Soon after my column was published last week, I received a message from a senior cricket coach in Kerala, who I am fortunate to have as a reader, informing me that I missed out the aspect regarding importance of slip catching while analysing the chances of either side in the ongoing Test series between India and England. I realised this “slip” as soon as I read the message as only teams that possess the prowess for holding the edges from the bat win matches in England. There could be no better example of this dictum than the first Test of the present series which saw both sides dropping catches by the dozen. England won the Test not because they were the better fielding side but because they dropped lesser number of catches in the last innings!
India started this bout of dropped catches right on the first day of the match with the normally reliable Ajinkya Rahane grassing a low edge at fourth slip to give a reprieve to Keaton Jennings. Wicketkeeper Dinesh Karthik was next in line as he made a mess of the chance offered by Sam Curran, towards the closing stages of the first innings of the hosts. Despite this, India could manage to limit England to a total of 287, thanks to an excellent exhibition of spin bowling by Ravichandran Aswin, who picked up four wickets.
When India batted, England showed that they could be equally liberal in flooring catches, with Dawid Malan leading the pack, dropping Virat Kohli twice. Hardik Pandya was also dropped once, by Alastair Cook, soon after Kohli had his first “life”. Kohli capitalised on these reprieves to score a brilliant 149, which held the Indian innings together and brought them within 13 runs of England’s first innings score.
A spell of incisive fast bowling by Ishant Sharma helped India pin England down on the mat in the second innings before Curran threw his bat around to take them to a respectable score of 180. Curran got a breather when Shikhar Dhawan failed to hold on to a low catch when his score was only 13. Dhawan was again the culprit when he dropped a regulation catch in slips from Adil Rashid who was giving support to Curran.
When India began their chase of 194, Malan showed that he continued to be large-hearted by dropping Murali Vijay, but fortunately for the hosts, they held all the catches that came their way after this lapse.
Why do so many catches go into slip cordon when Test matches are played in England? The pitches in England have plenty of grass on them, which together with the atmosphere comprising cloud-filled skies, low temperatures and breeze help to give the ball lateral movement, both in the air and off the seam, after pitching. Since the pitches are slow, there would be a tendency on the part of batsmen to play the ball off the front foot. When the ball moves very late, a batsman who is committed to a shot off the front foot would find the ball kissing the edge of the bat instead of hitting its middle. Such edges fly in the arc between wicketkeeper and the fielder placed at gully depending of the degree of late movement and the angle at which the bat made contact with the ball. When the ball moves around prodigiously, it is not unusual to find captains setting a field with five fielders in the slips and two in gully!
If one knows that catches would be offered in the slip cordon, why are they getting dropped with such frequency? When India floored two catches on day one of the Test, a newspaper report quoted Mohammed Azharauddin, former skipper and one of India’s best fielders ever, saying that it was lack of practice and improper positioning that led to so many chances being missed in the slips. He also stressed the point that standing at slips is a stressful job as one has to keep concentrating all the time.
He certainly had a point here as fielders in slips need the same amount of concentration as the wicketkeeper and have to keep focussing on the edge of the bat right from the time the bowler starts his run up. Many a time, he would stand the whole day without even one edge coming his way or even worse, the catch would suddenly materialise at the very moment that his concentration has slipped, leading to a drop, thus nullifying all the hard work put in till then.
In this regard, the importance of practice and proper positioning cannot be over emphasised. Most of the times there is less than a split second after the ball touches the edge of the bat before it traverses through the slip cordon. The fielder there has to be alert to see the edge and possess the required agility and anticipation to react immediately to pounce on it with alacrity. This combination of alertness, anticipation, agility and alacrity can be acquired only by continuous practice, which alone would hone these skills to perfection.
When it comes to positioning, a lot would be depend on the nature of the pitch. If the wicket is one where the ball bounces a lot after pitching, then slips fielders would be required to stand back as otherwise edges would sail over their heads. On pitches where ball tends to keep low, slip cordon would stand closer to the batsman as the tendency for edges to drop short are high.
On wickets where the ball is seaming around a lot, fielders in slips would stand wider off the wicket than usual. Usually the slip fielders take a cue from the wicketkeeper who is invariably the best judge regarding the bounce and pace generated from the pitch and the degree of movement in the air and after pitching.
Hunting in pairs
While these are standard practices for any side, one aspect that tends to get ignored is the co ordination among fielders standing in slips. The role of proper understanding between the slip fielders was emphasised by Rahul Dravid, India’s most successful catcher in this position. He has gone on record giving credit to his “co-slipper” V V S Laxman for his enormous success in holding catches in this position. Dravid and Laxman used to complement each other and would, in addition to motivating each other, ensure that concentration of neither wavered even the slightest bit. This concept of slip fielders hunting in pairs like bowlers and batsmen, is set to gain more prominence in near future.
Coming to Indian slip fielding, it must be said that Ajit Wadekar was our first world class fieldsman in this position. Along with Eknath Solkar at forward short leg and S Venkataraghavan at gully, Wadekar was part of a cordon of close in fielders who lent the famed spin attack an extra edge on account of their brilliant catching.
After Wadekar retired from the game in 1974, Erapalli Prasanna, the off spinner, was tried out in this position, more to hide him from the outfield, where he was a distinct liability. The consequences of this ill thought measure became soon evident as Prasanna dropped debutant West Indian opener Gordon Greenidge before he had scored and the batsman went on to score 93 and 107 to seal his place in the side! After this, skipper Pataudi brought Gundappa Viswanath, who used to man the outfield, to the slips and he showed his class by holding catches with ease. Viswanath remained stationed in slips till his departure from Test cricket, after which his position was taken over by Sunil Gavaskar, who was a reliable catcher and hardworking fielder. After Gavaskar retired from the game, Azharuddin, who was one of the best fielders India has seen, moved from outfield to slips. Dravid and Laxman took over from Azharuddin and stayed there till they bid adieu to the game.
Among the present lot, Rahane is without doubt the best when it comes to catching, but he is prone to occasional lapses of concentration, which he can ill afford at this level.
A dropped catch is a frustrating experience for the bowler who toils to induce a mistake from the batsman. A series of such wasted efforts would destroy the faith of the bowlers in the slip fielders, and lead to a situation where they seek out methods of dismissing batsmen other than through inducing edges. This, in turn, would reduce their levels of effectiveness, with disastrous consequences for the side.
On the other hand, a slip cordon that holds catches that come their way boosts the confidence of bowlers, both pacers and spinners. One of the principal reasons for the high success levels of the West Indies sides of 1970s and 80s and the Australian teams under Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh was the phenomenal catching in the slip cordon. The presence of cricketers like Clive Lloyd and Mark Waugh in the slip cordon inspired such high amount of confidence in the bowlers that even ordinary trundlers started performing like world-beaters!
Kohli wages a lone battle
The Edgbaston Test would also be remembered as the one where skipper Kohli waged a lone battle for India in both innings. He displayed technique and temperament of the highest order, leaving alone the balls pitched outside the off stump, while never wasting any scoring opportunity. If only he had received better support from even one of the top order batsmen, the result of the game would have been different. He was the last man to be dismissed in the first innings and in the second knock, India were in with a chance as long as he was at the crease. But even a batsman of his caliber would not be able to win a Test match all by himself and the onus is on the rest of the batting line up to sort out their game and contribute to the side’s score. As Hardik Pandya showed in the second innings, it was not impossible to stay at the wicket and score runs, if one applied himself fully. With the benefit of hindsight one could say that the absence of Cheteswar Pujara, a batsman who would put a huge premium on his wicket, was sorely felt.
Thus, India, despite starting as the favourites to win the series, suddenly find themselves facing a minor crisis. One hopes that the side would learn from its mistakes and be better acclimatised to the wickets and weather in England by the time the second Test starts at Lord’s on Thursday. This series offers the visitors their best chance to regain the Pataudi Trophy and it would be a big miss if they let that opportunity slip through due to lack of application.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)