Pakistan's fumbling fielders let the side down again
Shoaib Malik was shaking his hands in pain having failed to take a difficult, though manageable, catch at point. Imran Farhat was trying to invent a new form of asana yoga by trying to get his head between his legs after he dropped a dolly from Jonathan Trott. Umar Gul, at mid off, was surprised by Kevin Pietersen's charge against Saeed Ajmal, and could only deflect the lofted drive he should have pouched. Debutant Zulqarnain Haider rightly followed Pietersen's inside edge and dived full-stretch to his left, but the ball hit his wrist. When Ajmal surprised Pietersen with a quicker ball, the intended cut flew past a clueless Umar Akmal, standing too wide at slip. Can't bat, can't field - Pakistan, just accept that verdict.
Let's stick to the fielding for now. A basic tenet to succeed at any job is to enjoy it. Look at the example of the two Mohammads - Asif and Amir. You can sense, feel and celebrate the joy with this pair of Pakistan quicks as they unravel the art of fast bowling in front of your eyes without the sleight of hand. When they smile, you understand exactly how they are working out the batsman.
Even in the nets the pair is rehearsing the murder of their opponent. Every ball has a meaning, a sweet-something tipped with poison, an improvement over the previous effort. And even if it always does not work out the way they intended, their minds are always busy scripting the obituary of the batsman. There is a genuine enthusiasm to excel.
If only the Pakistan players could adopt the duo's zeal and apply it to the fielding. At each and every training session whenever Waqar Younis, Pakistan's coach, has screamed "let's go fielding boys" the players have responded like a kid who has been ordered to do homework on a holiday. At times a peeved Waqar has had to force players to go for the fielding drills, usually imparted by his two deputies - Ijaz Ahmed and Aaqib Javed.
"Oye, Azhar, kya kal pahunche ga fielding karne (Azhar, will you reach tomorrow for the fielding practice!?)," Waqar shouted at Azhar Ali on Thursday afternoon when the player was busy doing nothing after his batting session. It is not to single out one player, but most of the Pakistanis have failed to show the same enthusiasm to fielding as they have shown lining up to bat or bowl.
Probably the mistake lies in the method of the coaches. If there is a method in the first place that is: just lining up players and hitting some hard catches as if you are on a conveyor belt cannot exactly be called the right way forward. It is an archaic method.
The best fielders have always maintained that fielding cannot be taught. It needs to come from within. Awareness, anticipation, agility are the three As missing form Pakistan's fielding cabinet. If you watch Ijaz hitting catches towards the close-in fielders - slips, gully and point - one thing that stands out is the discomfort a fielder has about where he is standing. Constantly the player is seen shuffling around, trying to measure the distance from his partner by stretching his arm and still he is never sure.
This weakness revealed itself recently at Trent Bridge last week when both Kamran Akmal, the wicketkeeper, and the slips were reluctant to stand up a few yards against the quick bowlers despite having grasped the nature of the pitch was slow and dry. Some catches were dropped, some were missed altogether. Bowlers were left furiously kicking dust.
It was an encore in Birmingham and Pakistan's comedy of errors will continue for the rest of the tour if they fail to act now. The visitors cannot keep ignoring the fielding issue with a shrug and say it has always existed. Thankfully Salman Butt, their captain was in no mood to find excuses. "It is something hard to contend with," he summed his fury in short.
On the day when Pakistan's fielders were biting lips, nails and sweaters as the cold Birmingham breeze persisted, England showed the anticipation and skills to turn the advantage in their favour. "The fielding has been sublime as well, which always helps," said Stuart Broad, who took four wickets. "We've got slip catchers who are practising no end to improve themselves, because they know how important it is,"
Broad, tellingly, had no sympathy for the opposition - not even his fellow fast bowler Asif, with whom he used to play at Leicester. Pakistan's problems, he said, had nothing to do with the side being down on its luck, and were instead due to a lack of willingness to put in the necessary hard work. "As an England player, I don't mind," he said. "As a bowler you are always going to have human error, with catches put down, but that's okay, as long as you know the boys are practising as hard as they possibly can.
"I think confidence is built from practice, to be honest," he added. "Our lads have been practising hard, getting in close, and we've got some world-class fielders in there - Colly, for instance, would get into any slip cordon in the world. It's really nice as a bowler knowing that your slippers are practising day in day out to take that one chance. You're not just practising for that day's play, you're practising for the final Ashes Test, to take that one-hander that wins you the game. It's all about those key moments in series and games that, with the more practice you put in, you can try and claim."
All summer Pakistan's fielders have been trying to hold on to their catches as kids try to hold on to snow flakes - in vain. It is time they grew up.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo