“The more you do something the better you get at it”.
There is little point in arguing against this. It can apply to sport as much as anything else. The last time I heard it said was by the 70-plus year old American author, Paul Theroux, explaining why he had no intention of “retiring”. In a way it is little different from one of my favourite sporting quotes, from the South African golfer, Gary Player: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”
Sport is of course different from lots of other things, not just writing. In most if not all sports, fitness is crucial, which limits how long you can do it. And, secondly, records are a significant, almost obsessive concern. This makes it possible to determine if, generation upon generation, athletes are getting “better”, whatever that means. And of course, generally, they are.
Runners run and swimmers swim faster, jumpers jump higher, and longer, lifters lift heavier, golfers drive further. That is simply how things are.
Team sports are a bit different, and everything is more nuanced, but in terms of records the position is basically the same. Records get broken. Sachin Tendulkar has scored more Test runs than anyone else. Assuming Test cricket continues to be played in realistic quantities, somebody – Joe Root? – Harry Brook? – will overtake him. Batting as a thing – a science? – an art? – has obviously developed over many years and continues to develop. Bowlers invent new deliveries. Fielding has improved out of all recognition. Of course there are flukes, freaks, that will never be matched; nobody is ever going to play 52 Tests and average 99.94, as Don Bradman did; that is simply not going to happen. But, generally speaking, performances get better.
One thing that hasn’t really improved in cricket is running between the wickets. An immediate caveat here: the improvement in athleticism means that running between the wickets is probably faster and keener than it used to be even a few years ago. But clangers are just as likely to be dropped as they have always been.
Pausing for a moment, when I was about ten, I was given a sort of instructional book by the former England all-rounder Trevor Bailey, called simply Cricket. There is quite a long section on running. Bailey’s theme is that with so many ways to get out, it is absurd to make the opposition’s task easier by getting run out. He sets out a few basic principles : “Every time the ball is played in front of the wicket the striker is responsible for making the call. Every time the ball goes behind the stumps the calling should be left to the non-striker. “And a bit later: “A common reason for people being unnecessarily run out is failure to slide the bat when completing a run.”
Two big clangers were dropped in the thrilling Basin Reserve Test between New Zealand and England in February 2023.
The first occurred in New Zealand’s second innings. Tom Blundell hit a ball into the midwicket area which was being policed by the limping England captain Ben Stokes. It was always a likely two – Blundell and Michael Bracewell went for a third. There is nothing wrong with Stokes’ arm, and the ball thudded into Ben Foakes’ gloves as Bracewell lolloped rather casually to the line. Amazingly he had not slid or even grounded his bat when Foakes demolished the stumps, and he was out.
This was literally a schoolboy error and it seemed almost bizarre to find an international cricketer making it. The target audience for Bailey’s book was not first-class cricketers, it was people like me. Kiwi pundits were reminded of the all-rounder Shane Thomson, who, in a Test against South Africa in 1994-95, played a stylish forward defensive stroke and then held the pose, as if for the cameras. Unfortunately he was outside his ground. He obviously did not realise this, but short leg, who had fielded the ball, did, and rolled the ball into the stumps dislodging a bail. Thomson had to go.
The second run out came during England’s enthralling final day run chase. England were struggling when Ollie Pope fell to the last ball of a Neil Wagner over. This brought in Brook, who had made 186 in the first innings, to join Root, who had made 153 not out. Root guided the first ball of Tim Southee’s next over in the direction of gully and at once set off for a run. This is a favourite stroke of Root’s. It is a one-day shot really, and it can get him into trouble. On this occasion the ball was intercepted by Bracewell at third slip and he whisked it back to the keeper, Blundell. On YouTube you can see Blundell knocking the stumps down – poor old Brook isn’t even in the frame.
Nobody seems to have called. Of course some batting pairs know each other so well, they don’t need to call. It is not clear that Root and Brook are such a pair. It seems more likely that Brook felt he had no choice but to follow the lead of his senior partner, although the result must have been a foregone conclusion from his point of view.
David Gower was commentating at the time. He made two immediate and pertinent observations. The first – a rhetorical question rather than an observation but the effect was the same – was “What on earth is going on?”, a fair question.The second was “This could be the most important moment of the day.” Given that Brook has been in irresistible form and that England’s run chase failed by two runs, that was a fair prediction.
Many people were reminded of a similar occurrence many years ago. The occasion was the third Ashes Test at Trent Bridge in 1977. The match marked the return to the England side, after three years of self-imposed exile, of Geoffrey Boycott. England won the match, their first victory over Australia at Nottingham since 1930, and Boycott made 107 and 80 not out.
The game is always remembered, though, for the unfortunate run out of local hero Derek Randall in England’s first innings.
Wisden’s match report must be the proper place to start. “Randall began in great style but was run out when Boycott went for an impossible single after stroking the ball down the pitch where Randall was backing up. In the end Randall sacrificed his wicket to save Boycott who stood dejected covering his face with his hands. Boycott freely admitted that he was to blame…”
Boycott’s feelings since then have become slightly more ambivalent. In his autobiography, published in 1987, he accepted full responsibility, and said he had never felt so wretched on a cricket field. His only explanation, he said, was that he seriously underestimated the agility of the bowler, Jeff Thomson. He also said that Randall himself had told him since that it was not his fault at all but that had he not hesitated he would have got home. In Being Geoffrey Boycott, co-written with Jon Hotten and published in 2022, these two points are emphasised but Boycott admits to having been “stunned and mortified“ by what he had done.
Look at the YouTube footage and you can see why. Calling it an impossible single is almost an understatement. “A tragedy for Randall” was Richie Benaud’s pithy conclusion.
A few months later Boycott was involved in another famous run out, this time as victim. The match was the second Test against New Zealand at Christchurch in 1977-78. Boycott was captain. England, having lost the first Test at Wellington, won this one handsomely, thanks mainly to a fantastic all-round performance by Ian Botham, who made a hundred in England’s first innings, took eight wickets in the match and held three brilliant catches.
Wisden’s match report says that in England’s second innings “when they led by 183 runs and quick runs were needed to ram home the advantage, Botham hit 30 off 36 balls” , enabling Boycott to declare on 96 for four made off 22 overs – hardly Bazball, but not a bad rate.
Nothing is said in the match report about Boycott’s innings; he was run out for 26. Nor is anything said about it in Alex Bannister’s tour review, though he does say that “there were times when the strain of keeping the batting together was reflected in his scoring rate.”
The ESPNCRICINFO scorecard shows that Boycott made his 26 off 80 balls.
What is clear from both scorecards is that Boycott was run out shortly after Botham came in. In his autobiography, published in 1994, Botham gives an account of what happened: “Bob Willis, the vice-captain, had sent me out with the clearest, if most extraordinary, of instructions: “ Go and run the bugger out.” Botham followed the instructions to the letter. Boycott has always denied that Botham ran him out deliberately; he just thought it was a very stupid call. Willis, in his own autobiography, published in 1984, was inclined towards the Boycott explanation. He thought both men were poor runners. The YouTube footage is inconclusive; it was certainly a dreadful call.
Wisden’s silence is interesting because the match report deals in some detail with another run out in the same innings, the victim, oddly enough, being Randall. He was run out while backing up, by the bowler, Ewan Chatfield. This “unfortunate incident”, as Wisden called it, caused great unhappiness in the England camp, partly because there had been no warning. Both Botham and Boycott were very critical of Chatfield’s action in their respective books.
A lot of nonsense has been written and said about this form of dismissal in recent years. It is always associated with the great Indian allrounder Vinoo Mankad, who ran the Australian batsman Bill Brown out twice in this way in Australia in 1947-48. Perhaps the fact that it happened to Brown twice – he was run out again in the fifth Test, in a more conventional way, for 99 – says more about Brown than it does about Mankad. Brown’s captain, Bradman, had no sympathy for his teammate; by backing up too early, the non-striker was getting an unfair advantage, he said.
Now, because of a few “ unfortunate incidents” in franchise and T 20 cricket, people are calling for the “Mankad” – if there is such a noun – to be banned. The problem is that batters have become careless about leaving their ground in the same way that bowlers have become careless of overstepping. Bailey said all that needs to be said: “The non-striker should always back up so that when the ball has left the bowler’s hand he is a few yards down the track waiting for a possible run. But do not make the mistake of leaving the safety of your crease before the bowler has released the ball. He is perfectly entitled to run you out.”
Of course these run outs – or runs out, as Bailey says they should be called – are not exactly conventional. The runs out – one will have to get used to this, like “batter“ – that one remembers are the desperate scrambles. Sharp singles are an underrated weapon for the batting side. They can disorientate a fielding side and frustrate and annoy the bowlers. But there is always the risk of error.
An exciting finish will often involve runs out. There have been some memorable instances of this. Despite all the thrills of 21st century Test cricket, there is still a case for saying that the greatest match of all was the tied Test between Australia and West Indies at Brisbane in 1960-61. Australia’s thrilling run chase ended with the second last ball of the final over bowled by the great fast bowler, Wes Hall. In the penultimate over, bowled by Gary Sobers, Alan Davidson had been run out by Joe Solomon’s direct hit from square leg – it was a bad call, admitted captain, and striker, Richie Benaud. Benaud himself was then caught behind. In the final over Wally Grout was run out by what Benaud called a miracle throw by Conrad Hunte, from 80 yards straight into keeper Gerry Alexander’s gloves, right over the stumps; an inch or so either side, said Benaud, and Grout would have got home. That brought in last man Lindsay Kline to join fellow tail-ender Ian Meckiff. Two balls to go, one run to win, one wicket left. Kline pushed the ball into the leg side and ran. Again, Solomon was the fielder. He picked the ball up with Meckiff about six yards from safety, and Solomon with one stump to aim at. “There surely“, said Benaud, “could never have been a better throw.“ It gave rise to one of cricket’s abiding images (see featured image).
The 2019 World Cup final at Lord’s ended, uniquely, with a Super Over. New Zealand needed two to win off the last ball. You can see it in your mind’s eye now, Jason Roy’s throw thudding into Jos Buttler’s gloves, and Martin Guptill lunged desperately for the crease, Buttler whipping off the bails to give England victory by what Ian Smith memorably called “the barest of margins“.
The first Test between New Zealand and Sri Lanka at Christchurch in March 2023 was, if anything, even more extraordinary than the one against England at the Basin Reserve a few weeks before. New Zealand, needing 285 to win, won by two wickets off the last possible ball of the match. It was a short ball that Kane Williamson aimed to pull but he missed it. He and Neil Wagner scampered through for a bye, Williamson diving home at the non- striker’s end.
in all three of these matches none of the batters panicked. They did what they had to do; there was desperation, but decision making was clear. The classic case of a panic attack was South Africa’s pursuit of a modest Australian total in the World Cup semi-final at Edgbaston in 1999. With one over to go, South Africa needed nine to win, with on strike Lance Klusener in the form of his life. He clobbered Damien Fleming’s first two balls for four. One to win, one wicket left, four balls to go. Klusener hit the next ball to Darren Lehman, non-striker Allan Donald tore out of his crease and was sent back; somehow he survived. Next ball it was Klusener’s turn to panic; hitting the ball past the bowler he set off for an impossible single. Donald stood for a while, as if transfixed, then set off, then turned back and dropped his bat. Fleming calmly rolled the ball down the pitch for Adam Gilchrist to finish the job.
Panic is an obvious ingredient in a run out. Anxiety can also play a part. On the Sunday afternoon of the second Ashes Test of 1993, England were in a hopeless position but at least the home crowd had the prospect of seeing one of their best young players, Michael Atherton, making a hundred and getting his name on the coveted Lord’s honours board. On 97, Atherton clipped a ball off his legs and the batters set off for what was clearly an easy two. As Wisden put it, “both batsmen were swayed by the impending landmark as they debated a third run.“ Atherton turned for the third as Merv Hughes gathered the ball on the midwicket boundary. Mike Gatting, the non-striker, sent him back but Atherton slipped and fell. Ian Healy dived and ran him out for 99. As Wisden said, if he had been on seven, or 87, a third run would not have been contemplated.
“Tragedy, tragedy“, said Tony Lewis on commentary. Boycott was rather less sympathetic. He couldn’t understand the concern about that one run. The batter should be focussed on the long view, getting 150 or 200.
Well, the trouble is, that’s life. Dropping clangers, mortification, desperation, panic, anxiety, they are all there. As cricket people know, no game is so ruthless in exposing human frailties.
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