September 22, 2015

The importance of Cameron Bancroft

The new man in the Australia squad is a fielder who has the potential to be ranked an allrounder by virtue of his skill close-in
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Close encounters: Cameron Bancroft cuts the opposition's runs simply with his presence at short leg © Getty Images

The passing of Yorkshire great Brian Close this last week understandably drew many remembrances that focused foremost on his bravery in countering fast bowling, but a number of them also did well to highlight his other notable capacity for courage, which was seen in his fielding close to the bat.

That was where he snaffled so many of his staggering 813 first-class catches. "Be ready for rebounds," he'd tell Yorkshire wicketkeeper Jimmy Binks. What a psyche-out that must have been to batsmen. As is so often the case in cricket history, a sad event dovetailed wonderfully with a happy one, with the ascent of Cameron Bancroft to the Australian Test squad.

Bancroft is an abstinent and calm batsman capable of a similar kind of determined crease occupation as that in which Close specialised. Like the Yorkshireman he's also a tremendously skilled bat-pad fieldsman, which should genuinely excite Australians fans. This week a Bancroft fielding highlights video surfaced and it really is something. Nathan Lyon is probably watching it on a loop with a glass of single-malt Scotch in his hand.

There are three things worth noting in the footage of those catches: firstly and crucially that Bancroft's reflexes are so lightning quick, because you can't teach that. Secondly, that he apparently has no fear of being hit and, like Close, not only refuses to turn his back to full-blooded strokes but actually appears to relish spreading his limbs and torso wide, like a goalkeeper with a narrow sliver of net to protect. Thirdly, that he appears to anticipate the path of the ball so well.

Simon Katich was Australia's last great close-in fielder © Getty Images

Most of the above have proved elusive traits for the countless Australians who have been tried under the helmet in recent years. The two most skilled men they have had in the position in that time - Rob Quiney and Alex Doolan - couldn't hang around for long enough as viable Test batsmen to solve the secondary problem, and as far as priorities go it's understandably not as high on the list as regular runs.

But not since Simon Katich's grizzled tenure in the position have the Aussies benefited from a regular and skilful bat-pad practitioner to rival the best ever, David Boon. When Katich was moved on, the position became something of a hot potato, eagerly thrown to the next sucker, often the most junior member of the team. Last one in, first one under the lid. Historically speaking, this isn't unusual. It's hardly a job you'd line up for.

In recent times it was left to veteran Chris Rogers, who would probably admit himself that he was a little too advanced in years to be having to field in such a danger zone. There the issues of waning reflexes and an absence of the required levels of anticipation were the major stumbling block. Most international cricketers can hold catches once they are in hand, but at short leg it's getting to them that's the problem. During the Ashes, balls passed Rogers before he had even moved his hands.

Like a lot of sides Australia have been too reliant on generalists and good sports. But the short-leg and silly-point positions shouldn't be an impotent threat to the batsmen or a token gesture. A bat-pad like Boon was an ancillary weapon for the likes of Craig McDermott, Tim May and Shane Warne. Their bowling plans could be deployed safe in the knowledge that Boon would reel in a tough catch more often than not. Bouncers carried greater risks. Warne could throw it up outside leg and hope for a nibble. Without rolling an arm over himself, Boon was in essence a part of the bowling effort.

Bancroft appears to be cut from similar cloth and the presence of a fieldsman like him can have myriad consequences in terms of thoughts the mind of the batsman - as dramatic as forcing him to eliminate strokes that carry the risk of a close catch. That passive impact can have untold consequences.

Bancroft's keeping history will have helped him develop the patience and soft hands you need for fielding © Getty Images

"He's probably the best bat-pad I've ever seen," Australia A team-mate Steve O'Keeffe said of Bancroft. This applies as equally to his work at silly point, where he took a brave and quite remarkable catch off his body on that A tour. It brought to mind Bobby Simpson's fielding tips in Jack Pollard's Cricket - The Australian Way.

As far as I'm aware, Simpson is the only person ever to employ the sub-heading "Using the chest in catching" in a cricket coaching manual. In short, he aimed to stop anything too fast for his hands with his torso and then scoop up the rebound. Simpson had such safe hands that when he entered the SCG as a rookie sub fielder for New South Wales in 1953-54, the captain, Keith Miller, sent him straight to the slip cordon, almost unprecedented in that era. Within half an hour Simpson had snaffled Neil Harvey. Later he'd keep a tally of his catches and drops in every Test series and to count the misses he rarely needed more than a single digit. Hardly surprising, then, that the Australian sides he coached were drilled relentlessly to improve their catching.

For the most part coaching literature has long ignored close fielding as a major concern. Bradman devoted only a single point to it in The Art of Cricket: the need for stillness in the bowler's approach and that was more in reference to avoiding distraction of the batsman. Bob Woolmer gave it just a few dot points. But how do you really coach bat-pad fielding? Bancroft has done some keeping in the past, where he will have developed the patience, posture and soft hands required, but it's rare to see players going through specific fielding drills for this position. Like with all the best fieldsmen, it's more likely that Bancroft's talent is a combination of innate and unteachable attributes. That's a significant gain for Australia's bowlers.

It's close to measurable too. For argument's sake, let's say a close fieldsman like Bancroft pulls off one catch per Test that nobody else in the side would have reached. That's five wickets across an Ashes series, or approximately the same partnership-breaking capacity that a batting allrounder like Shane Watson brought to the side.

All he needs to do now is buck the Quiney and Doolan trend to make runs as well. Simple, right?

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sport in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian Australia and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • David on September 23, 2015, 0:53 GMT

    I'm looking forward to seeing Bancroft play test cricket for a long time. Yes, his fielding will be valuable but he will need to score runs to earn and keep his spot in the side. LoungeChairCritic - you are spot on that he either gets nothing or scores big. Often he goes first ball. This is a mental issue he needs to work on (I'm sure he and his coaches have identified this and have already started work on it). The test debut of a young cricketer is an exciting time not only for him but for those of us who love the game - let's hope he is given time to settle into the role as I believe he can be a perfect partner for Warner for many years.

  • Dummy4 on September 22, 2015, 22:13 GMT

    It's just important that Australia get some young blood into the batting, as it can't really be said that any young specialist batsman has debuted since Phillip Hughes in 2009.

  • Terry on September 22, 2015, 12:10 GMT

    His fielding is useful but obviously his main suit is his batting. In a way the unfortunate injury to Warner may turn out to be useful as it may mean Bancroft is picked ahead of schedule. I am of the view that if you identify a player you get him in asap and show patience when he inevitably has ups and downs. This is what Justin Langer has done with WA and is reaping the benefit. Obviously Test cricket is a tougher school and patience is in shorter supply. I think more may be needed by Australian fans if they want to see results in a couple of years.

  • Rafiq on September 22, 2015, 10:29 GMT

    There can be no doubt that the inclusion of a good fielder makes a huge positive impact the side. It isn't just catches caught and runs save either - it also boosts the confidence of the rest of the fielding team and makes the batsmen nervous, in turn producing more chances. Impossible to measure of course, but true none-the-less. I haven't seen Bancroft field, so I can't make much of a judgement in his particular case. But another batsman selected for the Bangladesh tour, Glen Maxwell, is one of the best fielders I have seen in recent years. Again, not just in terms of taking catchers, but in terms of awareness and intimidating the batsman. Having Maxwell prowling the infield is enough to make a batsman think twice about their shots, which creates nerves and generates more chances. This, along with his spin should get him into the Test side as all-rounder for the Bangladesh tour (although I'm not yet sure he warrants a spot in the side for the home summer).

  • Dummy4 on September 22, 2015, 9:56 GMT

    Well, I will be willing this lad on in Bangladesh, he would appear to be exactly the type of cricketer we need right now. As good a player as Rogers was he did grass quite a few catches, not all of them close in, nor difficult. Cheers, Jono.

  • Dummy4 on September 22, 2015, 5:12 GMT

    Currently, Cameron Bancroft has taken a small fraction over 1 catch per first class game he's played (27 from 24). I therefore think it is wildly wide of the mark to suggest, even for the sake of argument, that he might take one catch per match that no-one else would. One per 4 or 5 matches maybe, at the outside?

    Best of luck to Cameron Bancroft, and even making 1 special catch per series would be valuable, but let's not get carried away. It's a bit like the inflated claims you hear from time to time that someone is such a good fieldsman he saves an extra X runs in a day's play. X is often put at a number like 20 - with the general standard of fielding now, if someone can save 5 more than any other fieldsman would in the same spot he would have to be really something.

  • Ross on September 22, 2015, 4:59 GMT

    Bancroft will do well as he is a good player. Part of the unpredictability for our batting lineup is due to the Sheffield Shield no longer coming close to simulating test match conditions and quality of play. 15-20 years ago, the Shield was the premier domestic competition in the world, with test standard players occupying spots in most state sides, and ensuring that only the very best made it into the XI. The perks of having tremendous depth. Our shield quality is still very good but not as good as it was 15 years ago. The Shield now best serves as a sort of talent scout program, where players who have what it takes are picked on the strength of potential to try and hone their skills in the test match arena. Bancroft is one of them. I can see the likes of Khawaja, Bancroft and Lynne doing very well in the coming years. Khawaja can be our long term 3 as he is a seriously good batsman if given the time. Lynne has impressed me alot too.

  • Wayne on September 22, 2015, 4:51 GMT

    One of the reason's why Bancroft is such a good close in fielder is because he is a former wicket keeper. He played a fair bit of junior & club cricket as a keeper. Like many young talented keepers, he had to focus on his batting to get a game at 1st class level. Unlike most good close in fielders he is quite tall (184cm). As a batsman for WA, Bancroft tends to get runs or zippo (Zero). Once he is in he really does guts it out. His defence is solid but he will probably need to learn how to remain busy at the crease. Mike Hussey was a similar cricketer at the age of 22. He will gain a lot of confidence from the recognition he has received over the past 12 months. Lets hope a bit of Justin Langer (his WA coach) rubs off him and he continues to work really hard on his game.

  • Dummy4 on September 22, 2015, 4:43 GMT

    very nice article! fielding is such an important factor to determine the game. as it is often said, that 'catches win matches'

  • Greg on September 22, 2015, 4:23 GMT

    I think that it is important that Bancroft is selected for the team. Close in fielding, despite getting a temporary revival with the introduction of helmet, has once again fallen into neglect, with the habit of sending the most bulliable (junior) member into the position. Catches win matches. Dropped catches regularly cost teams plenty of runs. Missed opportunities just as much. Even if Bancroft's fielding doesn't make up for his batting (and that is if), it sends a message to all potential cricketers that this is an important fielding position, which in turn will help encourage people to take fielding there more seriously, which in turn leads to a better personnel base from which to select. If someone takes a catch that wouldn't normally be expected, that is as good as 20 runs. So if someone is taking 2 of those each innings, they don't need to bat or bowl.

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