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Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Wanted: Specialist short-leg fielder for the Indian cricket team

Indian cricket team has been struggling to find a specialist fielder for short-leg position in Test cricket.

Written by Sandip G | Updated: March 12, 2017 3:00:34 pm

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Team India urgently needs specialist short-leg fielders. The job requires you to stand close to batsman’s shoelaces on spitting subcontinental surfaces. Occupational hazards include broken bones, split webbing and concussions.

Attractive salary: Rs 15 lakhs and additional perks including man of the match award for holding winning catches.

PS: Priority will be given to candidates with prior experience in the domestic circuit, extra points for bravery awards.

Suitable candidates can send their CVs to bccitestteam@bcci.com

One afternoon in the mid-80s, during his long reign as Aussie skipper, Allan Border took a desperate decision, that in the years to come, would prove to be a masterstroke. He walked to his opener David Boon, of the stocky built and tumbling tummy frame, and asked him to head to the vacant short-leg position. “Mate, I don’t know where to hide you. So you’re gonna stand right in here.” Little then did Border know that Boon would make a career out of plucking blinders standing dangerously close to the batsmen. He had minimum protection and showed least urgency to pass on the chores to the team’s Johnny-come-lately, as was, and still is, the norm. “There were several alternatives for fielding there, but Boon would fiercely guard his piece of terrain until his very last days,” recollects Shane Warne.

In Australia’s second innings in Pune, Indian captain Virat Kohli must have felt like Border. He didn’t know where to hide Abhinav Mukund, the substitute fielder. He had just spilled Steve Smith at mid-on; perhaps the nerves of someone returning to Test cricket after six years was telling on Mukund. And then the substitute fielder was dispatched to short-leg. The move lacked wisdom. The Test was in the third innings, the surface was spiteful and Ravichandran Ashwin was getting vicious turn. You want your best fielders at short-leg, not a nervy man on his comeback trail.

But that’s the way it is for designating short-legs these days—a preserve of the fresher, where he should spend his apprenticeship days. It’s a probationary positing, where it’s not the requisite skill but hierarchy that matters.

WATCH: Aakash Chopra catch at short-leg

Back to Mukund, fidgeting at short-leg, a position where he had hardly-ever fielded for his domestic side, where he was always the side’s trusted slips-man. From the first ball he faced, Abhinav looked scared and scratchy, curling into the evasive shell even before the batsman sunk into his knees for the sweep. Not yet settled in his unfamiliar position, Mukund had to deal with an inside-edge that lobbed off Smith pad and floated towards him. Needless to say, Abhinav spilled the catch. An incensed Ashwin threw a stink eye at his long-time Tamil Nadu teammate. Another long-time Tamil Nadu comrade, Murali Vijay, went up and consoled the disconsolate Abhinav. Vijay could empathise with him, as he had, a few overs ago filtered a similarly gild-edged chance at leg slip. Smith, then 37, went on to belt a hundred of match-winning dimension.

Not just Vijay, Abhinav must have had a few others glancing empathetically at him. For all of them had had their cursed moments at short-leg, where they stand either out of necessity or obligation. Before Mukund, it was Karun Nair, who had relieved KL Rahul of this discomfort. Before Rahul, it was Rohit Sharma’s errand, and when all of the three were either injured or out of the team, the responsibility was shared, sometimes inequitably and often wantonly, between Cheteshwar Pujara, Vijay, Ajinkya Rahane and even skipper Virat Kohli.

WATCH: Aakash Chopra’s wonder catch

Apart from Sharma, none had looked content, or even remotely comfortable to bend down to the bootlaces. Most seemed to be gripped by a perpetual fear of the ball crashing onto their chest. There, perhaps, aren’t many instances of match-defining catch being dropped before Abhinav’s — India’s dream run glossed over this shortcoming — but there were countless instances of edges flying past them, or dropping short of them, or in Rahul’s case, the ball shelling onto his body.

It pains Yajurvindra Singh, whose international career lasted only four matches, but whose pouching skills were so silken that former coach Greg Chappell invited him to give a lecture-demo of close-in catching at Mumbai between the England series in 2006. “No short-leg fielder in the world now has proper technique,” he quips.

It’s not hard to understand his premise for grouse, at least in the Indian context. It’s as though a fielder must not make too great an impression in case he is asked to do the job again. Abhinav’s anticipation was terrible; Karun, for all his willingness, doesn’t have the nimblest of feet or suppleness; Vijay’s reflexes have relatively slowed down, Pujara seems inhibited after surgeries to both knees; Rahane has to be at the slips to the spinners.

WATCH: Akash Chopra’s brilliance

The side’s two best fielders, Ravindra Jadeja and Virat Kohli, aren’t the best options either. “Ravindra Jadeja is a fantastic fielder but he can’t be a good close-in catcher because his hands get a bit tight. Virat Kohli is not a very good close-in fielder because he moves before the ball arrives,” observes Yajurvindra. Then, you’re left with the pacers and Ashwin, who is not by any stretch of imagination a Srinivasa Venkataraghavan, who was a fine bat-pad himself. Such was the standard—think of Eknath Solkar, Abid Ali or Ajit Wadekar—of India’s close-in cordon those days that Venkat hardly fielded there.

“We don’t produce them anymore,” laments Yajurvindra. It’s more a lament of a dying art, than a crushing concern for India’s shoddy close-in fielding.

*****

There is this slightly-pixellated but defining image of the iconic Oval Test in 1971—Eknath Solkar prostrated on the ground, his legs furled up, as if seeking the batsman forgiveness. Farokh Engineer, with his fuzzy whiskers, about to clench his massive gloves, a fluffy-haired Sunil Gavaskar setting off to a leap at first slip. Srinivasa Venkataraghavan arching back in disbelief and Alan Knott, still in his follow-through, faced turned to Solkar. perhaps befuddled by the magnetic pull of Solkar’s stretched cusp.

The few preserved footages of Eknath Solkar, circulated in the web, show him swooping down in his distinct two-cupped method to swallow the five-ounce, stitched piece of leather in less than a second’s split, as if it were precious piece of relic. The story goes that Alan Knott, later, gifted the bat to Solkar.

WATCH: Eknath Solkar at short-leg

There, though, is only a sparse collection of Solkar’s relaxed pose at short-leg, upright upper-body, bent at the waist, brow jutting out, knees spread out symmetrically, palms together, eyes unwinkingly gazed at the batsman. If Solkar had plied his trade in these digitalised days, he could have been a photographer’s delight.

But Solkar played 27 Tests, scored only 1068 and took just 18 wickets, at an average of 25.42 and 59.44 respectively, so much that he was thrust the unsavoury sobriquet, poor man’s Sobers. Solkar’s batting was all defiance, his military medium pace bowling, at best utilitarian. But they were indispensable, particularly in the days before helmets and all sorts of padding became the norm. It called not just for skill and reflex but courage and a trust in the bowling. The influx of sophisticated protective gears, hence, have made the naturals more dispensable.

So much so that if he, or Yajurvindra, were born in a wrong era, like for instance in the present generation, he wouldn’t have made the cut, given the exponential, positional demands of the game, and inexpediency of the short-leg position, on the merit of his catching skills alone.

WATCH: Tribute to Eknath Solkar

Even someone as beneficent of peerless close-in fielders as EAS Prasanna echoes the sentiment. “You can’t have everything. The team is well-set, so they have to manage within that. And they are managing very well. Maybe, we have good short-leg fielders in the country. But you can’t pick someone who’s good at short-leg but doesn’t fit into the team (as a batsman or bowler),” he observes.

There is also a swelling perception-shift. The reason for having a short-leg fielder has gone beyond the expedient of it being a catching position. A man in there will make a batsman think twice about thrusting forward with bat and pad together against someone spinning the ball back into them. It is about changing the way the batsman intends to play. Then there is the simple intimidation-distraction aspect of these close fielders.

WATCH: Tribute to Eknath Solkar

Thus, it’s no longer a specialist position like slip or gully. And rather than give the position to those best able to fulfil the job, it was deputed to the youngest or junior member of the side, as though it were a rite of passage. The reasons, Yajurvindra feels is the profusion of stakes for a modern-day cricketer. “There’s a lot at stake in modern day cricket. So maybe, players don’t want to get hurt. They don’t want to get injured. For them it’s just a catch. Maybe, they don’t want to lose their place in the Test team by getting hit,” he remarks.

It puts immense stress on the lower back, thighs and the knees, and obviously the looming threat of getting struck flush on the head or facial distortions. Or maybe, the risks are too high and the returns too meagre. Nobody wins gold medals or cheques for catches at short-leg. It doesn’t even snake into the television producer’s list of ageless catches—that’s reserved to acrobats at point or backward points or flying slipsmen. The bowler and the teammates would appreciate, and then they move on, like everyone else. They don’t rave about Solkar or Boon as they do Jonty Rhodes or AB de Villiers. But men like Yajurvindra and Solkar plied it for the visceral thrill of it—the sudden rush of blood, the ball screeching inebriatedly.

*****

Old-timers at the Marina Grounds or the old Corporation Ground would recollect Venkataraghavan’s distinctive fielding drills. He and one of his teammates would stand 15-20 yards apart with a roller in between. The latter would furiously hurl the craggy old ball at the roller. The rough edges of it would mean the balls would deflect sharply, and unpredictably fast. Venkat would dive to his right, left, or wherever the ball chose to dither. This would go on until the sun sunk into the Marina. The teammate would keep throwing even if his shoulders hurt, for fear of Venkat’s notorious temper. It was his routine drill for most of his career. It was a method passed on to several generation of Tamil Nadu teams.

WATCH: Haseeb Hammed at short-leg

In domestic matches, Venkataraghavan, until the twilight of his career short-leg was his chosen enclave. So did Solkar and Yajurvindra. “Even for club games,” interjects the latter. Later, Sadagopan Ramesh, too, wouldn’t budge from his favourite position. “Whether it’s in the club circuit or domestic cricket, the junior-most player is always asked to stand at short-leg or backward short-leg. None of the seniors would want to field there. So when I was the club’s junior-most player, they used to make me stand there. I thought since I needn’t run around (like in the outfield), it’s a happy place to be,” he recollects.

Soon, he realised he had the requisites to stand at short-leg. His reflexes, anticipation and eye-hand coordination were terrific, a confluence of which wrapped Harbhajan Singh’s hat-trick. “When Warne was walking in, somebody from the slips shouted at me to stand a little further back because Warne tends to go hard at the ball. So I took a couple of steps back, and when Warne hit it, I had just enough time to react and take the catch,” he says.

As with most things in sport, starting young could be beneficial. Yajurvindra swears by it. “We (he and Solkar) began very young. Automatically our reflexes improved.” So did their muscle memory and, more importantly, the courage in those helmet-less days.

WATCH: Top catches at short-leg

Unlike them, Aakash Chopra got accustomed to short-leg shifts in his short India stint. “A few times I had fielded there in my domestic days, but it was when playing for India that I began to stand there on a more regular basis,” he recollects. Chopra’s short-leg predecessor was Rahul Dravid, who for nearly six years was India’s most trusted pair of palms at short-leg, before the invariable upgradation to the slips, as you age. “When you are playing your first Test, it doesn’t matter where the captain asks you to stand. You go with a mindset to impact the match in some way or the other. So I took it as an opportunity,” he says.

His inclination to things technical in the sport helped him nuance it. “It wasn’t technique alone, it was practice,” he says. So feels Yajurvindra: “It’s important to take at least 60-70 catches every day. We used to take hundreds of catches every day.

Both endorse the need to spot fielders with the requisite skills and mould them accordingly, and make them field there even in domestic matches. But before it, Yajurvindra asserts, it’s time they acknowledged the short-leg as a specialist, and not a lazy afterthought.

STANDING INSTRUCTIONS

The posture

Yajurvindra Singh, Joint world-record holder for most catches by an outfield player in an innings.

* Be relaxed, like a boxer, be on your toes.
* Distribute weight equally on both feet.
* Watch the ball and allow it to come to you, rather than going for it.
* Be still and upright and don’t move until the ball is delivered.
* Stay closer to the batsman to cut down on the angles.

Eknath Solkar did it differently

* Stood deeper.
* Took a step forward while the ball was being delivered.
* Used to be on his heels, not toes.
* Preferred to use both hands.

Yajurvindra on Solkar: “He was so gifted. He had such amazing reflexes and loose hands that he could catch anything that was in his territory.”

The squat

Aakash Chopra, one of India’s most reliable short-leg fielders

* Be half-squat so you don’t need to get up when the batsman plays the shot.
* Rather than bending really low, keep your hands really close to the ground.
* A slight upright posture helps one to take evasive action.
* If the ball is spinning, stand a little squarer, because the ball tends to come finer off the edge.
* If there is bounce, stand deeper.
* Stand closer to defensive batsman, as they generally don’t use hard hands and hence the edges will be soft and wouldn’t carry.
* Keep the eyes fixed at the batsman and try to read the batsman’s intentions.

Mark Waugh did it differently. He would first watch the bowler release the ball and then with a quick jerk focus on the batsman.

Waugh’s logic: The technique, he says, has helped him judge the length of the bowler early and thus anticipate the batsman’s stroke. So he could get into positions quickly.

(With inputs from Shamik Chakrabarty)

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