The challenges in the slips

A huge man, Flintoff is quick and amazingly soft in his movements and techniques. He invariably gets two hands to almost everything and can cover good distance in any direction to "make" a catch which most wouldn't have reached.

THE decline in the quality of catching in the slips all over the world has created problems for bowlers and teams alike. There is nothing more galling for a bowler than to see the fielder in the slips put down the catch after having forced a batsman into error.

Matches are certainly won or lost by first class fielding. Australia, who have been dropping too many catches for three or four years now, were able to mask the problem because the strength of their bowling and the weakness of the opposition allowed them to create other opportunities after the misses. But this wasn't possible against England, who batted and bowled with more consistency than Australia and rightly deserved to reclaim the Ashes.

What has gone wrong with the slip fielders?

There are a few factors involved, such as wicket-keepers fielding too deep and thus upsetting the alignment of the slips cordons, and a dramatic drop in the technique of most of the slips fielders in the world.

Catching a cricket ball in the slips is a challenging experience. It requires soft hands, good arm and body movement and the patience to watch the ball into your hands. There is a tiny margin for error and unless you do the basics right you increase the chances of dropping catches. Good and great slips fielders are always judged on how many catches they drop, not necessarily how many they take. Australia is a classic example of this in recent times and this is why I don't think the present slips cordon ranks with the best in the recent past and those of other times. In fact, right now I believe only Shane Warne has the technique and skills to be considered along with the best slip fielders of the past.

The other thing that sets the slip fielders apart is the ability of the best to make catches which most fielders would only get a hand to or not even touch the ball. Right now, Shane is not in the category of the very best, but is very close to getting there. In fact, right now I can only see one other present day slip fielder who can be considered a possibility to rank with the top. He is Andrew Flintoff.

A huge man, Flintoff is quick and amazingly soft in his movements and techniques. He invariably gets two hands to almost everything and can cover good distance in any direction to "make" a catch which most wouldn't have reached.

Unfortunately, as I look around I am concerned with what I see and many of our slip fielders are restricting their talents with faulty methods. Graeme Smith of South Africa and Marcus Trescothick of England are cases in point. Both stand with their feet too far apart which tenses the body and makes it nearly impossible to move with speed and control to either side of the body. They are forced to dive (or is it fall over?) to anything outside of their body, thus creating a huge margin for error and restricting the area they can cover.

For some reason many catchers today, including the slip fielders, are using a goalkeeper type of technique when they dive. In fact, some clubs in county cricket are employing soccer goalkeepers to teach this technique. I am appalled, for a diving goalkeeper's main aim is to push his hands at the ball and force it around the posts or over them. Technically, it is completely wrong and must increase the chances of dropping catches.

Looking back at the past, it is interesting to categorise some of our top slip fielders. They come in all shapes and sizes.

Colin Cowdrey had as soft hands as I had ever seen. He never pushed his hands at the ball but allowed the ball to come to him and cushion into the softness. He was a class act but not in the really top order because he seldom made the distance to take a blinder.

In this same category I rate two of Australia's finest catchers, Ian Chappell and Mark Taylor. Both had wonderful hands, but didn't cover enough territory to satisfy the criterion I have set for the very best. Taylor was a `faller' rather than a wide mover to wide balls and while he took some very good catches, I personally felt he took too many one-handed catches when he could have used both hands with greater safety. I did admire his ability to take catches off the spinners, which is a crucial test to assess the quality of the slip fielders.

Ian Chappell, of course, was probably more adept against the quicker men and this was natural considering that his teams relied so much on pace, with only Ashley Mallett providing any real spin. He had great hands standing back, but the slips cordons in those days seemed to be too close together and didn't cover the ground that I would have liked to see. His percentage of catches taken was high, however, and that entitles him to be in that level, just below the best.

Neil Harvey, perhaps the best all round fieldsman I have seen, was a magnificent cover fielder, but gravitated into the slips later in his career. He was too clever and in his very last Test match took six catches, from second to leg slip to cover and even accepting one on the boundary that would otherwise have gone for a six.

The West Indies have had some great fielders, but none greater than Lloyd, Richards and Sobers. Lloyd and Richards started as great cover fielders before gravitating to slips. They were both competent in that position but it is difficult to assess just how great they were as they stood so far back to the steeping deliveries of the greatest pace attack ever. It is not that hard to take catches in the slips when you are so deep. Sobers was Sobers and his fielding, whether at short leg, leg slip or any other position, was pure quality.

The slower pitches in India and Pakistan make catching in the slips difficult. In many ways they may be the hardest for the slip fielders, for so often they have to stand too close for comfort against the fast bowlers to ensure the ball carries to them. When the batsman flashes, only the very best slip fielders have a chance of taking the opportunity. While India have had many wonderful short leg fielders, there have not been many outstanding slip fielders.

While I didn't see Wally Hammond play, he must have been a quality fielder. Keith Miller and Allan Border were fine fielders and took some good catches, but worried me with the number of chances they missed. So then, who were the best?

I know I am probably blessed, but to me Greg Chappell and Mark Waugh were in the super class. They both fill my requirements for this category. They seldom dropped a catch and both had the ability to turn a half chance into a certainty and turn the impossible into a probable. How did they do it?

Great technique and smooth, quick and concise movement. Chappell and Mark Waugh always attempted and generally succeeded in taking every catch two-handed and when they went for the impossible one-handed, they still retained their form and technique to make it look easy. They had the ball come to them and invariably were side on to the catch and thus were able to let it come on, up to a yard more than mere mortals. They were all class and a joy to watch.

Nothing gives me greater pleasure in cricket than watching a great slip fielder moving with precision, style and grace to make it all look easy.