At India's practice session at the Ages Bowl stadium in Southampton, KL Rahul prods forwards and edges the ball in the nets. Off course with the netting it is difficult to gauge the exact direction, but Ishant Sharma the bowler in his discrete voice can be heard saying "Out!! caught at second by KL". It is amazing how a week of sublime catching in the slip cordon can have an impact on a fast bowler. Suddenly, Rahul had become the trusted hands even if the ball was hitting the mesh.
For the past two years, the Indian pacers have been praying secretly, hoping that every edge they induce can be pouched in the slip. In reality, the search of finding a set of adequate slip fielders has now been ongoing ever since stalwarts Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman called it a time. It is difficult to understand how India has managed to churn out the next set of batsmen, but the slip fielders have been unsettled for the last six years. Nearly, each batsman has tried their luck in the cordon, but none have established themselves and are guaranteed a spot.
But in the ongoing series, India seems to have found at least one slip fielder that has looked comfortable, in KL Rahul. The 25-year-old had a day out in Nottingham taking seven catches in the match and importantly not spilling any. Rahul had been tried in South Africa as well, but due to the constant rotation in the playing XI, he never had a long run in that position.
Importantly, his technique seems to be the best amongst all the peers. The hands don't rest on his legs or knees for a long time, a technique that can create tension in one's forearms an aspect that creates hard hands. Secondly, he is easily the most balanced in terms of his posture and stance as the bowler lets go of the ball. Rahul's feet are shoulder width, he bends at the knees rather than his back and the time the ball passes the batsmen there is no jerk in his body which ensures his eyes remain at one level.
Cheteshwar Pujara might have spilled a straightforward lolly at Lord's, but his catching methods have also taken a significant twist in a positive direction. Pujara, like Rahul, has his feet placed shoulder width, bends at the knees and the hands don't rest on any part of his legs. And while he cannot be as effective moving laterally, the team management had placed him at first slip, where he is probably not required to cover as much distance as other members in the cordon.
Observe Shikhar Dhawan in the slips on the South African tour earlier in the year and compare it to England. It is evident that he no longer puts his hands on his knees as the bowler is about to deliver. His hands are nice and loose between his legs around knee height.
Virat Kohli is probably still far too tense and his enthusiasm to go to the ball often results in him spilling the easier catches. At Trent Bridge, he took a stunner because of his agility and his natural instincts to react quickly, but he also ended up dropping the one that went straight to him. The Indian captain like his batting tends to find a way, but he probably still far from being perfect. But he like others is on the right track.
Batting has mostly been difficult this series for both India and England. Both sets of bowlers, in favourable overhead conditions and on helpful pitches, have consistently tested techniques. Edges have flown towards the slips, and here is where India has decisively scored over England, especially at Trent Bridge.
England's slip cordon has now spilled 13 catches. India dropped four in Birmingham, two at Lords and only one in Trent Bridge. The worm is moving in the right direction and fielding coach R Sridhar needs some credit for changing his procedures. Sridhar has ensured the catches have been practised against the new, hard balls; he has researched different techniques and slowly implemented them with each player.
KL Rahul has been the fastest learner and is already set the precedence. As Ravi Shastri said, "If you have fast bowlers in the line-up, you have got to help them out by taking catches." He added, "Rahul was outstanding. When you see someone catching like that it makes a huge difference. It keeps you for a shorter time on the field, let's put it that way."
India might be trailing in the series, but they start the fourth Test knowing that if an edge is found, chances of taking a catch are now significantly higher than what it was in South Africa, six months ago. It might have taken six years, but just perhaps India is starting to find a settled cordon.