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Close encounters on the cricket field

by Mid-wicket Tales  May 5, 2012 14:57 IST

#Cricket   #Eknath Solkar   #Fielding   #Slip   #TheLongView  

By S. Giridhar and V J Raghunath

Two uniquely thrilling visuals of test cricket have not changed with time. One, the first morning of the first day of a test match, new ball, fresh wicket, three slips and a gully and a leg gully, alert and ready as the fast bowler comes thundering in to bowl. The other, is the last day of a test match, dusty wicket with cracks and warts, and slip, silly point, gully, forward short leg and leg slip waiting like vultures around the bat as the spinners weave their web. Will backward short leg have time to react as the inside edge comes from behind the front pad? Is slip standing too deep or too close? Every ball is fraught with excitement and the possibilities are endless.

Close-in catching is an indescribable thrill that transcends mere words. It is strangely more difficult to describe than the cover drive or the googly. From the bat to hand, the ball takes a fraction of a second. Most times it is off the edge; sometimes it is flush of the middle of the blade, as the slash to gully or the flick or even a pull to leg. Solkar arguably the greatest short leg ever, when pressed repeatedly to explain how he made those catches, helplessly said, “I don’t know, I see it and I up it!” There is something so uncanny about the sharp close in catch, it seems to come more naturally to some but we know that is mere illusion for behind it is a lot of practice.

Great slip fielders do not dive, lunge or grab. They see the edge a fraction earlier, move smoothly to the right or left with soft hands in front of their body and take the catch bending just enough to ensure the hands are at a comfortable height. Their anticipation and balance make the catches they take seem easy, almost always. If the ball comes very low and away from them, it is then that they dive to complete the catch, roll on to their shoulder and are up effortlessly. If you have seen Simpson, Cowdrey or Mark Waugh dive to take a catch in the slips you can be certain that most other ordinary mortals would not have even got their fingertips to the ball as it flew past them.

Indian fielder Eknath Solkar dives to take a catch. Getty Images

Most slip fieldsmen have been specialist batsmen as they are trained to concentrate ball after ball for long periods and therefore are ready when that edge finally comes behind the wicket. However, history serves us this deliciously ironic information that the first great slip fielder was actually a fast bowler - Australia’s Jack Gregory in the 1920s.

It is said that Gregory read Arthur Mailey’s googly better than even his wicket keeper Bert Oldfield and that that there were instances of him running around from slip to leg-slip to catch inner edges of Mailey’s googly! He was not the only fast bowler to field superbly in the slips. Keith Miller, one of the greatest all-rounders was amazingly good at slip. He brought the same insouciance to his slip catching as he brought to his batting and bowling. With Miller it was all style. Miller stood erect, legs apart and didn’t crouch like most others did at slips but was very quick and a natural who timed his movement to catch the ball instinctively. More recently, Botham, made second slip a position all his own as he pouched everything effortlessly.

Australia, South Africa and England have always had very good specialist slip fielders to support their battery of fast bowlers. It was natural that countries with the best fast bowling attacks had good slip and gully fielders. The two Australians, Mark Waugh and Mark Taylor are among the greatest slip catchers in cricket history. Since they played in modern times we have seen them in live action – either on TV or on India’s test grounds.

The best English slip catchers were Hammond in the 1930s and Cowdrey in the 1950s and 60s. Both were heavy men and moved as if in slow motion but were always at the right place at the right time. When South Africa came back to test cricket in the nineties, Brian MacMillan was as brilliant as Taylor and Waugh. Kallis as we all know makes second slip catching look absurdly easy, Jayewardene, Stephen Fleming and other names in the last 20 years come readily to mind while discussing slip catching. Dravid, holder of the record for the highest number of catches, was very good no doubt, but he dropped too many to be bracketed with the great catchers.

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The greatest slip catcher of them all has to be Bobby Simpson. He had his own unique style. While the bowler - Davidson, McKenzie or Hawke - ran up to bowl, he would be squatting on his haunches, left knee lower than the right. As the bowler delivered the ball, Simpson would come up. He hardly ever dropped anything and rarely dived or lunged to take a catch. His catches per match ratio is still the highest ever in test history.

India’s best close catchers were naturally those that supported our spin quartet in the seventies. Wadekar, Venkat, Solkar and Abid Ali formed an umbrella field to give the cutting edge to make our spin bowling truly dangerous. As Chandra would run in to bowl and the Kolkata crowd’s roar reached a crescendo, the batsman would already be on edge. At pick pocketing distance from him was Solkar. Out of sight just behind him, was Abid Ali. Out of the corner of his eye he could also see Venkat, bucket sized hands, chewing gum, supremely confident at close gully. Wadekar seemed to be lounging at slip but would fix anything that came his way. The pressure on the batsman was unimaginable.

Rahul Dravid of the ICC World XI talks with former Australian cricketer Bob Simpson. Getty Images

The formation of the slips and gully has a certain rationale. First slip stands about six feet away from and three feet behind the wicket keeper while second and third slip stand in line with the wicket keeper, an arm’s length separating them from first slip. First slip is deeper since only a faint edge would go in that fine a direction and since he does not have the advantage of gloves like the keeper.

Gully ought to be clearly two steps ahead, closer to the batsman; the idea is to stand at a distance from the batsman such that an edge from a forward defensive stroke would carry to you at knee height and also close enough to take the ball that pops up of the shoulder of the bat. That means the slips and gully should vary their distance from the batsman, based on the bounce and pace of the wicket and the speed of the bowler.

One thing that puzzles both of us is that these days, we do not see fielders adjusting their position according to the pace of the bowler or the carry of the pitch? They seem to stand deeper to comfortably catch the slashed edge off the back foot and consequently many snicks off the front foot prod fall well short of the slip fielders. More surprising, even when this has happened a few times, the slips do not move up. Gully fielders too stay back deep and that almost seems like a semi defensive option to stop the fierce slashes from going to the boundary than to grab the edge from a well bowled outswinger.

Fielders who excelled at gully are Aussies Richie Benaud, Ashley Mallett and Mike Hussey, England’s Collingwood and of course India’s own Venkat. At gully, multiple abilities are called for: the ability to spring up like a tiger to catch the high slash or go low either side to pluck the edged square drive or spring forward to take the lob. Crouching to spring with anticipation is perhaps the key. Benaud was absolutely the best there in his days. Mallett fielded at gully to the demonic speed of Thomson and Lillee. Both Benaud and Mallett stood closer to the bat than other gully fielders and that created catching opportunities for them.

It is a paradox that while one-day and T20 cricket have raised the standards of fielding beyond recognition, one of the great casualties has been catching at short-leg. There seem to be no more short-leg specialists. The freshest new test player is asked to man the position as if it is a punishment posting for new recruits. It was not so earlier. The earliest short-leg for spin bowling was Fingleton taking catches off O’Reilly’s fast bouncing leg-breaks and googlies. Fingleton would sometimes be joined by a second short-leg, the skipper Richardson himself.

After World War II, the best known short-leg fielders were Tony Lock, Gary Sobers and Eknath Solkar. Tony Lock sharpened his reflexes in the fifties fielding to the deadly spin of Laker and Eric Bedser at the Oval where Surrey won eight successive County Championships. Gary Sobers was brilliant at short-leg to the bowling of Lance Gibbs. Even as captain, Sobers would field there. One remembers at Chennai, Sobers scurrying back a few steps instead of turning his back when the batsmen attempted to pull/sweep and in the bargain diving forward to catch what turned out to be an inside edge off the pad.

Viv Richards was brilliant anywhere close in and one of your authors was lucky to witness two absolutely stunning catches that Richards took standing very close at forward short leg at Bangalore in 1974. First Engineer and then when Gavaskar clipped off his toes, Richards threw out his left hand, knocked the ball behind, turned, ran two steps and dived to take the falling ball inches off the ground. The absolutely awesome effort late that evening left all of us speechless and shaken.

The fearless Solkar and Abid Ali also took full blooded hits as well as bat-pad half chances in spectacular fashion. All these are stories of days when there were no protective helmets or shin guards. Today’s short leg fielders, even with the full protective paraphernalia, cannot take those catches since they instinctively take evasive action and therefore cannot watch the ball.

Why are some more comfortable in the slips, others at gully and some suicidally inclined at short leg or leg slip? There is good reason. Slips watch the ball from bowler to the bat and its edge. Gully concentrates on the edge of the bat, anticipating the hard low edge. Short leg watches the back of the batsman’s legs as the ball is being delivered. Only with constant practice, does one start feeling comfortable in a position and as one takes some good catches in that position, it becomes a preferred choice and one develops a lot of pride in that specialist role.

And so the close in catcher waits, concentrating ball after ball, for what he makes of the chance that comes his way could decide the course of the match. He hitches up his trousers, crouches and waits...