If you ask any batsman at any level of cricket about their least favourite way of getting out, the answer is likely to be the dreaded run-out. Wouldn't it be fun, I thought, if we got together a team of specialists in this field? Thus was born the idea of the 'Run-Out XI' - Test cricket's most dangerous XI - a team that is guaranteed to rain down misery and destruction upon themselves and their partners.
Setting the Ground Rules for Selection
So how would one go about choosing the 'best' fits for such a XI?
One approach could be to look only at the players who had the most run-outs in their careers. Another could be to look at players who ran out the most batting partners. Both these approaches would be unfair (assuming not many would want to be part of this squad) to cricketers with longer careers. A better approach then is to look at it in percentage terms. The most obvious qualification criteria for our team in that case would be two-fold - those players for whom the run-out as a mode of dismissal in percentage terms was higher than others, and those who ranked highest by virtue of running out their partners most often. With them, we could then throw in the guiltiest in the first two approaches, i.e. those with the highest absolute number of run-outs, where the victim was themselves or their partner.
To open the batting for this team we have Vijay Merchant, one of India's leading batsmen through the 1930s and 1940s. With an average of 56.75 opening in Test matches, at a time when India was a new Test-playing nation finding its feet and facing the big boys for most part, Merchant walks into this team on the strength of his batting ability. He cements his opening spot, however, with his penchant for running out his partners, which he managed once every 13 partnerships that he was involved in during his career.
Partnering Merchant is Rahul Dravid. While Dravid batted at No. 3 for most of his career, he did open on 23 occasions, with an average of 42.47 and four hundreds. Besides his calm demeanour and ability to play the anchor role at the top, it is Dravid's enviable record of run-outs which gets him into the team. While Dravid would never give his wicket away to a bowler without making him work hard for it, his running between the wickets gave the opposing captain that whiff of hope which the edge of his bat did not. Dravid ran himself out 13 times during his Test career. If one thinks that number is not significant given his long career, it is worth considering that the next most successful opponent after 'Mr Run-Out' was Shane Warne, who managed to dismiss Dravid eight times. Dravid also succeeded in running his partner out 14 times. Let's think about this: once every 11 innings when Dravid was out in the middle, one of the two batsmen would depart without dependence on the bowling abilities of the opposition.
Soon, but not before our talented opening pair has put on a century stand, the expected misunderstanding between them has occurred. In all probability, Rahul Dravid is walking. Running past him and eager to get to the middle is Ricky Ponting. Ponting is a shoo-in at the No. 3 slot given the almost 10,000 runs he scored at that position at an average of 56.27, with 32 centuries. What makes him particularly attractive to this team, beyond his batting, is his world-leading ability to engineer his own dismissal. Ponting ran himself out on 15 occasions, averaging 52 in those instances.
With Merchant and Ponting at the crease, two men with immense batting talent and ability to score runs at will, this should be an entertaining partnership indeed. The partnership is also likely to end with a bang. Given Ponting's superiority in the numbers game on this count, the chances are it will be Merchant who departs.
Replacing Merchant will be one of the most competitive Australian cricketers and captains of all time, Allan Border. Greg Baum summed him up best: "Allan Border parlayed three shots and a fanatical zeal about not giving away his wicket into the most durable career that cricket in his time had known. At his retirement he had featured in more Tests, more consecutive Tests, more Tests as captain and more catches than any other player - and a batting average of 50 as well."
What makes Border's selection in this team a cinch is his high ranking in the list of players with the highest number of run-out dismissals in their career, with 12. To add to his appeal for our selection committee, Border also saw his partners run out an incredible 17 times.
With two supremely competitive and talented batsmen at the crease, both of whom hated losing their wicket, we are certain to be blessed with a long partnership between Ponting and Border, unless there's a run-out. The next man in, with a batting average of 51.06 from 168 Test matches, 32 centuries and over 60% of his career runs coming at the No. 5 position, is Steve Waugh. He's the automatic choice to lead the team, given his 72% win record in Test cricket. What really puts his selection for this team beyond doubt, however, is his incredible record of running out partners. The 23 partners that he watched depart are testimony to the fact that Waugh is a 'must have' for this side.
At No. 6 is an interesting selection. Joe Solomon from Guyana played 27 Test matches for West Indies in the 1950s and 60s, averaging 34. But what immortalised Solomon in the annals of Test cricket was not his batting but his dazzling fielding in the first ever tied Test. What convinces our selection committee, though, to add him to the team, is his ability to run himself out. Solomon managed to run himself in 13% of his Test innings.
After Waugh manages to run out another partner, in next is an excellent allrounder from South Africa, Peter Pollock. Pollock led South Africa's bowling attack in 28 Tests, picking up 116 wickets at just above 24 runs apiece, and had a batting average of around 22. Pollock picks himself for this team with a reasonably high proportion of partners run out in his company.
Keeping wicket is Affie Jarvis, an Australian wicketkeeper from the last two decades of the 19th century. Jarvis waited for his chances and when he got them, performed extremely creditably keeping to bowlers like Fred Spofforth. Like Pollock, it is again his skill in running out his partners that clinches his spot.
At No. 9 is one of the best legspinners of the modern era, Stuart MacGill. His ESPNcricinfo profile says it all: "An old-fashioned operator with a gargantuan legbreak and majestic wrong'un, Stuart MacGill had the best strike-rate and worst luck of any modern spin bowler. His misfortune was to play alongside Shane Warne in an age when Australia, the land of Grimmett and O'Reilly, paradoxically frowned on the concept of fielding two wrist-spinners at once."
Following MacGill will be Peter Pollock's opening partner with the new ball. Blond, aggressive, blindingly fast and ever so often staring batsmen down with his icy blue eyes, Rodney Hogg was one of Australia's most aggressive quicks. His quirkiness was exemplified by his insistence that his wife erase a videotape of his soft dismissal in a Test because he didn't want his son thinking of him as a coward. Needless to say, Hogg's allure for the selectors of this team is immeasurably enhanced by his six run-outs in 58 innings.
The final spot in the XI goes to Iqbal Qasim, one of the foremost left-arm spinners of his age. Operating alongside Abdul Qadir and often in his shadow, Qasim would go about causing destruction with his penetrative turn and flight, almost surprising batsmen with his angled approach between the umpire and the stumps. With a record that parallels Hogg and MacGill's as far as running himself out is concerned, Qasim fits in well with the other exponents of this rare art.