The mystery of the missing close-in fielder
Puzzlement (or glee, or anger, take your pick) is often expressed these days over the supposed cricketing demise of Harbhajan Singh. But I'm perplexed by something else altogether: why don't Indian captains of recent years set more attacking fields for their spinners? If it was Australian captains like Bobbie Simpson who pioneered the umbrella slip field for their quicks, then I'm inclined to think (with little more than a vague memory) that Indian and Pakistani captains pioneered truly aggressive fields for spinners. And even if they didn't, they certainly exploited them the most fruitfully.
But in recent years, the most aggressive fields for spinners that I've seen have been set by Ricky Ponting for Nathan Hauritz, Graeme Smith for Paul Harris, and Andrew Strauss for Graeme Swann. (No cracks about any of the bowlers on that list; they've managed to inspire faith in their captains).
For many years now, if there is one feature of Indian outcricket that stands out (in my mind at least), it is that we don't seem to have enough men close to the bat. Harbhajan most commonly bowls with a slip and a forward short-leg. Forget the absence of a silly point, which would seem like a no-brainer for a bowler who is supposedly an exponent of the doosra, Harbhajan often doesn't even employ a backward short-leg. When Mishra bowls, he will often not employ the backward and forward-short-leg. It is almost as if these men are supposed to only be bowling their stock-balls and not their wrong 'uns, and as if the psychological value of having a close-in man has been completely discounted.
And I'm not even going to get into the business of whether fields for them have been sufficiently attacking a little further away from the bat. Instead, we've been treated to field settings that are vanilla in the extreme, with a pronounced tendency to go on the defensive all too quickly.
Perhaps this defensive attitude has been forced on modern Test cricket with the dominance of the bat due to dead pitches, heavy bats, shortened boundaries and the like. But as the example of the captain-bowler combinations above shows, it's still possible to display an attacking mindset.
This display of faith by the captain, and confidence, by the bowler, can be infectious. I'm inclined to think that part of Harbhajan's problems stem from his reluctance to take on an attacking posture in his field-settings. Freed of the pressure of close-in men, batsmen milk him endlessly, and he retreats further into his shell.
Of course, my complaints about the lack of "men in your back pocket" is only partly a complaint about tactics. It's also partly aesthetic. Some of the most wonderful sights of Test cricket have involved spinners wheeling away with a cluster of eager, alert, (and sometimes talkative) brave men, waiting for that little nick, that quick deflection, that little pop-up. Imran's fields for Qadir on the 1982 tour of England were a delight to watch, and enhanced the drama of that series in wonderful fashion.
I used to complain (to anyone that cared to listen) that part of the reason I disliked one-day international cricket as a spectacle on television was the sight of empty fields close to the bat as the game wore on. Sadly, that denuded vision is all too common even in Test cricket played by the country that has had the richest tradition of spin attacks in the history of the game.
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here