The importance of Cameron Bancroft
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.
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.
"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