India's slipshod slips
It is early in the morning, the pitch is fresh, the ball is seaming around a little, Alastair Cook is uncertain, he pushes at a wide delivery from debutant Pankaj Singh, and the edge is taken. Yet another failure for Cook, yet another early entry for No. 3 Gary Ballance, yet another early breakthrough for India.
Hold on, though. The ball has gone knee high, to Ravindra Jadeja's left at third slip, and has spilled out of his hands. Cook, who was only 15, goes on to score 95, India take only two wickets in the day, and you are left to wonder how the day would have panned out had India taken that catch.
This is not the first time a catch has been dropped in the slips, nor is this the first time the reprieved batsman has made a team pay, but India have now dropped eight in the slip in their last seven matches. And that's only off the fast bowlers. Spinners have suffered too. Losing four big batsmen around two years ago, almost all in one go, was a big challenge for India. This new breed of batsmen has been impressive with the bat, but that slip cordon still looks bare.
It has been 19 Tests since Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman retired. India have tried five different first slips over that period, which means the cordon has been rejigged at least five times in 19 Tests. Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, R Ashwin, M Vijay and now Shikhar Dhawan have spent time at first slip. That they are being changed so often is clear indication there is something wrong.
It will obviously take some time for those who are not natural slip catchers to get used to fielding there, but there haven't been clear signs of improvement. There have been some really good catches taken: Ashwin almost turned 90 degrees to adjust to a late swerving catch at the Wanderers, Dhawan dived to his right to send back James Anderson in Nottingham, but there have been some glaring errors.
Kohli failed to stay down for long enough when at leg slip to spin at Trent Bridge. When MS Dhoni chose to not go for one between him and first slip at Lord's, Dhawan made no effort either. It was the keeper's catch all right, but good slip fielders are always diving behind the keeper on these occasions to be there, just in case. Pujara once stood there with shin pads on, and couldn't get to a low offering from Cook in Kolkata. Cook then scored 190. Jadeja, who got up too early today, will be thankful he got Cook out for half that score.
There is no fixed right way to go about slip catching, it is mostly about what you are comfortable with, but there are wrong ways. One of the wrong ways is to have legs too far apart in your stance. Mark Taylor says shoulders' width is ideal with the knees pointing in, almost like a skier. Jadeja's stance is at least twice as wide, which makes moving difficult. Another wrong way is to get your hands too far between your legs because than they can get stuck in your knees when you are going for a catch to your side. Jadeja does that. And, obviously, the India slip fielders are getting up too early.
India's slip cordon are mostly excellent athletes and thus very good outfielders. Slip catching, though, is completely different, and much more crucial. You want your bowler to feel confident when running in that all he has to do is just produce the edge. Right now the India quicks can't be confident of that.
The challenge for Trevor Penney, the fielding coach, is huge. The Dhoni-Dhawan no-go is a clear sign of a raw cordon, which is still feeling its way in. They practise really hard during training sessions and take a lot of catches almost every day. They take some sensational catches too. However, it is different when someone is throwing full tosses at Duncan Fletcher from 10 yards and he is opening the face towards the fielders.
We don't know whether India have locked in on a combination now or if there will be a change soon. We don't know if India think they are headed the right way. We don't know if the fielding coach is happy with the cordon's technique and their positioning vis-à-vis each other or if he is struggling to get it right. India don't like to, or are not allowed to, discuss these things. Bullishly Joe Dawes, the bowling coach, said he is happy with the progress, and that Taylor and Mark Waugh used to drop catches occasionally.
What India wouldn't give for a couple of slips men who are half as good as Taylor and Waugh, even at their current age.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo