© Getty Images
The good old “high catch” practice has often been the bane of budding young fielders © Getty Images

I thought what the international guys do when they are asked by their skipper to stand at square-leg. One of their key tasks must be to put strange ideas about the pitch and the manner in which the ball is bouncing or turning or seaming or swinging into the head of the square leg umpire — ideas which should obviously favour your team. One can also go a step further and point out how the batsman is not taking a big enough stride forward (if Wasim-bhai is bowling) or how he is taking such a big stride forward that his back-foot is no longer in the crease at the end of the stroke (if Saqi is operating). If nothing else, like everyone else in the field, you need to make vociferous appeals for LBW or caught-behind cases, never mind the small matter that you couldn’t have possibly seen either of the two happening. Just make sure you don’t appeal alone; as a player of very limited abilities, you need to make sure that the match referee lets you have 100% of the match fees in all the matches you somehow end up playing.

Our fielding practice was made up of three drills. Drill numero uno was simple. The team’s best batsman used to stand at the center of a semicircle made by his teammates. We used to throw the ball underarm, and he used to hit it back to any of us without notice. He could stroke it or guide it or hammer it or pull it or simply time it. You were supposed to catch it somehow, anyhow, and also have enough coordination with your neighbours to not spill any that would come between the two of you.

The hitter at the centre would change occasionally, but the responsibility remained with the guys who played their strokes well while batting. That unwritten rule meant that I, of the Mark Richardson dour defence variety, never got a chance to be the hitter. Not that I was bothered: I quite enjoyed the daily routine, especially the individual challenge of sorts when the hitter focused on you only. READ: Art or Science? – Batting explained like never before by Simon Hughes

In this challenge, you were supposed to throw the ball at him in a normal manner but he would hit it back only to you and come closer to you in the process. So your reflexes were really tested, and if you could hold on to everything till he was so close that you could smell his deodorant or the lack of it, you started your day in scintillating fashion, quite literally too.

Drill number two was simple as well. All of us fielders were sent to one of the shorter sides of our rectangular ground. The hitter and the first-choice wicketkeeper stood on the opposite side with a solitary stump. The ’keeper would lob the ball to the hitter who would hit it with all his force in the general direction of where we were standing.

One by one, we were supposed to run towards the ball, pick it up and throw it at the solitary stump in one smooth motion where the ’keeper was standing. At times, the ball was hit too hard to our right or left and dives were brought into play. All of us dived awkwardly; given at the condition of the ground, I wouldn’t find fault with any of us for this. READ: A cricket murder XI: From victim to coroner to undertaker

Nevertheless, it was quite an enjoyable drill again. A good throw was rewarded with loud cheers and pats on the back from your mates. This is where I learnt why sportsmen often say the satisfaction from adulation showered on you by your teammates equals everything else in the world.

For me, nothing was better than the the sound of the stump falling down with the perfect throw; the thudding of the ball in the ’keeper’s gloves, thanks to my near-perfect throw, came a close second. I have always liked all these cricket sounds and this drill fed me immensely. Also, as the team’s reserve wicketkeeper, I got a chance to do these duties on days when the better (supposedly) ’keeper was absent.

The next drill was almost an encore, with one key difference. Instead of hitting the ball towards you on the ground, the hitter carted it high into the sky or flat across the ground with all his might. You were supposed to run from your position, keep your head stable and your eyes on the ball, hope you do not trip over a miscreant pebble, and finally complete the catch.

All team members were born and brought up in India, and as a result we took our catches with fingers pointing upwards. I tried the Aussie way once and grassed it, but not without realising that the next time I tried it, I would damage one of my fingers seriously. READ: Virat Kohli, you beauty!

There was also another occasion time when I tried to emulate Kapil Dev, that hero of all heroes, by attempting an over-the-shoulder-while-running-backwards catch to dismiss the imagined marauder, Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards. Not only did I fail to do so miserably but I also ended up being laughing stock for one and all: to cut things short, since I had turned myself around with the ball still in flight, I lost track of the ball, but it landed quite close to me.

When Michael Hussey dropped a similar one that went viral on YouTube, I felt very happy — for the misery was now shared. In between the ribbing I received, I wondered how we were going to snap up such catches if and when the opportunity presented itself during the tournament which started in a couple of weeks’ time.

I also wondered why no one else was wondering what I was wondering. Then, I also wondered if others were wondering why still others were not wondering… ah, you get the point. We weren’t good communicators really and did not have Matt Horn to teach us to how to get better. This was a ramshackle Government Engineering College cricket team from a state that hadn’t produced a single great Indian cricketer for some time. So the total number of support staff of zero came as scant surprise.

But we digress. We were making the most of whatever we got as evidenced by the ingenuity in our fielding practice. Apart from the three drills described above, we batted and bowled without nets. A matting strip was laid down on a piece of land in the center of everything and was anointed as the pitch. READ: MS Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli: Films that could be based on cricketers’ lives

Everyone got a chance to field in an actual arrangement, but not with match pressure. People batted and bowled for specific durations as per the captain’s instructions. As opening bat, I went in first and had a great deal of fun. Practice after that was boring, for there were days when my part-time leg-spinners, delivered with an action very similar to Brian Murphy’s, weren’t needed by the captain.

I did take fielding seriously but since it wasn’t done with any clear purpose in mind, I let my mind wander and could never concentrate. I didn’t have a lot of stamina back then as well, but I did catch everything that came my way unless I tried to become Kapil Dev.

This continued for days till we departed for the tournament. This was serious business, and was part of a dream coming true. We wanted to do well without letting negativity of our shoddy practice affect us. What we lacked in resources, we thought we made up for in gumption. We were the 1990s New Zealand in a way, always trying to punch above weight. But now, when I look back at it, the 1990s New Zealand never won anything, did they?

Our first match was against a side that was vastly more experienced and had practised better, of course. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that body language doesn’t matter in cricket: one look at them and we quickly went downhill from New Zealand to Bangladesh. READ: MS Dhoni: Albus Dumbledore of the cricketing world

The ground and the pitch were significantly better than anything we had known till then. I heard the captain telling someone that we would be doomed if we field the same way as we did on our college ground.

Anyhow, we got to bat first and I strode out meekly to open with my partner. We were bundled out cheaply, their bowlers wreaking havoc and our batsmen leaving promises unfulfilled. A personal cause for comfort was that I had top-scored with 30-odd at a strike rate close to 100.

The first over involved me playing Geoff Boycott to their opening bowler’s Michael Holding from 1981 in Kensington Oval, the only difference being I was still not out at the end of the immensely difficult over. If Mark Richardson was made to play a T20 match, I don’t think he could have done much better. What more does one want in life?! More runs, goddammit!

We were demoralised during the break, but our captain did a good job of making us smile, reminding us of Kapil’s Devils and 1983. To this day I am not sure why we were smiling: either we felt inspired or the idea of equalling the feat of Kapil’s Devils appeared to be laughable (albeit with a stifle), as proven earlier during practice.

Our captain bowled left-arm swing, and took first over, as always. We were all standing near the pitch with our version of the huddle. After a loud and unnecessary war-cry of sorts, he began dispatching men to all parts of the ground till I was the only one left with him. That was how I ended up at square leg; putting someone there had not even occurred to him till then.

Even though we were defending a meagre total, our captain did not hesitate in setting an attacking field. There were a couple of slips and a leg-slip. There was no one at mid-wicket or mid-on. The only man apart from me on the leg-side was the long-leg. READ: Cricket’s connection to Game of Thrones

An aside: the long-leg came from a milkman family and his distraction was evident when the captain had to shout at the top of his voice from the top of his bowling run-up to ask if his mother and sister were keeping well, or something to that effect. He was actually looking intently at the cows grazing near the boundary.

If you know your cricket math and the fact that the milkman mini story has no bearing on it, you’d know that there are five more fielders I need to tell you about. All of them were placed at equal distances between the bowler and the second slip fielder inside the ring on the off side. As attacking as it can get for a flat, barren, grassless pitch in peak summer in central India.

The first over was full of plays and misses. I had faced my captain during practice and I have no hesitation in saying that he was the Wasim Akram at that level. Given such calibre, it was a pity that the first over was full of the bat and air making sounds frequently described as onomatopoeic — swishes and whooshes and all that — outside off without any runs given away. He could have easily picked up a wicket or three but that wasn’t to be.

The second over was bowled by another left-armer who was a year junior to me. I loved him the way Shane Warne loves Michael Clarke, not to say that I am anywhere close in tactical nous to the master leg-spinner.

This boy had the classic angled run-up with a side-on action to boot, and leapt up majestically as he approached the crease. He could generate serious pace and make the ball lift off a length. That last bit distinguishes fast bowlers from medium-fast, fast-medium, almost-fast, fast-on-helpful-pitches, fast-when-on-song, fast-when-pretty-girl-is-watching and similar bowlers.

He gave a thorough working-over to the opposition and picked up two wickets: in both cases, the batsmen drove uppishly after being pegged on the back-foot by the previous delivery; the transfer of weight did not happen.

The second-down batsman was trapped plumb in front and should have been adjudged LBW but wasn’t, even though the square-leg fielder (yours truly!) appealed quite uproariously. We were dejected at the decision, but once again the captain picked us up by telling everyone he will take two more wickets in the next over.

Of course, he said it within earshot of the two batsmen who were meeting mid-pitch to do the customary fist-bumping and bat-touching and other such public displays of affection. I noticed something here: our captain winked at me as he said this, going past the two batsmen. I winked back not knowing what this seemingly trivial stuff meant. I should have taken the hint.

The first ball in the next over was a peach, a jaffa. It was a short ball to the same batsman our captain had tormented in his first over. He was clearly not expecting it: from my vantage point at square leg I could see the huge forward stride he had made; he went back, surprised, but by then he had lost his shape completely and only managed a part-hook-part-pull to a ball outside off that he just had to play at. The laws of physics got together to ensure that the ball got big on him, hit the makers’ name on the bat and wasn’t going anywhere close to the intended area.

I saw all this from square leg and relished watching it. I was thinking how square leg is a great fielding position to be in since you get to observe so much about batsmanship. At this exact instant, I was standing on the balls of my feet with my legs spread wide apart after completion of a pre-delivery routine for fielders as taught by Jonty Rhodes in those YouTube videos.

Then I noticed it. The big, red, shiny orb was coming at me at an unknown speed and I had no clue on how to deal with it. My cluelessness was a result of the delay in watching the ball, which, in turn, was because never ever in practice had I been asked to catch anything that did not come off from a bat facing me. This theoretically meant that I could take catches only at specific fielding positions —mid-wicket, extra-cover, mid-on, mid-off, long-off, long-on.

I thought of this and immediately dismissed it as bunkum. A catcher should be able to catch anything wherever he stands and there’s no excuse against that. By the time this train of thoughts grinded itself to a halt; the ball came to me for a catch at what they refer to as awkward height. I, of the cricket book reading variety, used the same term when trying to explain it all to my teammates later.

In all honesty, I knew straight away that I had to catch it the Australian way, but my hands weren’t soft enough and my palms not open enough. I didn’t even juggle with it. It dropped to the ground right in front of me.

I wanted to die then and there. We could have had them three-down, and a little later, won the match. Winning a low-scoring match while bowling second does wonders to a team’s psyche. Instead, our captain was sitting on his haunches looking at me dejectedly. The others looked forlorn; it was clear that nobody was expecting this from me.

The ’keeper tried to cheer everyone up, but his feeble attempt was sent to oblivion by the batsman who benefitted from my error. He laughed at me, looking directly into my eyes. I couldn’t say or feel anything; all I wanted was the moment to repeat itself so that I could correct myself.

But as we know, such is not the nature of sport. I had scored an own goal in the second half; I had double faulted in the second set tie-breaker; I had let my mates down. I felt so underprepared and uncoordinated. I probably wanted to cry but somehow kept a lid on my emotions. I thought of Rahul Sharad Dravid, my hero, and how he had snaffled up so many brilliant catches at crucial moments for his team. Why did I fall short? What had I done wrong? There are some questions which have no answers at all.

The rest of the over passed by in a blur. The advantage we had wrested away from them with those two wickets was taken away in this over as our skipper was hit for four boundaries — two on each side of the wicket. He had lost his line and length and the chirp from our fielders was now muted.

From having our tails up, we were now going through the motions with our tails between our legs. Looking back, I now think the dropped catch wasn’t so crucial in the scheme of the match: they would have still had seven wickets left and an ample number of overs too to chase down our paltry score.

Having said that, there is no explanation to the enormous psychological impact it had on the team. Perhaps when you are pushed into the corner of darkness, you stop expecting anything till a candle appears out of nowhere. That candle raises your expectations and tells you that you can push back. But when its light proves to be a false dawn, you feel deflated and surrender completely. That was what happened to us.

They lost not a wicket more in achieving the target. I did not utter a single “shabaash!” or “well done!” to our bowlers throughout the rest of the match; it was almost as if I had swallowed my tongue. I felt as if I was in a third team which wasn’t even playing but had just left me there as a vestige. Today I see Suresh Raina high-fiving other fielders after they have made any sort of fielding effort at all, good or bad. On that day, I would have loved a high-five dearly right after my public personal failure.

Finally the floodgates opened as I returned to our shared room from the mess after dinner. I went on a long solitary walk and cried my heart out. I kept thinking of Kipling’s poem and promised myself that the next time something like this happened, I would be able to maintain my equanimity.

My teammates spoke to me that night and told me it could have happened to anyone, but their reassurances did little good to my confidence. Even now, 15 years after the match, I can never forget that drop. They either stick or they don’t, and that one didn’t.

I have thought a lot about it from many angles — our practice didn’t replicate match situations; we should have had specialist fielders in important positions close to the bat; there should be sightscreens all around the ground; it wasn’t a good day for me, and so on. In the end, I have made my peace with the fact that on that day, given the moment, given the pressure, my skill execution just wasn’t good enough and absolutely nowhere near what RSD did day in and day out in the slip cordon.

When Herschelle Gibbs had dropped Steve Waugh, there was probably some banter between them, if apocryphal sources are to be believed. But what you don’t need sources for is to know that Gibbs himself knew he had dropped the Cup.

What had I dropped? What had I picked up? I am not able to answer these to my heart’s content — but I know I have faced my demons through that dropped catch. I will not be fazed now. That is perhaps what my captain meant to ask me to do when he winked at me before starting that over. READ: Long Shot Summer — scrupulously detailed account of a terrible season for English cricket

(Abhishek Chopra idolises Rahul Sharad Dravid. Till a couple of years back, he used to daydream about getting selected for India as a leg-spinner or an opener or a wicketkeeper. Then reality struck. He can be contacted at facebook.com/chopra.abhishek)