England's slip conundrum

If England are to learn to catch properly, they must reappraise just about everything they do in this area from where the wicket-keeper stands.

The old adage that catches win matches is still as applicable as it has ever been. If England drop catches in Australia they will lose the Ashes later this year. England coach Duncan Fletcher has been quoted as saying, "No one is to blame", thereby dismissing the nine dropped catches at Lord's in the first Test against Sri Lanka as just one of those things. It has even been suggested that the slope at Lord's created problems.

That may well be the case, but if you think the slope is a problem you must set out to find a remedy for it. I may have been lucky in my early years in first-class cricket playing on the Sydney Cricket Ground, which had a very pronounced slope to the boundary at one end and was fairly flat at the other.

This meant that if you were fielding at slip on one end you were standing lower than the batsman and snicks carried much further. It was obviously easier to catch at that end because you could stand deeper, thus giving yourself more time to get into position to make the catch.

At the other end, the ball didn't carry as far. So you had to stand closer for the nicks. This certainly was more difficult with less time to see the ball, but the difficulty could be overcome if you spent time practising catching, standing closer than you normally would.

Lord's poses a similar problem just like many other grounds with slopes around the world. Sussex's home ground in Hove probably has the most pronounced slope that I have caught on. At Lord's, slip fieldsmen must field deeper when bowlers are operating from the Pavilion End and closer when the bowlers are running up the slope from the Nursery End.

Having seen the dropped catches on TV replays it is obvious that it wasn't just "one of those things" as suggested by Duncan Fetcher but rather an exhibition of poor catching technique and lack of knowledge about how to take slip catches in such demanding situations.

The number one criterion is that the slips fielders must prepare for every ball bowled to be snicked. A slip fielder has to be extremely confident about pouching any chance that comes his way. The only way this can be achieved is by a mixture of confidence, ability to focus and the correct technique.

As a coach I am pretty flexible about the techniques of batsmen and bowlers as I realise that everyone has their own style. But when it comes to fielding and catching, in particular, I demand perfect technique. Perhaps the simplest thing in cricket is to make fielding errors. One slip in concentration or technique can change the whole complexion of a game. If I did not grass a tough chance offered by a top batsman I would be as pleased as scoring a fifty-plus in that game for that one catch could well be the difference between winning or losing the game. People often ask me how I could concentrate for a full day of 90 overs or 360 minutes. The answer, of course, is you don't have to. Trying to concentrate for every second of the day is a sure way towards disaster. Concentration is sharpest when it is reduced to the shortest possible time needed. While I watched a bowler running up, as a batsman or slip fielder, only in the final step of his stride would I tell myself to concentrate. As a batsman and as a slip fielder, this was the moment that decided my initial movement.

An initial movement is always required to get you into the right position in the fastest possible time so that you can be ready to complete your task. When batting, I initially pressed forward with a slight step, never transferring my weight for at that juncture I hadn't assessed the length of the ball. With my initial movement I could either push forward if the ball was up or push back if the ball was short.

In the slips my most comfortable position waiting for the ball was to crouch. When the bowler was about to let the ball go I moved into a well-balanced relaxed position with my weight on the inside of my feet. My bent knee position gave me the ideal launching pad to move in any direction, left, right, forward, or upwards in the event of a top edge. This position enabled me to relax and attain peak concentration when it was most required.

Perhaps the most vital part of actually catching a ball is to let it come to you and never take your hands forward to the approaching ball. If your hands move at the approaching ball, there is a disaster waiting to happen which will lead to broken fingers, or worse, a dropped catch. Our creator gave us the perfect instrument to catch a ball, our hands. Unfortunately, some of us think we are smarter than our creator and try to develop ways to catch the ball, the most favourite being to move one's hand away, perhaps in an attempt to dive with the ball. This creates many problems. To me the ideal way to catch is get your hands in a relaxed and correct position, wait for the ball and then allow your hand or hands to automatically fold softly around the ball.

The English technique is not good in this area particularly if the ball comes to the left side of a natural right-handed fielder. In such a situation, instead of getting side-on with the right hand under the left they are flinging their right hand over the body in an endeavour to catch the ball with their favourite hand. This means that the right hand is on top of the ball and the fieldsman can't watch the ball into their hands. It also means they can't cover maximum distance to the left, but more importantly, it makes it impossible to let the ball come to them and they invariably are pushing forward at the ball, like a goalkeeper in football.

The major problem here of course is that a goalkeeper seldom tries to catch the ball and he is more concerned with pushing the ball around or over the goalpost. Interestingly, many county teams get goalkeepers to come and teach them this technique. Oh, well.

If England are to learn to catch properly I suggest they reappraise just about everything they do in this area from where the wicket-keeper stands. He controls how deep the slips are — too deep in my view — and this upsets the staggering of the slip cordon. They must also look at their technique and when they master this, they must develop the confidence to catch everything that comes their way.

The quickest way to achieve this is to repeatedly practise slip catching, doing everything right and working as close as possible to the man who is nicking the ball. Once you learn to catch the quick sharp ones with the right technique it is amazing how quickly the tougher ones become sitters.