Forward-short-leg position is for the daring - Yajurvindra Singh

Former India cricketer Yajurvindra Singh, a specialist forward-short-leg fielder during his playing days, discusses the “boring” fielding position in an interaction.

"The fielder’s reflexes have to be extremely good." Gus Logie attempts a catch to dismiss Robin Smith in a Test between England and West Indies at Lord's in 1991. - THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The close-in fielding, leg-trap in particular, was seen many a time in the Australia-India four-Test series that India won 2-1 and in the India–England four-Test series that India clinched 3-1. Off-spinner R. Ashwin enjoyed one of his better outings in Australia (12 wickets in three Tests at 28.83, one less than Mohammad Siraj’s 13 and one more than Jasprit Bumrah’s 11) as a result of some fine catching by the close-in fielders, including a handful in the leg trap (forward short leg and backward short leg).

“The leg trap, especially standing at forward short leg is a scary place. A fielder can get hit and die there,” says Yajurvindra Singh, who on his Test debut took five catches in the first innings against England in Bangalore in January 1977 - then joint record with Australia’s Vic Richardson.

Since Yajurvindra’s record feat 43 years ago, nine more have joined the five-catches-in-an-innings list. They are West Indies’ Darren Sammy, Jermaine Blackwood and Darren Bravo, India’s K. Srikanth, Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajinkya Rahane, New Zealand’s Stephen Fleming, Australia’s Steve Smith and South Africa’s Graeme Smith.

Rahane holds the world record for the highest number of catches in a Test match, which is eight against Sri Lanka at Galle in August 2015.

Yajurvindra was a specialist forward short leg fielder. He saw India’s series against Australia and England with a keen eye and believes that a fielder has to be happy fielding at forward short leg.

Excerpts from an interview

Q. What are your observations on India’s position with regard to fielding at forward short leg in the series against Australia and England?

A. Basically, India did not have the natural fielders to be in that position. I did not find them being able to anticipate a lot of things that was going to happen. If one is used to that position, he becomes familiar to the situations that would be created there. For example, Ben Stokes and Ajinkya Rahane, both slip fielders, become very comfortable in their positions. It doesn’t matter if they miss or drop a catch, but they are very comfortable when they catch a ball in the slips position. That’s what happens at forward short leg, if someone is used to field there.

One has to be very confident and the only way one can become so is by being in that position regularly as well as practising what he would expect would happen over there. For example, taking one-handed catches, being able to stay still and low and not get up. What I found in both the two series (India in Australia and the home series against England) is that the fielders were already getting up, they were not remaining low. What happens at forward short leg is that the ball comes downwards; it doesn’t go up. If the ball comes up, it is very easy to take a catch on the way up than to bend down suddenly, which takes time.

The other thing is, if the pitch doesn’t have bounce, the fielder has to step in front, otherwise the ball will not reach him. And if the pitch is a bit bouncy, then the fielder has to stay a little bit behind.

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If the batsman is employing the flick shot, the fielder would know that he can catch the ball and for that he has to stay behind. Eknath Solkar has done it (taken catches off the batsman’s flick shot) on a few occasions. So, the flick shots are important to catch as well.

Someone like Cheteshwar Pujara, who likes to play the flick shot, the fielder can stay a little bit behind and remain low because the flick shots can be caught. The fielder’s reflexes have to be extremely good. Every athlete has got a fantastic reflex. It comes only by building one’s confidence, that he gets the reflexes.

Look at the smashes in badminton. The smashes come to a player at a great speed and yet they are able to return/place the shuttle. Look at the men and women players and the time they have to react. That speed is as fast as anything one gets at forward short leg. If the badminton players can handle the speed, through reflexes and confidence, why should not the forward short leg fielder have the same reflexes and confidence? The fielders have all the protection now - the helmet, chest guards and shin guards.

There is also the tendency for the forward-short-leg fielders to turn and take evasive action, especially when the batsman employs the sweep shot.

There have been catches taken off Solkar’s head. He did not turn around. I have taken two catches off my chest because I did not turn around. These half-chances make all the difference. But these days, the fielders turn and get hit on a part of the body which has no protection. If a fielder turns his head reacting to a sweep shot, he may miss a half-chance.

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So, one has to practice for many hours.

They have to take a hundred normal catches, but one has to practise this at the other side of the net, and getting someone to hit the ball at a very close distance from the fielder. The most important thing is to be able to position oneself and be agile in order to move his leg quickly. Because the bat-pad shot could be going in a particular direction and one should be able to dive. For this to happen, one has to take a cat-like position so that he can anticipate and move quickly.

It never crossed my mind that I was fielding in such a dangerous position and that I could die. As one matures and gets hit a few times, then the realisation dawns that ‘What am I doing here?’

A player should be wanting to field there, is it not?

Of course. Most fielders don’t want to be there at forward short leg. Some fielders are scared to be there, the reason being if they get injured, they will lose their position in the team. And so, the junior-most is made to stand there.

One of the captains who took the forward-short-leg position very seriously was Sunil Gavaskar. When we were playing for West Zone, he told me: “Sunny, (Yujurvindra Singh) just get some runs. I cannot promise you a position in the team, but I want a forward-short-leg fielder. He understood the need for the close-in fielder in order to win the series against Alvin Kallicharan’s West Indies. So, captains and teams have to realise that it’s a specialist position.

What should the fielder’s mentality be then?

What I always followed and I think what the fielders should do is to think that every ball can come their way. Even a cover drive can result in the ball coming to the forward-short-leg fielder. He has to be mentally prepared and challenge himself. One should challenge not to catch, but to stop a single. Once a fielder starts challenging himself every ball, his reflexes will happen faster and the acceptance becomes easier. In this scenario, one is not taking a chance in such a situation because he is thinking that every ball would come to him.

The forward short leg is a boring but daring position. To keep yourself amused, you need to challenge yourself by saying “I am not going to let any ball go through me.”

Yajurvindra Singh played four Tests for India. - VIVEK BENDRE

 

How did you become a forward-short-leg fielder?

I had gone for the Pataudi Memorial Tournament in Bhopal in the mid 1970s. Anil Deshpande and I were getting runs in the domestic tournaments and ‘Tiger’ Pataudi invited us. It was a big thing for us because all the Indian stars - Jaisimha, Chandra, Brijesh and Sunil - were to play there. We were in Pataudi’s side.

I remember when walking into the field, Pataudi asked me “Where do you field?” And the answer from me was “anywhere,” to which Pataudi said: “Oh, in that case you must be a bloody good fielder. Okay, you go at forward short leg.” Then he asked Deshpande his fielding position and the reply was “third man sir.” I still remember Luthra was bowling and I got three catches. Then Pataudi put his arm around me and said: “Young man, you better make this your position.”

 

It was then [that] it occurred to me that I should do that. Even in club and corporate matches, and in the Ranji Trophy matches, I began to field at forward short leg. In the 1976 Duleep Trophy, I took a good number of catches for West Zone fielding at forward short leg. Eknath (Solkar) was already well known then. When he was not there for West Zone, I took over that position. So, Pataudi actually started my forward-short-leg position.

Forward-short-leg fielders come into the picture for run-outs also?

What happens is that when the batsman loses his balance while playing a shot, he can leave his ground and hence the forward -short-leg fielder has to practise throwing down the stumps for run outs. Again, one hand becomes very important for a forward-short-leg fielder as much as both the hands. Everything in cricket is a muscle thing, the muscle memory; being able to judge the length of the ball or the ball coming to you. And the muscle memory comes only with practice.

You took three catches off Chandra and two off Prasanna in the first innings of your debut Test against England in Bangalore. They are two different bowlers.

The forward-short-leg fielder has to watch in that direction, in front of the batsman and say to yourself that the ball is coming to me. The ball can come off the front or back-foot play. If one looks at Chandra’s bowling and then sees what the batsman is going to do, he is in trouble. You can sense looking at the way the batsman is moving, as to whether the ball is coming to you or not. One can be hit on the head, body, knees and legs. Those days, everyone would laugh if the forward-short-leg fielder gets hit on the head or body. I got hit when playing for West Zone versus England before my India debut. Everyone laughed and the doctor told me: “Whenever the blood comes from your ears, you come to me. Otherwise relax.” Nobody felt sorry, today the fielder is attended to by two or three people. No one felt sorry if someone got hit on the head. Kim Hughes swept Dilip Doshi and the ball hit me on my forehead. Nothing happened except for some swelling.

The bat-pad shot could be going in a particular direction and one should be able to dive. For this to happen, one has to take a cat-like position so that he can anticipate and move quickly.

The leg trap was a prominent part of the series in Australia recently.

Steve Smith was a good example of getting caught in the leg trap off the flick shot, Mohinder Amarnath liked to play the flick shot. He was a candidate for being caught in the leg trap. These are opportunities and half-chances and the fielder should be able to challenge himself to field there.

I liked to field in both positions of the leg trap, gully and even silly point were okay for me. Also third slip. I liked to field a little square of the wicket because I was comfortable seeing the direction of the ball than leaving the bowler’s hand. Even in the close-in positions, one felt comfortable in some areas.

Catches come off the full face and off edges? And some catches get stuck into the fielders’ hand/hands?

For the ball to stick to your hand, the hand has to go in that direction. Two catches that I took were off the edge of the bat; one was of Chandra’s googly. Bat-pad is much easier, but in Chandra’s case, the ball used to come off the edge very fast. I fielded much close to the batsman because I believed that if the ball comes a little higher, I will be able to catch it easily. I got this thing, standing a bit closer to the batsman, from England’s Brian Close. It reduces the angle and the catch comes at a better height. Many catches landed in front of the forward-short-leg fielder in both the series in Australia and against England at home.

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Who decides on where to stand, the distance from the batsman?

The fielder decides. Most of them feel comfortable to be far away and they are not able to take the challenging catches, the half-chances when converted has the potential to change the course of a match.

The forward-short-leg fielder must be feeling safe if it’s a left-hand spinner bowling to a right-hander?

Totally safe, except when he bowls the arm ball. I felt safe fielding at forward-short-leg for Prasanna, Chandra and Bedi. But Chandra used to bowl short balls some times.

You said it’s a position that’s scary, but would you say that someone who has stood at forward short leg for hundreds of matches still will be scared?

When you are young, you are daring, a foot soldier. One never thought he could die fielding there. It never crossed my mind that I was fielding in such a dangerous position and that I could die. As one matures and gets hit a few times, then the realisation dawns that ‘What am I doing here?’ And if someone asks me today, or if I would ask my son, if I had one, to field at forward short leg, I would say “No.”

Did you field at forward short leg when in school and college?

Of course, school cricket was all fun; the maximum sledging happens in school matches. So close-in is an important fielding position. And also you have to be a team player. If you are worried about your individual performance, you will not field there. Eknath Solkar was a genuine team player, he would sacrifice getting hit there saying ‘I would get the wicket for you, bowler’.