Martin Guptill just stood in his follow through, cringing in disbelief. The ball seemed destined to clear the long-off ropes, only for Hardik Pandya to pluck a stunning catch, lunging full-pelt and pouching one-handed. It was one of the sights you generally don’t associate with Indian fielders, even if you consider the fact that Indians are no longer laggards on the field. Pandya’s catch simply showed that their fielding has climbed another notch.
On cue, fielding coach R Sridhar attests: “As far as ground fielding is concerned we are the best in the world.” But he promptly points out that India still has lots of ground to cover before they become the world’s best. Like the catch-conversion rate, he points out.
But he is happy that the perceptions about fielding has changed. That it has happened after the advent of the Indian Premier League is no coincidence, he feels. “The IPL is a major contributor as fielding is given more importance. (Resultantly), not only have fitness levels vastly improved but also the awareness around it. Nowadays you can’t hide on the field. If you are playing a game of eight overs then even one small fumble can decide the match,” he points out. The classic case was the truncated eight-over-a-side T20I in Thiruvanathapuram.
Juggling slip cordon
Slip-catching, though, has been slightly erratic, which is because the regulars have picked injuries, hence forcing Kohli to realign his slip cordon quite frequently. Kohli himself tried his luck, without much luck in Sri Lanka.
“If we have the same men consistently (without injuries) in the squad then we can always have a settled slip cordon. Going into the next series we will see who we have – Ajinkya Rahane, Murali Vjiay, KL Rahul or Shikhar Dhawan. We will take a look and go according to what we have,” says Sridhar.
Among the lot, Rahane stood out, especially against the spinners. Sridhar says the right-hander comes to training sessions with a set plan and takes inputs from him. “Ajinkya comes to training with a plan and practises very specific drills – with the left/right hand and in terms of position and technique. I do add a little input. As a coach, my job is to give the players correct feedback and give them the option as to what they can work on and whatever suits them best they incorporate it into their game,” says Sridhar.
He also emphasises on the correct posture while fielding at slip or the close-in cordon. “The lower the better. The lower you are the more chances of taking catches which are coming at the ankle-level or heels. It is easier coming up from a lower position rather than going down from a higher position. So I tell them to remain as low as possible when the batsmen are playing the ball,” he says.
As for close-in fielders, apart from the usual qualities such as reflexes, anticipation and hand-eye coordination, he feels they should have a big heart.
“You need to have the intent to stand in front of the wicket,” stresses Sridhar before adding, “what we also work is on the angles depending on the nature of the wicket, body positioning and we also try to develop fielders who can stand in the same position for two or three sessions.”
Improvement in fast bowlers
Impressively, even the fast bowlers, usually grazing the outfield and notoriously lethargic, have improved their fielding.
“Their fitness levels have gone up and the mindset has changed. On one hand, you have Umesh Yadav, who is an excellent fielder. The kind of improvement Jasprit Bumrah has made over the last 18 months is unbelievable. Mohammad Shami has the best arm in the country and covers ground well. Bhuvi (Bhuvneshwar Kumar) is one of the fittest players around. Mohammad Siraj is a good athlete and has the potential to be a potent fielder. So we have a good crop of fast bowlers who are good fielders,” says Sridhar.
The onus, he asserts, is to field the best fielding unit, an aspect skipper Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri too emphasise.
“We are training and looking at all the aspects of fielding to make sure that we put the 11 best fielders in the park over the next one to one-and-a-half-years. It is an ongoing process and definitely, we have room for improvement in terms of our catching,” says Sridhar.
Sridhar is more of a hands-on than bookish coach. He doesn’t pester them (and clutter their mind) with incessant suggestion. Rather he gives them their space.
“I prefer to leave the fielders alone as I believe less information is better than more information,” he concludes. The results suggest that his method has worked.