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One on One
'Fitness can make a good fielder brilliant'
November 14, 2007
Six months into his tenure, Robin Singh talks to Anand Vasu about the progress India have made as a fielding unit
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Interview by Anand Vasu

In the 15th over of India's World Twenty20 match against South Africa, Mark Boucher picked up a leg-stump full-toss from Joginder Sharma and whipped it down leg. Irfan Pathan, at short fine leg, anticipated correctly, got in position quickly, waited for the ball to bounce and spin, dived to his right - his wrong side - and stopped the ball one-handed. Jonty Rhodes, sitting in the dugout next to the Indian team, was up in a flash. "Who's the Indian fielding coach?" he asked, walking over. For Robin Singh that was a big moment, to be acknowledged by arguably the best all-round fielder in recent times. "When people like Jonty come up and appreciate you, that itself is huge motivation," Robin told Cricinfo. In this interview he speaks about what the team has achieved, where they need to go, and more.

"I do things from a game scenario" © AFP

Let's start with the basics. What is it that you do with the team as fielding coach?
You have to look at individuals and see how you can lift their standards of fielding. The first thing is to see where an individual's shortcomings are. Then you have to work with the trainer, since fitness is a key component of fielding.

It helps to test the fitness levels of players. It's very easy to assess a player even after a week's work. Then you know where you stand with a player. It gives you a benchmark on what sort of improvement is possible.

What we have tried to do is remove the mechanical element to fielding practice. We've tried to incorporate fielding drills that are match-oriented and specific to what we're trying to work on. A lot of this is done under pressure, with a time frame in mind, so that you have a clear goal when working.

The other key component is balance. You have to get in the right position to throw the ball, and have the right technique. But that will happen only if your balance is right and your anticipation is very good. We do stuff to ensure that these things are looked into closely and we then monitor these aspects during a game. I try to pick up on where something could have made a difference in the game. Then we practise those aspects specifically in sessions leading up to the next game.

There's always a lot of talk a lot about batting technique, from experts and the lay person alike. But not much is spoken about fielding technique.
Just like in batting, where you need to be perfectly balanced when you strike a ball, it's the same with a fielding action. Anything to do with sport demands that your balance is right. If your balance is not right, you won't be able to throw at the target. Once balance and posture are taken care of, your throwing arm will follow your leading arm, and as a consequence you'll become accurate. Accuracy becomes synonymous with balance. With that, you'll find that you don't get injuries as well. This then leads to your being able to throw harder and further. Fitness is a key component in developing strength and power.

You have quite a variety of players to work with, from fit youngsters to slower older cricketers. How do you design separate exercises for these different players?
In the 50-over game you have people who are in specialist positions. But now the people who field in the circle in the early overs are the ones who go out into the deep towards the end of the innings. You try and replicate this in practice.

In Twenty20 this is almost reversed: you find that the bowlers are in the circle, and the people who can run fast and throw accurately are on the boundary. In Twenty20 the boundary positions have become key. So we work a lot on specifics, based on where a player is likely to field because the game has become very innovative, I do things looking from a game scenario.

If you're not fit, you won't be in the game mentally. You have to stand on the field for 50 overs, and if you're tired after 30, you'll be flagging. You cannot concentrate and your anticipation is low. If your anticipation is low, then no matter how quick you are on your feet, you'll be a slow fielder

Looking back at your tenure so far, how would you assess the progress the fielding unit has made?
I think it has done pretty well. I was very optimistic because we had a lot of young guys in the group. But they were lacking in technique or balance or throwing - little things like that. Overall the fielding has come a long way in the past four or five months. The work ethic has been good and people are willing to do that extra bit.

I do a lot of stuff one-on-one with just two or three guys. This allows me to do intensive work. It's not just doing a fielding session for 45 minutes and finding that people are tired but not much has been achieved. We try and keep it shorter but very intensive.

How does your own experience as a fielder play a part?
Fitness is something the players have to work on individually, with the trainer. I emphasise that fitness is the key that can turn you from a good fielder into a brilliant one. If you're not fit, you won't be in the game mentally. You have to stand on the field for 50 overs, and if you're tired after 30, you'll be flagging. You cannot concentrate and your anticipation is low. If your anticipation is low, then no matter how quick you are on your feet, you'll be a slow fielder. However quick you are when you're fresh, you're much slower when you're tired. That's the difference between being a top fielding side and an average one. We've worked on getting people to concentrate at the right times. You have to time it right, relaxing properly and concentrating correctly.

My own experience as a fielder doesn't count for so much, because each person is different. I see where each person's strengths and weaknesses lie. There's no point working on your strengths - those just need brushing up. The idea is to get people to be better all-round fielders, and brilliant in certain areas. Some guys are very good at diving, some are not comfortable diving; some slide, some don't get up quickly after sliding ... so we do very specific work for each of these components.

When you were playing, Indian teams typically had one or two good fielders, with the rest being average or below average. Have the fielding standards in India improved overall?
There's a lot of emphasis on youth, and in academies today there's much more work done with fielding. If you have young kids who come in with some basics, then it's a question of brushing up things for them when they come to the next level. You have to ensure that they are fresh and are eager to do something brilliant. I also emphasise to fielders that they should think about doing their best when they go out, and that they should not think about how others in their team are fielding. Each person should try and make a difference in the field. That will inspire others and lift the overall fielding standard.

A criticism that has been made is that when we play against a side like Australia, we begin about 20 runs behind.
At times, yeah, this is true. But if you look at things differently, there's no point equating an Indian fielding team with an Australian fielding team. I have to set benchmarks for the Indian team based on what I am given and what work we have done. I set certain standards, work towards that, and once we have reached there, we think about the next level. We cannot be a great fielding side overnight when fielding has been a problem for generations. It has to go step by step.

"In Twenty20 the boundary positions have become key" © AFP

When I look at fielding, I ask myself two questions: Have we improved in the last five games? And, are we consistent enough? Once we're ready to take the next step, we do that. We cannot become an Australian fielding side overnight. In the World Twenty20, we probably outfielded teams like Australia and South Africa. It just shows that we can reach standards that are as good as anyone in the world. We're getting there. With time we can be as good as anybody.

It is one thing to have a fielding coach at the highest level. Isn't it also important that someone like you goes and does work with the academies and ensures that there is a certain standard of fielding coaching at the lower levels?
At every level it needs to be addressed. If you want to have a very good fielding unit consistently, then fielding has to be emphasised at the lower levels. When time permits, it would help if I could go to the academies and work with coaches, point out things that they need to do. But the schedules just don't permit it. You're raising this point now but we've already spoken about it with the board. All we need is a bit of time to help these things grow and get better.

When you first took over as fielding coach was there any resistance from the team, or did they all readily embrace what you were trying to do?
As a matter of fact it was a pleasant change for most people. The cricketers were looking for a challenge, considering that we had a poor run in the World Cup. Everyone wanted to make amends in whatever way they could, whether it was fielding, batting or bowling. In retrospect, it was easy to work with the guys. We just have to ensure that we don't burn the players out. Only if they are fresh can they do well. If you're tired physically, you can't do any of your skills well.

When it comes to fielding, the coaching fraternity around the world is pretty small. What kind of interaction do you have with your counterparts?
I look at what standards other teams set. I've spoken a lot to the Australian fielding coach and exchanged ideas. These guys have been in the job for a very long time, so they have developed certain things. Whatever observations or criticism they have, I take on board and make a mental note. The best compliment you can get is to see your fielding team rise to an occasion. At least now you feel that an Indian team could win a game with fielding. That has happened in the last four months. When things like this happen more consistently, you know things are working.

Anand Vasu is a former associate editor at Cricinfo

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