Speaking about India’s opening Champions Trophy game at Cardiff on TV, the former England captain Nasser Hussain observed how good the fielding had been.

“Not donkeys anymore then?” his colleague Michael Atherton wondered. “No,” he laughed. “Had to bring that up, didn’t you?”

Hussain’s comments were made many years ago and he perhaps meant them differently, but he is the not the only one to acknowledge that things have been thoroughly different these last two weeks. When M.S. Dhoni declared after the win over Pakistan that India was “the top fielding side in world cricket right now,” he wasn’t far off the mark.

Turning the tide

There has been a bracing intensity to India’s out-cricket here. Over South Africa at Cardiff, Ravindra Jadeja effected a brilliant stop and return to run Robin Peterson out and turn the tide of the contest. At Edgbaston, Rohit Sharma took a fine, diving catch to remove Saeed Ajmal while Virat Kohli, arguably India’s best all-round fielder, ran out Junaid Khan with a terrific pick up and hit at the non-striker’s end.

These may only be highlights but they are indicative of India’s proactive approach in the field. This feature has underpinned the side’s dominance of the competition. “We have not been known for our fielding standards, but right now we are the best fielding side,” Dhoni said on Friday. “You can compare us to any other side; most of our fielders are good fielders, and the rest are above-average.”

No weak links now

Dhoni is right in that even bowlers, ordinarily considered weak links, have not looked poor. Umesh Yadav is athletic, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma have looked alright, while R. Ashwin has been firm in the slips, his catch to get rid of Chris Gayle a case in point.

“The fielding is one of the important parts (of our game),” Bhuvneshwar said. “If you get one run out or two catches it could change the course of the match. Obviously Virat is a good fielder but even the bowlers — Ishant, Umesh and I — are working hard on fielding.”

With the new ODI rules demanding an extra man inside the circle, India has used its infield strength — the likes of Kohli, Rohit, Jadeja, Suresh Raina and Dinesh Karthik routinely save runs inside the circle — to good effect, even turning it into a weapon of sorts. “There is no fielder that has to be hidden away,” Jadeja pointed out last week. “All fielders are good and we back each other up in the field.”

Dhoni’s pouching of Mohammed Hafeez was also a departure from his previous approach, usually safe but never spectacular. He copped a couple on the shin from outfield throws on Saturday but dismissed the matter with a smile. “We’ve been working hard on good throws but it’s important to put your body behind the line of the ball when it’s not there,” he said.

Only two years ago, during the World Cup, he had noted with disappointment that “India has many strengths, but fielding definitely is not one of them.”

Young team

Much has changed in terms of personnel since then. This is a young team — the average age of the (same) eleven that played all three games is 25.7 years. Youth hasn’t always translated into great fielding in the past, but it hasn’t hurt here.

It is to be remembered, though, that India’s fielding in Test matches, the England series a low-point, has been dire. “Some of our fielders can’t field everywhere,” the fielding coach Trevor Penney offered at the Kolkata Test. “…It’s a pretty difficult situation sometimes.”

Things will change soon on that front as well, but for now it’s only fair to appreciate the remarkable existing standard. From some beast of burden, India now comes off a favourite ahead of the derby.