India lifted by quick feet and safe hands
"Three points if you put a dive in and break the stumps," Trevor Penney, India's fielding coach, said in an encouraging voice to the players. Penny's encouragement came during the final segment of an exhaustive fielding drill, during which the players had to charge in, swoop on the ball and throw underarm.
On cue, Ravindra Jadeja went sprawling into the stumps and yelled "three points, three points," making everyone laugh, including India's coach Duncan Fletcher, who was closely observing Penney's training methods.
In the morning, Penney had split the players into groups of seven, with two sets of stumps at a 20-yard distance from each other. He stood at one end, hitting balls with one hand and a mitt on his other. The two group were stationed opposite each other, forming a triangle with Penny. When a player broke the stumps at the unmanned end, a charging fielder would pick up the ball and throw it to Penny. The goal was for one group was to break the stumps while the other had to throw into the mitt, the main idea of this exercise being to create pressure on the batsman.
It was the first drill of the day, and Penney was unimpressed by the players' lack of intensity. He wanted them to create a buzz around the empty Sophia Gardens, to run in fast, get into the right position, pick up swift, and throw hard. The idea was to get every step right and make the process look smooth.
Penney, who played for Warwickshire and in Zimbabwe, turned 45 this month, but is as active and hardworking as he was as a player. His best asset was his instinct and he has been trying hard to help the Indians cultivate that. "That is a run-out chance. Don't dolly it to me. Hit into the mitt, boys. Don't run and throw at me," he shouted when he noticed the intensity dipping.
On another occasion, Penny dropped the bat and mitt to explain to one player that he was taking a couple of unnecessary steps before collecting, turning and getting into position to throw. "I know you want to be cautious, but do not take those two or three over steps. Don't over exaggerate. You have to save time," Penney said, stressing that being minimal was key to getting to the ball quickly and releasing it.
India have been one of the best fielding units in the Champions Trophy. They have effected the most run-outs - four - so far, revealing a significant development in this facet of their game, which has often been an Achilles heel. Several players, who were liabilities on the field, had been included because of their batting or bowling skills. Fletcher and Dhoni, however, have no desire for such men anymore. They want the selectors to scout for those with fielding skills; excellence in the field is no more a novelty, it is mandatory.
The upshot is that nimble players have replaced flat-footed ones who had to be hidden in the field. Proactive sentries patrol the inner circle now, leaping and charging at every opportunity. Diving, sliding, and breaking the stumps from awkward angles, once alien to Indian cricket, are abilities that come naturally now.
In Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli, Jadeja, Rohit Sharma and Dinesh Karthik, India have a group that is as good as the best in the world. They are natural athletes who have absorbed the knowledge imparted to them in the last few years by various overseas coaches, especially in the IPL.
Fielding has always been important but it has become more relevant now because of the restrictions imposed by the new ODI rules - a maximum of four players outside the circle in non-Powerplay overs. A lethal fielding unit creates doubts for the batsmen. Can he risk a cheeky single? Whose arm from the deep can he take a chance on?
"Fielding is very important, especially nowadays. If you can save close to 15-20 runs it can have a big impact on the game," Dhoni said. "This was one aspect missing in Indian cricket. For us it was more about the batting and bowling. We still had some good fielders but when you don't have too many good fielders you cannot use them at too many places and have to keep switching them always.
"When you have bunch of fielders who are very good, it helps you and then you do not need to bring a guy from deep point if you need a slip fielder. Now most guys can field at slips. So overall it helps, including maintaining a good over rate."
Teams like South Africa and West Indies have power fielders. India's men are not yet in that league but as this tournament has shown they can be a robust group. Good fielding breeds good spirit. Players feed off each other. It was evident during Penny's fielding drills and it played a large part in India making the semi-finals.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo