Raising fielding to a fine art

In this era of so many theories, fielding has gone further from the basic techniques and proven skills than even batting or bowling. But Andrew Symonds is a throwback to the fielding greats of the past, writes Bob Simpson.

While I enjoy classic, exciting batting and marvel at the skills of great bowling, my ultimate thrill in cricket is watching magnificent fielders, whether they are in the slips, covers or outfield.

Whenever I have the pleasure to watch Andrew Symonds, I am reminded of the greats of the past. Like all the best fielders, his skills are founded on a perfect technique and the sheer enjoyment of knowing he is a cut above the rest.

A very big man, Symonds moves with the speed of a panther and the precision and grace of a gazelle. Even when he dives to stop a wide ball he is beautifully balanced. He stays low to the ground with powerful, bended knees which allow him the quickest and strongest path to the ball.

No one has been smoother, more graceful even when diving, or covered more ground and he makes batsmen struggle to make their ground when initially they would have set off with the thought that it was an easy single.

Not for “Roy” Symonds a time consuming pick-up and throw from a high angle or a side-arm return which gives the batsmen an extra yard to make their crease. When a quick single is on, Symonds, as all great cover fieldsmen do, stays low on the ball and delivers it underarm at the stump. Theoretically, with the underarm movement, the arm moves straight towards the stumps and reduces the margin of error as the ball should only miss if it is thrown in high.

In this era of so many theories, fielding has gone further from the basic techniques and proven skills than even batting or bowling.

Unfortunately, we never see Symonds in the slips and this is a shame for the team. We could then compare his skills with the man who I feel has been the greatest all-round fieldsman ever, Neil Harvey.

He gained a reputation first as a genius in the covers with amazing accuracy in run outs, but was equally adept at any other position in the field.

I had the great pleasure of standing next to him at first slip and admired his wonderful balance and sure, very small hands.

In his last Test match he took six catches: from second slip, leg slip, the covers and the boundary. An extraordinary fieldsman in any position.

If Neil was accurate with his throws, surely the most accurate was Rhodesian Colin Bland. Playing for South Africa, his skills weren’t allowed to be presented to the world due to the banning of the nation from world cricket in the apartheid years. World cricket fans missed one of the finest sights in cricket with Bland prowling in the covers. Well over 6 ft. tall, strongly built and quick on his feet, the Rhodesian covered amazing distance in the covers and was always wonderfully balanced to deliver the throw.

He put on an exhibition at Lord’s one day which can still be seen on old black and white video. I am still in awe of what I witnessed that day. Balls were thrown out to him from different directions and he pivoted to hit the stumps with a consistency that I never thought possible.

No trick photography here and every coach worth his salt should have a copy of this video.

Another fieldsman who made hitting the stump look easy was Allan Border. Allan could never be considered fleet of foot, but in the ODIs he made backward square leg his own. While AB might not have moved fast, his mind summed up which end to throw to with amazing speed. He was very quick to let the ball go with a quick short left-hand action and he was odds on most of the time to hit the stumps.

When a young, fit Clive Lloyd prowled the covers he was an intimidating sight. Known as the cat, he was amazingly quick for a big man and always took the right line to the ball to secure a run out. The world lost a great cover fieldsman when bad knees forced him into the slips.

Sir Learie Constantine is talked of in awe by those who saw him field. He was even before my time, but I have spoken to many old timers who claim him to be the best and the man who introduced flair, speed and panache to the game. Before him, it was said that too many players were more than happy to field with their feet. Unfortunately, the subcontinent hasn’t produced a great number of class fieldsmen.

Sachin Tendulkar has been very good. He has a wonderful throwing arm and safe hands and when in the slips he is consistent, but not brilliant.

There are some exciting youngsters who have pace and exhibit the ability to do something out of the ordinary. It has always seemed to me that not enough time or expertise has been shown in this direction. It has always been my feeling that with effort and a will to succeed any one can be a good, safe fieldsman.

Too often though fielding has been the neglected part of India’s training routine. Fielding is something that must be enjoyed. If it is fun, players won’t think of it as being hard work. Once the enjoyment becomes apparent, improvement will automatically happen and a team will perform far above its previous best.

If India are to be competitive it is vital that they catch well, particularly in close, in Australia. India, over the years, with so many great spinners, have produced some magnificent short-leg fieldsmen.

Mike Smith, who wore spectacles, was the best I have seen from England and Tony Lock was a brilliant round the corner fielder to Laker and other off-spinners.

From Australia, David Boon was a brave good technician at short-leg.

He didn’t have natural flair, but developed his skill by collecting tens of thousands of practice catches.

Australia has probably produced more talented slip fieldsmen than any other nation. The brilliant all-rounder Jack Gregory was supreme in the slips around World War I and I devoured in my teens all I could read of his deeds.

Since World War II and with a wonderful pace attack, Australia has produced many fine slip fielders.

Miller was good in the Bradman era. Ian Chappell and Mark Taylor were safe, but the outstanding pair in recent times have been Greg Chappell and Mark Waugh.

What sets than apart as the best was they were very safe and completed catches that others would not attempt. Both of them covered enormous distances to take catches with two hands which others would not have got near.