the fielder to get to the ball quickly, to pick it up cleanly and to hit the stumps with a direct hit.

"He would drop a few at his feet and run singles and draw you in to stop the single, then he would hit one past you for a boundary," says Mike Whitney, who played with Jones for Australia and against him in domestic cricket. "As a bowler, and as the fielding side, it was tough. You knew he was gonna do it but you couldn't stop it. Frustrating."

Whitney says that Jones' running wasn't all athleticism and competitiveness; he also had great awareness. "Deano knew what hand all the fielders threw with, their strong side and weak side. He was probably the best judge of a run I've seen. He really loved working you over in the field. Boonie [David Boon] and Swampy [Geoff] Marsh [who batted with Jones in the Australian top order] had it tough, let me tell ya."

Jones had lots of tricks when it came to the actual running. "Run on the pitch [to get a better grip] and run in straight lines," he says. "Use the bowlers' danger area to judge your turning space. Stay side-on [to the bowler] when backing up at the bowlers' end, so it's easier to get back. If a spinner is on, back up close to the stumps to make it harder for the bowler to field off his bowling."

After running a hard two, he'd take some time out by running past the wickets a long way. That gave the batsmen time to get their heart rate down to make a better decision for the next ball. "If it's the last ball of a limited-overs game, run as hard as you can, even if it means you're most likely run out."

There have been lots of changes to the game since Jones and Richards played. Changes that on the face of it look as if they might make it easier for batsmen to run well between the wickets.

Modern pitches are generally flatter, so there's less pressure on batsmen to simply survive when playing defensively. Square-of-the-wicket boundary riders tend to go out early on, creating more gaps in the infield. Bigger, better bats might create better angles for singles as the ball travels off them quicker over a shorter distance, forcing infielders to run back as well as sideways to collect the ball. Batting gear is also lighter these days, easier to run in.

"Mistakes come because two people try to make one decision, if they don't know each other well enough, or if both call at the same time"
Former England coach Peter Moores

Former England coach Peter Moores, now with Nottinghamshire, thinks that modern trends like these tend to balance themselves out without changing the contest too much. "Running between the wickets has improved, but so too has fielding," he says. "There's more pressure on batsmen to pinch singles and turn ones into twos, but in the inner circle, batters know that a direct hit runs them out. Where batsmen used to get the benefit of the doubt, now the umpires can use TV footage for close calls. So runs are turned down because of that."

There's more than one way to run well between the wickets. Of the modern-day players, Pietersen runs a bit like Jones, backing his speed and athleticism to beat the fielders. But where Pietersen would sometimes take risks to get his runs, particularly when getting off the mark, Mahela Jayawardene never seemed to be in a rush. He knew where the gaps were, always seemed to find them, and turned the strike over calmly and effortlessly. It was an intrinsic part of his batting.

"The best runners can judge a run," Moores says. "There are others who pinch runs really well, but they take high risks. Experienced guys know when to push it, when not to. A young player might be enthusiastic, up for it, but sometimes that enthusiasm gets the better of them."

Pietersen, for once, agrees with Moores. "The best runners are alert to what's possible and what's not. You can't teach that. You've either got it or you don't have it." He says that good runners have to be street-smart. They see opportunities, know what works where, when, against whom.

"Look at two guys in particular - Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. Anything that touched their pad or their thigh pad, they ran. They are not the most athletic, but goodness, are they street-wise. They know that the soft impact to square leg, midwicket, off a seamer, will take a lot longer to reach the fielder. The number of singles they used to get."

"The best runners are alert to what's possible and what's not. You can't teach that. You've either got it or you don't have it" © Getty Images

Graham Thorpe and Alec Stewart, who played together for Surrey and England for years, had something similar going. "We both thought that if it comes off the thigh pad, or within a yard of the stumps, if you make that call early and both straight away, it can be difficult for any fielder or the wicketkeeper or bowler to get to the ball and run you out," says Thorpe. "A little apprehension on the field and you can usually get through for a single. It can be done with a look rather than a call."

Thorpe says that when Stewart was on strike, his bottom hand would start to come off the bat when he wanted to run, or his eyes would widen, to show his intent. "You'd see a real positiveness in the first split-second of his movement."

Thorpe also believes that it takes a few years of batting together to get that level of trust, and that things work better between two batsmen who have a similar approach to running. "I ran well with Nasser Hussain too, although I probably didn't trust him in the first ten minutes of his innings, when he'd be very edgy and keen to get off the mark. After that he was a good runner. He was always looking."

Mick Newell, who was on the coaching staff when Pietersen was at Nottinghamshire, says that good runners like Pietersen have an excellent awareness of what a single looks like, and of what a two can look like if they put enough pressure on the fielder. "They never assume it's just a single because there's a boundary fielder there," Newell says.

He adds that good running awareness should also extend to what your batting partner is capable of. "You don't always have two good runners together, so you have to have an awareness of what the other person can achieve, as well as what you can achieve."

Thorpe agrees. "If you're a busy, ballsy runner but you know that your mate at the other end is slightly more edgy or more cautious, you shouldn't force things," he says. "That's when run-outs occur. You have to respect the other player's personality."

And if you're not coming, give it an early call. Don't get forced into it, particularly if you're a junior player batting with a senior player for the first time. Back your judgement as a runner.

Underlying poor communication is usually a lack of awareness - of where the ball is, where and who the fielder is, who your partner is, and even where your crease is

Sometimes run-outs occur when one batsman is running for two and the other isn't, or if one starts to come for a second or third run and then changes his mind without telling the other. Thorpe says that this sort of thing can be avoided in the turn, if you can see both the ball and your partner.

"Ideally you want to turn on your stronger side so you can push off faster," he says. "But if that also happens to be your blind side, depending on where the ball has gone, you have to make a choice. Sometimes you have time to swap hands so you can see the ball. If you haven't, and turn blind, within the first couple of yards after the turn you need to locate your batting partner's eyes to get an indication whether you're both still going."

When running goes wrong, it's often the communication that goes awry. A player might be so focused on what he is doing that he fails to notice what's going on around him. Underlying poor communication is usually a lack of awareness - of where the ball is, where and who the fielder is, who your partner is, and even where your crease is.

Moores explains that batsmen learn to communicate in their own way. "Those who have batted together a lot will have a feel for each other, the way they run and what they're looking for. It becomes a sort of sixth sense. They can assess each other's body language to know to run before they even say yes.

"Mistakes come because two people try to make one decision, if they don't know each other well enough, or if both call at the same time."

Often it's pressure that makes things go wrong. In Klusener and Donald's case, the pressure they must have felt during a last-wicket stand in the last over of the World Cup semi-final with a place in the final, which would have been South Africa's first, within their grasp. In 1977, Boycott was in his first Test after returning from two and a half years of self-imposed exile, and was keen to impose himself on the game and on the Australians and the England team. Inzamam, often Pakistan's best player but never their best runner, was always out of his comfort zone when his country needed him to pinch a few singles.

Pressure can lead to heightened intensity, which leads to bad decisions and bad running. Wwhen everything is on the line, not even the coolest, toughest customer always gets it right. And even if they do, their batting partner might not be quite so sure of themselves.

Every so often, running between the wickets goes from being something commonplace to an enthralling, if fleeting, calamity. For the spectator and the avid follower, that really is cricket at its theatrical and memorable best.

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  • Stratocaster on October 5, 2016, 5:33 GMT

    No mention of Virat Kohli and MSD? And atrocious running by Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor?

  • Cricinfouser on October 5, 2016, 4:30 GMT

    An article on modern day running...and no mention, forget a full paragraph on MSD and Kohli??

  • cricfan67215527 on October 5, 2016, 4:02 GMT

    Coming to the Viru and GG part, it helped that they have been team mates at Delhi Ranji trophy team for a very long time, batted together for years. So had a very good understanding of each other. At times they didn't even need a proper call, just a look at each other and off they went. Absolutely certain about how the partner is going to respond. Another guy who should also be mentioned in this context is Virat Kohli. Take out any of those famous Kohli chases, apart from crisply hit boundaries, you'll also find some feverish running between the wickets. Pushing his partner, pushing the fielders. Kohli and Dhoni, or Kohli and Raina running together are a classic example of how to run in modern day cricket.

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