There were two stinging short-leg related incidents during the record stand between Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen at the Wankhede Stadium. First, Cheteshwar Pujara hurt his ribcage when the 6’ 2” Cook employed a big sweep shot and found the fielder at close quarters.
Soon his substitute, Ajinkya Rahane, learnt the peril of standing close to the 6’ 4” Pietersen. He suffered a painful elbow injury. Rahane returned to the field on the third morning, while Pujara needed more time to feel comfortable and position himself again in the leg trap position.
“It’s a very difficult place to field well in, as it is hard to judge the exact pace of the ball,” said Sir Plum Warner.
So far in the ongoing Test series, Cook and Dhoni have felt it necessary to position men around the batsmen in order to make profitable the exertions of their spinners on tracks that have been offering turn and bounce. It has been common to see the leg trap positions, silly mid-on, silly mid-off and silly point in place apart from the short slip and gully and as a consequence England’s finger spinners, Monty Panesar (left-arm) and Graeme Swann (right-arm) and India’s Pragyan Ojha (left-arm) and Ravichandran Ashwin (right-arm) largely benefitted with edges flying to the close-in fielders.
A case in point was the catch held by Jonny Bairstow (forward short-leg) that sent back Pujara in the second innings. Dragged into forward play, Pujara poked at Swann’s off-break and offered a catch that Bairstow held diving to his left and with two hands.
Another instance of a fine catch taken at short gully sent back Dhoni in the first innings. Swann made sure that the ball did not touch the ground when the edge dipped in front of him.
Yajurvindra Singh who holds the record of seven catches in a Test match with Greg Chappell, Matthew Hayden, Stephen Fleming and Hashan Tillakaratne and five catches in an innings with K. Srikkanth and Fleming says India looks very inadequate in the close-in fielding department.
“This (turning tracks) brings into equation the importance of close-in fielding. India looked very inadequate. It requires different skills in each area. One needs to be ready at all times mentally and physically. The Indian slip fielders had their hands on their knees most of the time and had already got up before the ball came to them. This makes low catching very difficult as getting one’s hand and body down suddenly, is always slower than moving it upwards. The silly point and forward short-leg fielders were far from specialists. This is a position that has to be in your DNA. It needs practice and plenty of guts. One has to enjoy and love it; that was not the impression one got from the players positioned there.”
He said he mastered the technique based on Tony Lock and Brian Close by standing very close and relying on his reflexes.
“I felt that it narrowed the angle, came to me at a catchable height and gave me the chance to catch the low mistimed edges.
“My fielding stance was low and balanced with the weight on my toes for me to pounce like a feline in any direction. Many fielders sit there as if they are on an Indian commode, making it impossible to change direction or move quickly. I looked at close fielding as a challenge.
“My mantra was to keep saying — the ball is coming to you. The most important part of fielding is to want the ball to come to you rather than hoping to escape you.
“Catching with soft hands is also essential. This can only be mastered by plenty of hard work and thousands of catches in practice.”
Yajurvindra feels that till this art of cricket is not taken seriously, India will find new-comers at short-leg or silly-point, seniors in slips and tired bowlers in gully.
“This unfortunately is the sad trend at all levels of the game in India. The selectors need to look at this as an additional value to the side during selection. The specialists will then win the battle. After all catches do win matches,” he said.
Of close in fielding Don Bradman wrote in How to play cricket: “Take for example, men who are stationed in slips, silly-point, or short-leg…..as a general rule they do not anticipate having to run after the ball, but they must at all times be wide awake for a catch which may come to them at any moment. For this reason they should study the prospect of getting a catch rather than the prospect of saving runs. The first thing is to be comfortable and well balanced, so that the movements may be made with equal speed either to the right or the left.’’