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Science of slip fielding: What might be wrong with Team India’s slip cordon

From left: Virat Kohli © Getty Images
From left: Virat Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja and Ajinkya Rahane did not inspire much confidence in the slip cordon  © Getty Images

Fielding in the slips is, arguably, the most difficult of all positions in the field. The fielder is expected to catch a ball flying off the bat like a bazooka, and it comes at all angles and height. It requires intense and unflagging focus right through the day, besides specialized skills, to man this position. H Natarajan goes into the science of fielding in the slips, and dwells into what could possibly be wrong with the slip cordon of Team India.

In the decades bygone, there were many average fielders, some poor fielders and few who were truly brilliant. The advent of the abridged version of the game and especially the birth of Twenty20 (T20) cricket, brought about a sea-change in global fielding standards. Today, there is no place for passengers on the field; even fast bowlers, after long and energy-sapping bowling spells, chase the ball a long way, dive full length to deny every possible run they can.

Poor catchers are relics of a distant past who have no place in contemporary cricketing arenas. What good is a player who scores 50 runs and then, as a result of being a poor fielder, drops a catch that costs his team another 125 runs?

One doesn’t become a good fielder overnight, or by sheer chance; it’s not a celestial blessing. Good fielding skills are acquired as a result of hours and hours of tireless slogging, day in and day out. Unlike batting and bowling, fielding could get boring if one doesn’t enjoy it. But a brilliant fielder in the midfield or outfield need not necessarily be a good slip fielder. There are very few who have been brilliant at any position — Mohammad Azharuddin and Ricky Ponting being classic examples.

Not everybody enjoys standing in the slips. Brilliant fielders in the infield and outfield can look ordinary in the slips if they are unaccustomed to rise to the challenge posed of standing in the arc behind the batsman. That is exactly what happened with the Indian slip cordon in the Test series against England, where class acts in the infield like Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, and Ravindra Jadeja were a bungling, mediocre lot in the slip cordon. That is because the skills expected of the men standing in the slips are vastly different from the men elsewhere in the field.

It requires focus and a special mindset to stand in the slips

If one reflects back in history, you would realise that the great slip fielders — barring exceptions — were by and large unflappable batsmen who had the patience and the temperament to bat patiently for hours. They had the focus to play marathons. Exemplifying the statement are men like Mark Taylor, Rahul Dravid, Stephen Fleming, Mark Waugh, VVS Laxman, Mahela Jayawardene, Jacques Kallis, and Graeme Smith. Again, exceptions apart, maybe it helps to have a certain kind of temperament to stand in the slips. And that kind of temperament is there in men like Cheteshwar Pujara and Rahane, though the latter is not exactly in an advantageous position because of his lack of inches. Historically, it’s the taller men with bucket-like hands who are suited to stand in the slips.

Each position on a cricket field requires different skills, something that people who have not played the game at a fair level cannot comprehend. The skills needed standing in the slip is not the same as manning the leg-slip, though both are close-in, and behind the batsman. It is as different as batting at No 3 compared to opening the innings. There is even a big difference between the two openers; facing the first ball of the innings is not the same as watching that ball from the non-striker’s end.

One of the big necessities of standing in the slip is to have very sharp focus. One cannot afford any lapse in concentration. That’s easier said than done. One can be sharp and alert when the ball is doing a lot and edges are flying off the bat, but on a batting paradise there may be just one or two catches that may come to the slip’s hand in the entire day. If the slip fielder is de-focused, the chance may be spilled which could have a bearing on the game.

Catches win matches

Nothing is truer about India’s transitional phase than the personnel manning the slips. The exit of Dravid and Laxman in rapid successions mean four safe hands in the critical arc behind were lost in one massive blow. Dravid’s 210 catches, most of them in the slips, is the most by any fielder in the history of Test cricket. Combined with Laxman’s efforts, their combined tally adds up to of 345 catches and 298 Tests. To lose that kind of experience at one go is a crater that will take Indian cricket time, patience and the heart to endure more pains.

Fielding in the slips is extremely taxing on the body, as one has to crouch and get up a minimum of 540 deliveries (90 overs) on any normal day. Conventional thinking expects men standing in the slip position to be supple, but when you look at players like Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli, it’s apparent that they believe more in building rippling muscles than remaining lithe.

Dravid and Sunil Gavaskar, two of India’s best-known slip fielders, are there as part of the media caravan wherever Team India tours. Both men are extremely nationalistic and won’t hesitate to help the Indian team. But have their services been sought to specifically help the men manning the slip cordon?

Is the Indian cordon behind the wicket standing too close to each other? Probably, as what should have been comfortable catches in the recent Test series against England were not attempted because the fielder on either side thought it was the other person’s catch. One can’t remember Dravid and Laxman get into such a messy situation. Like their batting, they raised fielding to the level of fine art. The effortless manner in which they took catches made slip catching look easy. The truth is, it was their sense of anticipation, reflexes, ability to stay calm and focused which all contributed to difficult catches look easy.

India’s have to get their act right. The slip is showing!

Catch all the coverage of India’s tour to England here

(H Natarajanformerly All India Deputy Sports Editor of the Indian Express and Senior Editor with Cricinfo/Wisden, is the Executive Editor of CricketCountry.com. A prolific writer, he has written for many of the biggest newspapers, magazines and websites all over the world. A great believer in the power of social media, he can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/H.Natarajan and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/hnatarajan)

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