It is a cliché universally acknowledged that while catches win matches, a timely run-out can help you take a game by the snout. It is not uncommon for it to be that piece of individual brilliance that breaks the unbreakable stand, dismisses the undismissible bat: just ask Ricky Ponting. But these moments really stick in the memory because of their rarity, especially in the lower reaches of the game. What I would like to do is make the run-out mundane, by making it happen more often.
There are two types of run-out: the spectacular direct-hit variety and the throw/gather/break stumps variety. That the latter is generally credited solely to the thrower is one of cricket's many injustices, but that is another blog. The direct hit is relatively rare, which makes it all the more tempting to attempt, and the occasional success glosses over the more usual miss. I would love to see some stats on the ratio of successfully executed direct hits to misses (and average overthrows per miss too), and the number of gather-and-break-stumps successes analysed in similar fashion. The stats aren't exactly comprehensive - though they do reveal that Viv Richards ran out more of his partners (3.39%) than did Geoffrey Boycott (2.9%). They also fail to differentiate between types of run-outs.
Attempted direct hits are, instinct tells me, high risk for low reward. The direct hit requires a throw at the base of the stumps to maximise the chances of contact, at least with regards to height, and this puts any fielder who stands ready to gather the ball in danger. The ball that gets to the stumps on the bounce and hits them is on an upward trajectory, changing direction with two or three feet left to travel before reaching any waiting fielder. Imagine if the ball simply clips the bails and travels not into the hands but directly towards the face. Is there time to move out of harm's way? No.
This I know because it happened to me in Cheltenham, the ball hitting me squarely in my right eye. I was very fortunate to suffer no damage whatsoever: we all know of players who weren't so lucky. Of course, this only happens if you keep your eye on the ball (I know, it's not meant to be taken literally). Most players would already have looked away. So if the attempt misses (which it most probably will), it simply won't be gathered.
"The average run-out attempt is the fielding equivalent of the mow over cow corner: occasionally spectacular, typically spectacularly embarrassing"
The run-out is a facet of play in which cricket is way behind the American ball games baseball and softball. I have recently been stranded in Florida and have thus been playing a lot of softball. They do run-outs better than we do - a lot better. Jarrod Kimber recently suggested that too few people have asked why baseball players throw better than cricketers. Well, I did, and the answer is simple, and two-fold.
Firstly, the throw is the same action as the pitch (at least, the wrist and elbow action are, and shoulder and hips can be added depending on how far the ball must travel), so it's a basic, and transferable, skill. Secondly, and more importantly, throwing out a batter is one of three ways to get an out, and it's at least as common as catching or striking one out. According to Doug Dennis, writer for BaseballHQ.com who worked for two years with the St Louis Cardinals in player evaluation, there was a throw involved in 36% of outs in Major League baseball in 2016. It's clear that that's a lot more than in cricket, so baseball players work on it more as a result.
In baseball there is also a second incentive for sharp infielding: the double play. The double play, that is, effecting two outs, was responsible for 3% of outs when the ball was in play in 2016. The fact is, baseball fielders think much harder about who to throw out first, and secondly, how they throw.
For example, first base is loaded. The batter hits flat to the short stop. The short stop gathers and throws to second base, who catches the ball (out No. 1) and throws to first (out No. 2). It's a common play, so there is no panic. Second base has their arm out and glove ready, giving a visual cue that they need the ball, and short stop throws the ball so that it can not only be caught easily but also transferred smoothly from glove to hand, and thus thrown onwards in one fluid motion. There is no drama, just the one way to do things. And they are learning how to do this from the age of five.
Let us now look at the average (farcical) run-out attempt in (non-professional) cricket. Firstly, as soon as the possibility arises, the shouts go up, indicating to the fielder that they should throw to both ends. The shouts are instinctive, born of panic rather than practice, and hesitation ensues with predictable results. Wild throws, poor backing up, overthrows, embarrassment all round. The average run-out attempt is the fielding equivalent of the mow over cow corner: occasionally spectacular, typically spectacularly embarrassing.
The way to fix this problem is, of course, simple. Observing the American way simply makes it obvious: play the numbers game. If, when fielding, a team develops one simple habit, then their run-out rate will increase. It is something professionals do as a matter of course, and the rest of us ought to copy them, but for some reason it rarely happens (or maybe it's just me). After fielding the ball, return it to the wicketkeeper, on the full. Every time. And that goes for every fielder from mid-on to mid-off.
"Keep your Gary Pratt impersonations to yourselves, and concentrate on playing good, intelligent cricket. Which means simple cricket"
Do not attempt the direct hit or throw to the bowler's end unless there is a compelling reason to do so, namely, if it is truly only a potential run-out at the bowler's end, and by a country mile. And if you must go for the direct hit and are within 20 yards or so of the stumps, then gather and throw the ball underarm, in one motion. Often called shovelling, it is quicker and more accurate than an overarm throw.
Otherwise, find the gloves. Why? There are three good reasons. Firstly, the player with the gloves is more likely to catch the ball than anyone else. Secondly, they will always be at the stumps, waiting. Thirdly, they are used to taking the ball and breaking the stumps in one movement. If these seem like obvious reasons, it's because they are. Finding the gloves will help your team take more wickets, it's guaranteed (but non-refundable). It will also help dissuade the opposition from stealing cheeky singles.
The moral of the story? Statistics tend to tell us to keep the game simple, and in the absence of statistics, err on the side of simplicity. Keep your Gary Pratt impersonations to yourselves, and concentrate on playing good, intelligent cricket. Which means simple cricket. Do this and your run-outs will be less pivotal, less dramatic, less important. Why? Because they will be considerably less rare.