Of fielding and catching

Published : Aug 25, 2001 00:00 IST

UNDOUBTEDLY, fielding standards have improved over the last 30 years, but perhaps not by as much as people think it has.

What has changed most dramatically is that it is much more spectacular and more exciting to watch, as players dive and slide all over the place to stop the ball.

The various styles of dives and slides is becoming an art form as players plunge into and through fences and boundary ropes to try and save that extra run, or slide after and past the ball and then try to stand and throw on the turn.

All very spectacular indeed, but how successful is it? Certainly, sliding towards both ropes and fences can save the extra run, but it is also very dangerous and many players have injured themselves badly in this pursuit.

Sliding and throwing on the turn looks good and can make the batsman apprehensive at first, but in reality I have yet to see a fieldsman who can do this and save a run, for the ball comes back much slower as you cannot get a power throw on the turn and generally fall back.

All the wonderful ground fieldsmen of the past have been great angle exponents. In other words they follow the basic principle of the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Neil Harvey, perhaps the greatest all-round fieldsman I have ever seen, was a great exponent of this and I very seldom saw him dive, believing that while he was on his feet he was in a better position to hit the stumps at either end, and he very seldom missed, and next to Colin Bland he was the most accurate thrower I have seen.

In a demonstration at Lord's which can still be seen today on grainy 16 mm film, he was hitting the stumps on the run from every conceivable position seven or eight out of 10.

It was said of both Harvey and Bland that if they caught you napping by cutting off the ball, you may as well stop running and expanding energy, for they would invariably hit the stumps.

Englishmen Derek Randall and David Gower were also great angle fieldsmen as indeed are Jonty Rhodes and Ricky Ponting. Randall was probably before his time, with his flamboyancy and obvious enjoyment of fielding.

I am all for this and while coaching Australia encouraged the players to enjoy what they were doing and to show off to the crowd. Provided, of course, they didn't overdo it and technically they were still doing it right.

What I don't enjoy is seeing players make a meal of the celebration when they have either got a wicket off a rank bad ball and celebrate with high fives when they should be embarrassed to take a wicket with such a poor ball or sending the ball a mile in the air after taking the easiest catch ever.

Gower and Randall were both excellent cover and square leg fielders, the position where most run-outs emanate from. Randall was always full of energy and enthusiasm and prepared to put in all day. His speed and mobility always kept the batsmen on their toes. Gower, on the other hand, was rather understated, but could still explode into action when he had to.

While I don't think he was aware of it, Gower never walked straight at the batsman when he moved in from cover or square-leg, but rather in a line a couple of yards in front of the batsman.

This to me is the perfect angle to take, for it is much easier to change your angle to the ball than a front or square-on position when you inevitably have to stop before you can take the right line to the ball.

Jonty Rhodes has revolutionised the behind the point fielding position. In an era when batsmen tend to slice and angle the ball in this direction more than in the past, it has become the most important area in one-day cricket.

Most claim that one-day cricket has caused batsmen to angle the ball in this direction, however I believe that faulty batting techniques are to blame.

While Jonty is a brilliant stopper and catcher, I feel that Ricky Ponting hits the stumps more and is thus more dangerous.

But no one has hit the stumps in recent times with such unerring accuracy as Allan Border.

He wasn't particularly quick to the ball, but he was brilliant in positioning himself to be able to throw to the right end in the quickest time. He also always seemed to have that fraction of a second extra to line up his throw.

As all fieldsmen should, he kept his eyes not on the general area of the stumps but a specific spot half way up the middle stump or whatever stump he had to hit from the angle he was on. He always tried to hit the stumps on the full and thus increased his margin of success. To try to drop the ball into the ground short of the stumps is courting disaster and increasing your margin of error, for the ball can bounce left or right of the target and also over the stumps.

Only Viv Richards has matched Allan Border for accuracy and like Border was a wonderful allround fieldsman. Roger Harper was also a magnificent fieldsman in any position. He took one of the finest slip catches I have seen when in the early Nineties he threw himself to the left to take a breath-taking one-handed catch to a ball that Dean Jones tried to turn to square leg. He wouldn't have expected a chance to come his way and indeed would not have glimpsed the ball until it cleared Deano's body. A wonderful take made possible by a superb athlete who didn't assume the ball wasn't coming his way and retained his concentration and focus until the action was completed.

So what about Ashes clashes and great fielders?

While this will sound parochial, I believe that the Aussies have always held the advantage in the field. Much of the reason for this is Australia's year round good weather which allows youngsters to thrive and develop their athleticism.

I first became aware of this on my initial Ashes tour in 1961. We were practising at Lord's in early April and at the same time a coaching session was being run at the other end of the field for 13 and 14-year-old boys.

My lasting impression of that session was just how stiff they all looked compared to lads of a similar age in Australia.

Several years later in the West Indies I realised that the Windies youngsters were even more flexible than the Australians. The weather plays a major role in learning and enjoying fielding.

No one in their right mind can possibly look forward to fielding on a bitterly cold day, when as a slips fieldsman you are sometimes hoping that a stinging catch doesn't come your way or even worse drop short and catches the end of your fingers or wrist.

For all this, England have produced some magnificent fieldsmen and great wicketkeepers, with Alan Knott the best and Godfrey Evans the most exciting to watch.

They have also had some great close catchers. Colin Cowdrey had wonderful soft hands at first slip and Graham Thorpe is also very good. Botham is Botham and was a wonderful catcher and with a brilliant throwing arm. The bespectacled M. J. K. Smith, without any armour at short leg, was as good as any one, as was Tony Greig.

If I have to nominate just one England fieldsman who should have been the best, I would go for Chris Lewis. I had him for two years at Leicester and when the mood took him he had everything, pace to burn, a great throwing arm and hands that made it easy for him to take blinders in any position. What a great pity we didn't really see the best of him.

While Australia have generally been considered the trend-setters in fielding, it was the 1952/53 South African team who toured Australia who set the standard, style and importance of fielding for others to follow and perhaps pass.

They were not a great team, but boy, could they field and they clearly showed that fielding could no longer be ignored and was equally important as batting or bowling.

They were not expected to do well against the remnants of the great 1948 Australians, but they pushed and harassed them all the way with the most spectacular fielding Australia had ever seen.

They didn't beat the Aussies, but made a huge impression on me as a 16-year-old playing in my first Sheffield Shield season.

It roused a passion for fielding which has stayed with me to this day and I hope has helped me to impart to others.

There is no doubt Australia is the best team in the world at present and the finest fielders. Cricketers are much more athletic, fleet of foot and fitter than ever before. These are wonderful ingredients to start with and it has always been my belief that with the right coaching you can turn any one into a good fieldsman and help the talented to be safer and better.

Glenn McGrath is perhaps the perfect example. When he first came into the Aussie team he was pretty ordinary. He couldn't judge high balls and when I hit flat hard drives at fielding practice to him, and there were many hundreds in the early days, I always tried to ensure I hit them just wide of his body for I was concerned if I hit them straight at his body or head he would miss them and injure himself.

With great perseverance, Glenn turned himself into a fine fielder.

The current Australians are a fine fielding team and what makes them so reliable is that they do things correctly. This cuts down the margin of error.

Their stand-out fieldsman is Mark Waugh. He is fit to rank alongside the greats in any position. What makes him so great are his wonderful reflexes, satin smooth movements, great body positioning and the softest, most giving hands in the business.

Just how good his hands are can clearly be seen when he makes even the toughest catch look simple and when they adjust, when he is fielding away from the slips, to the nightmare ball that is driven at speed and lands just short of the fielder.

While others frantically throw themselves behind the ball to just knock it down, the junior Waugh just nonchalantly glides with the ball as it nestles in his hand. No one has ever made fielding look easier. The Aussies have raised the benchmark for fielding, it is now up to the rest of the cricketing world to equal and then raise it even higher.

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