India v South Africa, 2nd Test, Kolkata, 3rd day

What's in a field?

Roving Reporter by Chandrahas Choudhury

November 30, 2004

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Did he absorb the nuances of various field settings at the Eden Gardens? © AFP
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No single detail about a Test match immediately reveals so much about the game as the look of the field - that is, the way the nine fielders available to the bowler are placed. Is the field in, hovering around the centre, or is it deep-set, flung back to the periphery? How many slips are in? Are there any men in interesting or unusual positions? All these details mean something to the eye willing to take them in.

When Sachin Tendulkar came out to bat this morning Andrew Hall, who got him out playing to leg in the first Test, immediately set about attacking him with a very unusual field. Hall only had four fielders on the off side - most unusual for a right-handed bowler bowling to a right-handed batsman. And on the leg side he had fine leg (a conventional position) and mid-on (also a conventional position) but also a short-leg, a short midwicket and a square leg. Hall attacked the stumps, inviting Tendulkar to play to leg. He was obeying the traditional injunction given to bowlers to bowl "one one side of the wicket" - only choosing the "wrong" side. Tendulkar hardly took a run off him.

Hall's field to Tendulkar might serve as an emblem of how the Indian batting has been stifled all season. Teams who came to India in the past were often criticised for bowling too straight at the Indian batsmen and getting put away through the leg side. But a feature of the opposition bowling this year has been a willingness actually to bowl that straight, at the stumps, but this time with fielders posted in front of the wicket on both sides.

In fact, these field settings bear a greater resemblance to fields in the first 15 overs of a 50-over game than they do to a "traditional" Test match field, heavy on slips and men behind the wicket. Generally heavy leg-side scorers, the Indian batsmen have found themselves shackled by these craftily set fields.

A fact not often remarked upon is that field-placement styles change over time, from age to age, just as batting and bowling styles do. If one looks through cricket manuals of the 1940s and 1950s, it becomes clear that leg slip was regarded as one of the more important positions. It was not just spinners who bowled with a leg slip; often pacemen did so as well. Now it is a position that is archaic: only offspinners on turning pitches sometimes use it. Similarly, the current trend of employing a short midwicket is of comparatively recent provenance, probably as a result the influence of one-day cricket.



The fielders may have been spread about, but they certainly came together every time an Indian wicket fell © AFP
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And as batsmen have become more attacking, so fields have become more defensive. All this season bowlers, tired of being dispatched through point at least once every over, have posted a deep fielder there to Virender Sehwag from the very first ball. And in the series against Australia, it was not uncommon to see the Indian spinners bowling with four fielders on the boundary even when India were on top, attacking with close-in fielders and happy to concede singles.

What might fields of the future - say, 2020 - be like? Will infielders stand halfway back to the boundary because batsmen hit the ball so well, with bats even better than they are now? Will there be a breed of brilliant new fielders who can stand ten yards away from the batsman and still intercept full-blooded strokes? Will leg theory be applied again, as a result of some revision of the rule that says there cannot be more than two fielders behind square on the leg side? Will there emerge a spinner who breaks the ball so sharply that he needs no fielders on one side of the wicket? Will the fielder who now stands at short midwicket move imperceptibly over the years, till we find him at short mid-on, right beside the non-striker?

And will another writer then do a piece (perhaps sitting at the India-South Africa Kolkata Test of 2020) about how different fields were in the early years of the century?

Chandrahas Choudhury is staff writer of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.

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