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.
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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