Indian fielding: A work in progress

Cricket

SETTING EXAMPLES: India’s Ravindra Jadeja is blessed with fine ball sense and great speed.

Gone are the days when the Indian fielders escorted the ball to the boundary, shied away from diving to stop a shot and refused to leap in the air to take a catch. Cliched as it may sound, a run saved is a run scored and catches win matches. It has taken decades for India to recognise the value of good fielding, especially in limited-over cricket. 

Reasons for their lackadaisical attitude in the past towards this department of the game are many. Batting has always occupied the pride of place in Indian cricket. That’s why it took them such a long time to develop a good all-round bowling attack despite producing world-class batsmen dime a dozen. Obviously, fielding came last in the pecking order. It was unglamourous and hence unappealing. Even coaches at the junior level didn’t pay too much attention to this important aspect of the game. And while there has always been an odd player every now and then who pleasantly surprised with his acrobatic skills on the field, it has taken a concerted effort – from appointing fielding coaches and fitness trainers to captains’ continued emphasis on strong legs and shoulders – to put together a fielding unit of whom not many need to be hidden.

That said the current Indian side is still a work in progress insofar as its fielding standards are concerned. It’s some distance away from matching the fielding skills and strengths of teams like New Zealand and Australia. The likes of Virat Kohli and Ravindra Jadeja can fit into any of these quality fielding sides. They are swift, strong and have got a ball sense. They enjoy fielding as much as their primary vocation. Hardik Pandya and Vijay Shankar come close behind these two but many other fielders in the current squad have one shortcoming or the other.

K L Rahul is an excellent fielder and a safe catcher at any position, but he lacks the throw from the deep and that could be to do with his operated throwing right shoulder. Yuzvendra Chahal still needs to work on his catching and ground fielding, Kedar Jadhav -- who sent down a precise throw to run out Australia’s Aaron Finch the other day -- isn’t the quickest on the field, Rohit Sharma is a brilliant close-in catcher but he is no Jadeja while prowling the line or fielding on the edge of the 30-yard circle, Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar have made a lot of improvement in their fielding but they too don’t possess the throw that quicks usually do. Same can be said of Mohammad Shami and Shikhar Dhawan.

Fielding, feels India’s fielding coach R Sridhar, is as much about mindset and attitude as it’s about fitness.

“One area we try to educate them with is awareness with respect to fielding, and we try to work on fitness,” he noted. “Obviously, (Shanker) Basu, fitness coach, works a lot on their fitness as well. We got a leadup to this tournament to work with Chahal, Bumrah, Kedar, guys like these, who are willing to work really hard on their skills. So that really has helped. Bumrah is probably one of the hardest workers as far as fielding goes. From (what he was) when he joined the team in 2016 to what he is now, he’s a massive improvement, although still a work in progress, but a massive improvement.

“The mindset of the players combined with the increased levels of fitness, and then we can chip in with the technical aspect of fielding and the awareness and anticipation part. So, combining all this definitely helps them improve their fielding skills.

“Fielding, I would say, is vital in every match. We saw that at The Oval on Sunday when we played Australia. Although we had a big total on the board, we had to field out of our skins to defend the total. So, in this World Cup, the format is so good that every game is vital, and that is where we have to be on top of the game. Yeah, I think we should look to outfield our opponents in all games, and we expect our opponents to do the same. We should go out there with our best intensity as possible,” he offered.

Intensity indeed is an important gradient of better fielding abilities. As Sridhar pointed out, India did raise their standards against Australia. They threw themselves around the park, took some excellent catches and saved several runs. But they do let their guards down more than a top team like them should be doing. A dropped catch and a misfield that results in extra runs have the potential to affect the bowlers negatively.         

“The biggest thing that came out to me was the attitude of the fielders, where they put the team ahead of themselves, but these are the qualities which you need when you want to go out and win championships. This really came out in the last game, and that was good to see. So, I think the biggest challenge is to stay consistent. To me, that is the biggest challenge, to reduce the time between the good days and bad days. That is integral.”

Majority of Indians have always been safe catchers, and slowly the numbers of players with good ground fielding are also increasing. The one area, however, that remains a problem is hitting the stumps directly, either from the boundary or from close-in range. Jadeja is perhaps the best in this while Kohli isn’t too far behind.     

“It is something which I have my eye on as well, and we to practice a lot for that,” remarked Sridhar. “I would say converting, whether it’s a run-out or not, converting one in three or four throws (into direct hits) is a good conversion rate, in my opinion. Don’t judge me on that opinion; but in my opinion, picking up one out of four, you’re doing a good job as a direct (hit) unit, but we failed to do that in the last game. We had over ten strikes, and we hit only once. In some days we hit three out of five. It’s a practice thing, but that is one area we work hard on in every session,” he observed.

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