What is a run in cricket?

Of all cricket’s intricate records, is any more prized than the individual one for runs scored in Test cricket? One man – Brian Lara – has the unique distinction of having broken it twice, after reaching an astonishing 400 not out against England in Antigua in April 2004. Great cricketers Bradman, Hutton and Sobers among them – have held it, and it was Sobers whom Lara had overtaken on the same ground ten years earlier. He reclaimed the record from Matthew Hayden, who passed Lara’s 375 in October 2003. Of course no record is unbreakable, but Lara’s 2004 achievement almost suspends the imagination.

Nothing is more fundamental to the state of the game than the number of runs scored. Runs are the bottom line, the means of determining the likelihood of victory or defeat, the measure of an individual batsman’s form, and in one day cricket they must be scored with a time factor constantly in mind. When runs dry up, the psychological pressure on the batsman grows. When they flow freely, the fielding captain must scratch his head and consider how to stem them.

The sharp single, constantly sought and aggressively run to rotate the strike, is of enormous value to batsmen needing to extricate their team from a tight situation. So too is the ability to turn ones into twos, and twos into threes. The pressure can rapidly shift on to the fielding side, overthrows may result, and the complexion of the match may suddenly be altered. And if the batsman is capable of it, nothing can turn a match on its head like out-and-out attack.

One of the great joys of cricket is that no match scenario is ever exactly the same. Mentally, batsmen need to adapt to different situations every time they go in. Usually, they need to tailor their individual styles to respond. But a batsman who is a genuine, individual match-winner is a priceless asset to any team. In the 1981 Ashes series England were doubly fortunate to have a player capable of winning a match with either bat or ball, and without him they could not possibly have won the series. Neither could he have won it with the ball had it not been for the runs he scored.

An out-of-form Ian Botham resigned the captaincy after a miserable start to the rubber, which left England 1-0 down with four matches to play. Wisely, the selectors turned to his old mentor Mike Brearley, who perceptively asked Botham whether he wanted to play in the next game at Headingley. Although the answer was an emphatic yes, the situation when he went in to bat on day four, with his team, after following on, 105 for five, still needing 123 runs to make Australia bat again, was hardly encouraging.

As has been widely chronicled his innings, after a circumspect start, became an extreme example of an aggressive response to a losing situation. Having booked out of the hotel that morning, he suggested to his partner Graham Dilley that they should give the ball a bit of a whack. Dilley provided the initial impetus, and after tea runs flowed in directions ranging freely from the orthodox to the outrageous. Australia’s hitherto dominant attack of Dennis Lillee, Terry Alderman and Geoff Lawson was run ragged.

The psychological damage Botham’s innings did to Australia was massive, quite apart from leaving them a tricky little victory target that they had not expected. Bob Willis finished them off the following day, and almost incredibly they went 2-1 down in the next match at Edgbaston in similar circumstances, Botham the bowler doing the job that Willis had done at Headingley.

In the second innings at Old Trafford, Botham arrived at the crease shortly after lunch with England, on 104 for five and only 205 runs ahead, in danger of squandering their advantage. Runs had been desperately hard to come by so far that day; just 34 had been scored for the loss of four key wickets. Australia’s bowlers had apparently brought them back into the match. By that evening, after an innings that was surely one of the greatest in Test history, Botham had wrested back the initiative.

With the dour Chris Tavare at the other end Botham again started quietly, with just three singles from his first 30 balls. He was on 28 when Australia took the new ball and the fireworks started. The great Lillee was hooked for three sixes in two overs, two of them almost off Botham’s eyebrows (he was batting bareheaded). And there was no shortage of sharp singles either, as he and Tavare added 149 for the sixth wicket. By the time Botham was out he had made 118 in 102 balls, with six sixes and 13 fours.

While Alan Knott replaced Botham to make a sparkling half-century, Tavare’s utterly contrasting innings continued until he was next out, having made 78 in 289 balls. But it was a vital contribution, and an excellent example of the value of a supporting role. As well as tailoring their approach to a given situation, batsmen do well to bat for their partners, so enabling the partnership to flourish. England won by 103 runs at Old Trafford, retaining the Ashes and securing an unassailable 3-1 series lead.

In a situation like that, England could not afford to waste even a single, so no doubt they paid attention to the 18th Law of Cricket, which deals at length with the issue of short runs. Usually, the issue arises when a batsman, when completing a run, unintentionally fails to ground his bat before setting off for the next one. The umpire’s straightforward response in such a case is to signal “one shore”. However if he believes the batsman has intentionally run short his response is different. In 1975, when Kent were playing Leicestershire at Tunbridge Wells, Mike Denness ran three during a partnership with Pakistan’s Asif Iqbal. However the umpires took the view that Asif had deliberately run one of them short, and docked all three as a result.

Law 18 now states that this should be done as a matter of course, and that a “first and final” warning should be given to the batsman that the practice is unfair. If it is repeated in the innings by the same or any other batsman, the umpire will ‘report the occurrence, with the other umpire, to the Executive of the batting side and any governing body responsible for the match, who shall take such action as is considered appropriate against the captain and player or players concerned,. In addition, five penalty runs are awarded to the fielding side. The same now applies if the ball hits a helmet when it has been placed on the ground behind the wicket-keeper, at which point the ball is declared dead.

Such is the importance of runs, the word is included in the title of many a cricketer’s autobiography. “Runs in the Family”, “In Search of Runs” and “Runs Galore” are just a few examples. Slightly hackneyed they may seem, but the underlying message is simple: what on earth would cricket and cricketers do without them?