Slip catches win matches

RAJU BHARATAN

ON the fifth and final litmus Leeds Test day - almost on the stroke of lunch in the tables-turning innings' clinch of the Headingley pay-off - was Rahul Dravid (148 off 307 balls: 23 fours) Man of the Match? Or 'Man of the Catch'? He was both, of course. Rahul here won through in the teeth of fierce competition from Sachin (193 off 330 balls: 19 fours, 3 sixes); Sourav (128 off 167 balls: 13 fours, 3 sixes); even Nasser (110 off 194 balls: 18 fours, 1 six); not least Alec: bat-in-hand 78 off 120 balls (11 fours) plus 47 off 135 balls (7 fours) - alongside two key wicket-keeping dismissals. Rahul was 'Man of the Match' here on one and only one decisive count. This was his slip catching, beginning with that breakthrough take of Mark Butcher (42 off 100 balls: 6 fours) when this left-hander (before playing an airy-fairy shot to Sanjay Bangar) had looked teleset to pull back England, yet again, from the Leeds brink. Slip catches win Test matches, as Rahul's showing a clean pair of hands to England, more than once, underscored at Headingley.

Rahul displayed magnanimity in admitting that these, his three catches, came after a couple of near misses in England's first innings. Why could not Rahul close his hands on those two first-slip catches in England's immediate response to India's 628 for 8 (decl.)? Rahul haplessly saw those two opportunities 'slip by' because he was still adjusting to the highly variable movements of India's fresher-collector: Parthiv Patel. Such fine-tuning with the wicket-keeper comes only with time. To align to the 'taking' style of now Ajay, now Parthiv, is no piece of cake for even a seasoned slip like Rahul. Indeed, following those three smart takes by Dravid, the cognoscenti fleetingly wondered if Rahul, at first slip, was not fit to hold a candle to Azhar - India's finest fielder of all time in that tricky position. Azhar, of course, had the rare ability to make such specialist catching, like his very special batting, look the easiest thing in the world. But Azhar had the advantage of a settled wicket-keeper by his side in Nayan Mongia. While Rahul does not know who (not excluding himself!) would be next donning the big gloves for India!

Supercatch Bobby Simpson found Australia's wicket-keeper Wally Grout to be the ultimate judge in 'split-seconding' the chance to be left to first slip to take. Slip catching is as much instinct as judgment. First slip is a privileged position in the team. A position to which you qualify on the strength of your seniority in the team. Logically, therefore, Sourav should have been taking up this strategist posting - from which to have a hawkeye view of the game's ball-by-ball progress. But then no one ever accused Sourav of diving talent! Knowing his limitations in this grey area, Ganguly prefers to be stand-offish. Sourav, in refusing to play the slip field, is being wiser than he perhaps knows. During the 1967-68 Test series in Australia, the injured junior Nawab of Pataudi, as captain, began looking for a fielding spot that would not further 'hamstring' him. Inevitably Tiger moved into the slips. Only to discover, as he made a hash of a sitter, that fielding and catching in the slips were not as cosy as doing the job from cover point where Tiger's only eye for beauty could find roving laidback play.

Later, in Tiger Pataudi's India, Ajit Wadekar took up the first-slip position almost by right. As captain of long-time Ranji Trophy Champions Bombay, Ajit had already lorded it at first slip. When therefore circumstances concatenated to see Wadekar promoted, out of turn, as vice-captain under Tiger Pataudi (during the 1969-70 Test series at home against Graham Dowling's New Zealand), Ajit moved to first slip by habit. Going on to excel for India in that position with his superb anticipation and casual 'disposition' (of catch after catch). All but a couple of the 46 catches that Ajit Wadekar held for India were taken at first slip. The fact that Bombay's Farokh Engineer was then India's wicket-keeper made Wadekar's perception-sharing act that much simpler. If there was a lazy elegance to Ajit's batting, this trait rubbed on to his slip catching. The way Ajit went for the first-slip catch you never could tell if he would fix it. But fix it Ajit would nine times out of ten with an agility and mobility astonishing for one of his physique.

Actually, the real first-slip crisis in the Indian team developed as Ajit Wadekar was thoughtlessly pensioned off from the game itself by our Cricket Board bigwigs overkeen to resurrect Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi as captain by a unanimous vote. Pataudi here missed his 'Jitya' Wadekar, at first slip, from the word go. In fact, on Tiger's return as India's captain, it was a roly-poly sight for the gods to espy Parthasarathy Sharma and Erapalli Prasanna stationed in the slips! While these two looked transfixed at each other as the catch passed between second slip and third slip, Gundappa Visvanath had quietly asserted his neo-star status in the team by moving up to first slip. Visvanath would not have gone on to hold as many as 48 catches for India but for his claiming, almost by divine right, the Wadekar-vacated first-slip spot as his and his alone. Yet even Vishy was some time growing in first-slip stature. Initially, at first slip, Visvanath obviously could not be as good as Wadekar in taking 'anticipatory ball'. But you could see Vishy advancing his 'hold' on the position with each one of the five Tests of 1974-75 against Clive Lloyd's West Indies.

It is with a certain fascination you look back upon G.R. Visvanath's scoreline during that 1974-75 series - 29 & 22 in the Bangalore Test; 32 & 39 in the Kotla Test; 52 & 139 in the Calcutta Test (won in a spin tizzy by India); 97 not out & 46 in the Madras Test (Tiger Pataudi's team squaring it 2-2 against all odds), 95 & 17 in the Bombay Test. G.R.Visvanath's stand-out contributions with the bat here were all-important if only because Sunil Gavaskar was off the scene through the three 'core' Tests of that five-Test series vs the West Indies. As Sunil recovered from a nasty hand injury in time to materialise at the Wankhede Stadium for the final Test of strength, it was truly a treat to watch India's peerless opener strike out for 86 of the best against the Windies quicks spearheaded by Andy Roberts. Yet Visvanath, for once batting face to face with Sunil, matched Gavaskar stroke for stroke. This was the series during which (with Sunil away most of the way) G.R.Visvanath began attracting comparison with Greg Chappell as the 'best batsman in the world'.

Vishy's batting arts and graces no one marvelled at more than Sunny. Gavaskar admired Visvanath's virtuosity at close quarters now as 'GRV' hit 95 to set off Sunil's 86. But what must have come as a pleasant surprise to Sunny, during that first ever Test at the Wankhede Stadium, was the extent to which Vishy had matured, as a specialist at first slip, by that end-January 1975 stage. How unthinkingly we today talk of Rahul's keeping wicket for India! Forgetting all about the vacuum we create at first slip by moving Rahul marginally left as wicket-keeper! No doubt V.V.S. Laxman is alert and ready to take up Rahul's slot at first slip. Yet not always has the Indian team been fortunate enough to command, in its ranks, a first slip of VVS's proven calibre 'standing by' Rahul's side. My own experience of Indian cricket extending through half a century is that the game's mentors never think of the extent to which they upset the balance of the team when they suddenly drop the master catcher entrenched at first slip.

It happened when Ajit Wadekar was jettisoned merely to settle the casting-vote score by bringing back Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi as captain. Why Ajit Wadekar could not still have played on for India, at first slip under Tiger Pataudi, passed comprehension. Our Cricket Board's big guns then just did not want Ajit firing for the Indian eleven - with Wadekar's captaincy record (of three Test series wins in a row) likely always to be compared to Tiger Pataudi's spot leadership. No less mindlessly did our selectors banish Visvanath from the Indian team, not in the least bothering about who would replace such a handy catch at first slip. No doubt Visvanath had a nightmare Imran Khan-dominated series in Pakistan through 1982-83 with a Test scoreline of 1; 24 & 0; 53 & 9; 0 & 37; next 10 (after dropping down to No.6, yielding his iconic No.4 niche to Yashpal Sharma). But in summarily discarding a batsman of Visvanath's world class after an admittedly dicey series run with the bat, our selectors seemed to worry not a jot about who would be taking his vital place at first slip.

India is lucky that it has found, in Rahul, a first-slip talisman. Rahul in fact has won back his spot not only at No. 3 from Laxman. He has also stabilised his standing at first slip, a Test position Laxman held with as much distinction as VVS did his No. 3 spot - for a time. The blessing to count in Indian cricket is that, even while Laxman retains his batting breeding and slip-fielding aura, Rahul is underlining that there is Test competition for him, now, neither at one-down nor at first slip. Maybe Rahul's was but one of three centuries for India in the Headingley Test. But those three catches at first slip were all Rahul's own. It was the way he went for those three Headingley catches, at first slip, that put the stamp on Rahul Dravid as the Man of the Match. If Rahul waits for the runs to come, he also 'waits' for the catch to come - to him at first slip. No snatch, sure pouch! Conclusive point: Rahul's catching technique is no less exemplarily correct than is the grammar of his batting as the technician supreme.