What does cognitive psychology have to do with non-striker run outs?

The recent Harshal Patel example tells us why players need to train for these dismissals

Aditya Prakash
Interrupting his bowling action to break the non-striker's stumps - even if intentionally - would have required Harshal Patel to switch between task modes, and there is a cost to that  •  BCCI

Interrupting his bowling action to break the non-striker's stumps - even if intentionally - would have required Harshal Patel to switch between task modes, and there is a cost to that  •  BCCI

It is not often that you see a run out at the non-striker's end. It is even less often that you see a failed run out at the non-striker's end. Perhaps it is yet more uncommon to be in a situation where five runs are needed off the last over and it is a challenging ask for the batting team in a match where only one other over has gone for fewer runs. We got two out of three of these unlikely possibilities in the last over of the game between Royal Challengers Bangalore and Lucknow Super Giants on Monday.
At the core of it lies a trite sentiment expressed by understandably shocked spectators: how on earth could Harshal Patel have missed that run out? That surprise might obscure a more complex, embedded, question: given that Harshal had uncannily perfect execution in that over, how could the run out be the thing he messed up?
Let us start by regarding this situation from a more empathetic perspective, borrowing from the study of task-switch costs in psychology.
In day-to-day life we often perform more than one activity at a time, such as watching a cricket match and tweeting about it. One can easily see how there is an impairment in the performance of either task that results from attempting to multitask. You may miss a magnificent six because you were too caught up in looking at your phone. It may take you several more minutes than usual to compose a tweet because you were distracted by a series of pressure-building dot balls in the match. In cognitive psychology, these different modes of activities are called task sets - representations of associations between information in the world and relevant responses to this information. As one swaps from one task set to another, there are initial impairments to performance - task-switch costs - while the existing task set is inhibited and the new task set is activated.
Look back at the final over of the India vs Pakistan T20I World Cup game in 2022. One can think of Mohammed Nawaz's unprecedented switch to medium pace from his previous three overs of left-arm fingerspin and his subsequent execution failures as a task-switch cost.
Pressure can add to these switch-cost effects. In a losing situation - despite a rich history of a tactic or plan working successfully - a player or team might shortsightedly underestimate the effectiveness of existing plans and adopt alternative tactics that might seem relatively appealing under pressure. Moreover, research shows that time pressure itself (caused by a nervous bowler hurrying their rhythm, for instance) amplifies the effect of a switch cost. So pressure impairs performance by making alternative plans more attractive, forcing switch costs and amplifying these costs by causing bowlers to rush.
A more fine-grained example of a task switch is the use of bowling variations, which often demand drastic changes in motor coordination. With disciplined practice, good bowlers can disguise variations and switch between deliveries with few flaws in their execution. Bowlers can train themselves to minimise or eliminate the effect of these switch costs between variations by bowling different types of deliveries a lot in net sessions. But in high-pressure situations, switching between different balls, which was so effortless in the nets, can suddenly prove challenging to execute. This is seen in the death overs of just about any T20 game when an intended yorker or flighted, wicket-seeking delivery becomes a full-toss.
Research shows that time pressure itself (caused by a nervous bowler hurrying their rhythm, for instance) amplifies the effect of a switch cost. Pressure impairs performance by making alternative plans look more attractive, forcing switch costs and amplifying these costs by causing bowlers to rush
Harshal has built his name on his death bowling, as was borne out by the fact that the match was not already won in the four balls preceding the failed run-out attempt. Like Dwayne Bravo, his success in this phase of the game rests on his signature dipping, slower yorker. Both these bowlers' resounding success in the IPL (three purple caps between them) can be attributed not just to the difficulty batters have in hitting their signature deliveries but to how even the failed execution of this delivery - the dipping full toss - is difficult to hit. These players are not necessarily beasts under pressure; their success rests on even their "mistakes" having utility. In other words, just because Harshal can be effective at the death, that does not necessarily say he is invulnerable under pressure and to pressure-mediated switch costs.
So, after concentrating his attention on the tasks of clinically bowling yorkers and short balls, Harshal readies himself for the final delivery of the game. Ravi Bishnoi had not been a non-striker to that point in the game, and there was no strong reason for Harshal to proactively keep an eye open for the possibility of Bishnoi leaving his crease early. Of course, Harshal will have had a non-specific awareness that this could occur, given how crucial it was that Lucknow Super Giants took the single.
At this point perhaps Harshal simply plots another yorker in light of the relatively tighter field and the conditioning imposed by the previous delivery, which was short. As he gets into position for his run-up, he may well have got into "dipping yorker mode", a rehearsed, finely tuned choreography - saunter, sprint, leap, release - that he has performed countless times in the nets and in match situations like this one with success.
At some point during this sequence of actions, he catches a glimpse of intent from Bishnoi to run early, or perhaps he doesn't see Bishnoi but quickly decides that there is no risk at this point in attempting a run out. Either way, given that he has already begun his bowling action, there is difficulty inhibiting dipping-yorker mode and therefore difficulty in efficiently adopting "non-striker-run-out mode". As a result, an execution error occurs and the ball is declared dead.
What if the run-out attempt was premeditated? The underlying switch-cost logic still holds. In this case, Harshal is aware that Bishnoi may leave his crease early in light of the game situation. In order to sufficiently fool Bishnoi into believing the ball will be bowled, Harshal launches into a general "bowling mode", replicating most of the choreography mentioned above. In trying to realistically bait the non-striker, he devotes his attention to bowling mode. This makes the eventual inhibition of this mode difficult and subsequently leads to a failure in executing the secondary non-striker-run-out mode. The magnitude of this cost is perhaps amplified further by the implicit time pressure caused by rushing when nervous. In a sense, the razor-sharp focus on execution that preceded the run-out attempt amplified its error rate.
What distinguishes the run-out attempt is that it is likely not something Harshal has practised to the extent he has practised actually bowling. More specifically, it is unlikely that coaches ever have had players practise disengaging from their run-up for a purpose beyond just stopping. As a result, most players likely do not have the required training required to switch without cost between the task of bowling and the task of running out the non-striker.
Effecting a run out at the non-striker's end is mechanistically among the most anomalous actions in a bowler's repertoire. It is the least similar to any other action he routinely performs. This further amplifies the difficulty in switching from bowling mode to non-striker-run-out mode, relative to, say, switching from yorker mode to bouncer mode. Most (but not all) recent prominent examples of run outs at the non-striker's end were effected by spinners, who have relatively modular and slower run-ups compared to fast bowlers. This provides them more time and opportunity to disengage from bowling mode and engage non-striker-run-out mode. In the heat of a game - especially for fast bowlers with quick, highly linear, stereotyped run-ups - run outs at the non-striker's end are hard and should be practised like any other skill within the game.
Unfortunately, this need is hindered by prominent coaches, captains, and other authority figures in the game not recognising non-striker run outs as a legitimate form of dismissal, to the point that it is suggested that should a player effect such a dismissal, the captain can opt to void the appeal.
This confusion within the cricket community - which exists despite how clear the laws of the game are on the issue - may discourage players from training for a legitimate form of dismissal, leading to errors in execution during the moment of truth. Harshal's own hesitation reflects the hesitation many in cricket have towards non-striker run outs generally. An event like this botched non-striker run out can indirectly serve as a reminder that teams need a full commitment to the laws of cricket, not to some nebulous "spirit of cricket". This sentiment should not just be reflected in words and thoughts but also in training regimes and strategies, just like with any other element of cricket play.

Aditya Prakash is a graduate student in cognitive psychology