Fielding April 6, 2009

India's finest slip fielder

Mohammad Azharuddin will rank as the greatest all-round Indian fielder, and he was quite brilliant in the slips, but as a specialist and for sheer longevity, Dravid stands alone

Now I believe that everything happens for a reason. So despite waking up at 4am and getting to the airport well in time I have missed my flight to Chennai for a reason so silly that I can't bring myself to own it up in public. But what makes the misery bearable is that it ensured I didn't miss Rahul Dravid's record-breaking catch. I didn't want to miss it, though I always feared I would.

I remember telling him jokingly before the series that if he wanted his countrymen to watch him break the record he better make sure that it came after lunch, or better still in the final session. Of course I have been up to see the first session on most days and I saw him take the first catch of the series, in the seventh over of the first morning's play on March 18, but the next one has taken some time to come. But when I left home in the morning just after India declared, I had a feeling that I would miss it.

And despite sitting in front of the TV in the airport lounge I almost did; had I got up in time to catch my flight, I certainly would have. It was just in time that I shifted my attention from the laptop to watch Zaheer Khan induce the edge from Tim McIntosh and Dravid go down to his left at second slip to pick the ball few inches from the ground. It was a good catch, not spectacular, but not as easy as Dravid made it look. It was a result of what makes Dravid such a good slipper: good anticipation, swift movement, perfect timing, and soft hands.

Dravid has spent a lifetime in Sachin Tendulkar's shadow and the big batting records - centuries, number of runs scored - were never going to be his, but he is quite on his own in the slips. Mohammad Azharuddin will rank as the greatest all-round Indian fielder, and he was quite brilliant in the slips, but as a specialist and for sheer longevity, Dravid stands alone. Sunil Gavaskar was pretty good at first slip too, but I reckon Dravid has taken more difficult catches, and made them look easy.

There are many theories about what makes top-order batsmen such good slip fielders - Bob Simpson, Mark Waugh, Mark Taylor, and Mahela Jayawerdene are the names that spring to mind immediately - but perhaps the ability to concentrate for long periods is the most accurate. But like everything else in cricket, slip catching requires good technique and lots of practice. Mark Waugh, whose record Dravid has broken, took far more spectacular catches and he was superb in the outfield too, but what has marked Dravid out is his catching off spinners, an art in itself. It requires standing closer, reading the bowler and anticipating the batsman's response. In the recent years, Dravid has sometimes moved away from the slips against the quicker bowlers, but Anil Kumble would have none other.

I can't afford to miss the second flight of the morning, so I will wind up with my favourite Dravid catch. It came in Adelaide in 2003, in what must count as his finest Test. In the first innings he rescued India from 85 for 4 with a double-hundred, and stayed unbeaten in the second to see his team through to the unlikeliest of Test wins, but his catching was sensational too. Sachin Tendulkar took two wickets in the Australian second innings that began the collapse, and Dravid caught them both. The more spectacular one by far was the one that dismissed Damien Martyn, who drove hard, edged, and Dravid, who had very little time to react, flung himself to his right to bring off a spectacular one-handed catch.

This record is likely to stay with him for a while. At the average rate for catches, the men behind him, Ponting, Kallis and Jayawardene, will need about three years to catch up, and given how well he has played in this series, Dravid, if he chooses to, still has a season or two left in him.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo