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February 12, 2010

Samir Chopra

The mystery of the missing close-in fielder

Samir Chopra


The Indian spin quartet of the 1970s had the backing of a skilled bunch of close-in fielders © Getty Images
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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

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Posted by Anonymous on (February 15, 2010, 16:29 GMT)

A feature that wasnt pointed out interestingly is Dhoni's lack of faith in his spinners. time and again he's said in the press about how Harbhajan for eg. is a "containing option"; that spinners must contain the flow of runs.

Partly, that attitude has rubbed onto Harbhajan who, like it or not,has started treating Test matches almost like limited overs cricket. Interestingly the pacers seem to be doing well under Dhoni!!!

Lastly, Anil Kumble was a HUGE factor! having a bowler of his calibre at the other end always helps. Who does bhajji turn to???

Posted by chitro sen on (February 14, 2010, 9:22 GMT)

while watching on the telly the match it literally pained me to see Indi'a close in fielders ducking and weaving in spite of all their protective equipment. Solkar, and before him, Rusi Surti both without any protective gear would have gobbled up Kallis and Amla half a dozen times during the course of their innings. Solkar's record of 53 catches in 27 tests tells its own story.There were other great Indian close in fielders like Hanumant Singh ( who can forget his brilliant catch to dismiss Bobby Simpson at the Eden) and Yajurvendra Singh. An aggressive close in fielder is an attacking option for the captain.That is lost on India's spinners and skipper today.

Posted by waterbuffalo on (February 14, 2010, 3:04 GMT)

Spin is actually more attacking than pace on the subcontinent; but as everyone knows, flat pitches are killing spin and flat pitches are killing Test cricket. It is pointless if the spin is slow and there is no bounce. Even Pakistan has no one to take over from Kaneria, Saeed Ajmal and Mishra are very average spinners. What is shocking is that the number one and two teams in the world are playing to empty stadia and schoolchildren are being let in for free to provide some atmosphere. Test Cricket and spin will be dead in 10 years unless cricket returns to uncovered wickets.

Posted by Dharmesh on (February 13, 2010, 15:17 GMT)

I completely agree with M.r Samir. I also feel that the fields set by our captains in recent times are very defensive. Even if the bowlers are not accurate or not as skillful as better bowlers of 70s or 80s the aim should be to take wickets by pressurising the batsmen. remeber that Kallis, when he was on 15 something, a thick back pad chance ( a dolly ) was there when Ishant was bowling. But no short leg. S A was 35 for 2 at that time. Strange are the ways of Mr. Dhoni ( who always forget to run to the wicket to collect athrow when is he is keeping, not to forget the likes of Sehwag who is so careless while running between wickets by not dragging his bat and by jeoprdising the country's team chances)!!

Posted by Nadeem on (February 13, 2010, 14:11 GMT)

I agree with you Samir but there are many difficulties in setting close fields. T20 and ODIs are making batsmen more and more aggressive. Therefore, fielding captains have to keep it in mind and they have to stop the flow of runs as well. And we have not that much accurate bowlers nowadays like, Warne, Qadir, etc. But captains should encourage their spinners by setting these fields. And specialists should be available for standing in close.

Posted by Cricket Burble on (February 13, 2010, 8:32 GMT)

I agree.

Strange that Dhoni is defensive though - when he started captaining in Twenty20 I was encouragsed by the fact he kept in multiple slips to the quicker bowlers even in the shortest form of the game. We can only assume he's lost faith in his slow bowlers....

Posted by Aakash Chopra on (February 13, 2010, 4:57 GMT)

Well written, Samir :)

Posted by Souvik on (February 12, 2010, 20:51 GMT)

Good blog Samir. But I think close-in fielders become more effective when bowlers bowl in a steady and accurate line and length. Sad to say, Harbhajan and Misra couldn't maintain that. In the last test, the ball which took the nick of Kallis' bat was briliantly bowled by Bhajji but again he couldn't maintain that. Misra also bowled sporadically. For a duration of time, he bowled without any venom that forces MSD to spread the field but then out of the blue a ball took sharp turn and ball flied to forward short leg or silly point when there was nobody. Thus this type of utter inconsistency forces captains to become more defensive. The docile pitches are another issue. It's disgusting that BCCI is doing nothing to improve those flat pitches. Forget about pacers, even spinners are getting very little assistance. Really tough times for bowlers....

Posted by onkar on (February 12, 2010, 17:40 GMT)

For such article, Mohammad Azharuddin's name should have been mentioned.I genuinely believe , Kumble wouldn't have what he is had it not been for the backing from Azhar.Who can forget the way he put fielders for Kumble-Raju-Chauhan against England and Srilanka in 93-94 series.Yes the other captains like Saurav,Dhoni Sachin etc havent able to exploit likes of Kumble or Harbhajan etc. But one has to accept that Harbhajan is not half good as Kumble atleast in tests. The reason being a spinner has to have a big heart and should not mind giving the cherry some air. Bhajji more often than not spends his energy in keeping the runrate low rather than taking wickets.

Posted by Kunal on (February 12, 2010, 17:32 GMT)

Actually, even the quality of close-in fielders in the Indian team has deteriorated. The last close-in fielder of note was Aakash Chopra. Dravid had made the position his own in his formative years on the international circuit. And he succeeded Srikaant, Amre and Manjrekar in the close-in positions. But the dearth, as you point out, is perhaps proof of the limited number of Tests India plays, the flat wickets (with foreign teams condemning spin-friendly wickets) and the limited number of spinners in the bowling line-up. In 1993, Rajesh Chauhan, Raju and Kumble formed a trio. Maninder Singh even staged a brief comeback then. Today, we debate about who the second spinner in the line-up will be. As much as India has improved its overseas record, its home record is not as convincing as it used to be until 2001.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samir Chopra
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He runs the blogs at samirchopra.com and Eye on Cricket. His book on the changing face of modern cricket, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket has been published by HarperCollins. Before The Cordon, he blogged on The Pitch and Different Strokes on ESPNcricinfo. @EyeonthePitch

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