India find ways to fine-tune sloppiness
Being good at something can be boring. You have to keep finding new ways of being good at it. It is no news that India are one of the best when it comes to the art of waiting for a declaration, but on Thursday they provided finer touches to it, like any self-respecting perfectionist would.
First they tried a new slip fielder, Cheteshwar Pujara, with shin pads and chest guard on, thus limiting his quick movement, and he succeeded in dropping one of the greediest batsmen going around, who still possibly gets nightmares about missing a triple-century by six runs when this attack last put it on a platter. In single-saving positions, India fielded some of their slowest men, thus, deceitfully, making sure that they didn't in fact save those singles.
At the end of the day, no one in the team fancied explaining to the fans why Virender Sehwag fields at slip only for spinners and not fast bowlers, why some of the bowlers don't improve their fielding, why the slower men were in single-saving positions, why two fielders didn't chase after a ball like England did when running Sehwag out, and why the oldest man on the field was still in running for being the best fielder in the side.
To do the dirty job, to defend the indefensibles, the management sent out the fielding coach, Trevor Penney, for the press conference.
Why was Sehwag not fielding at slip when the catch was dropped? "We have got a lot of different slip fielders. He has been fielding there. Pujara has been practising a lot there too."
It's not about Pujara's drop, or how many runs the reprieved batsman went on to score. Even the best slip fielders drop catches, and much simpler ones that that. It was the attention to detail that was missing. The man wore all the protective equipment of a short leg. India have lost two good slip catchers recently, and it is not an area to be taken for granted. "He got both hands to it. He just dropped the catch," was Penney's only response.
In the next over, when Pujara went back to short leg for Ishant Sharma, India pulled off another surprise by pushing R Ashwin into the slip cordon. Penney's response to that was confused too. "Ashwin doesn't normally go in," he said. "Can't comment on that. As I said, Pujara and Viru practise a lot in the slips, and Virat as well. We try and practise with everybody." A moment later he corrected himself: "Not everybody but quite a few people."
Asked about the easy singles generously conceded by mid-off and mid-on, Penney suggested the right men were not placed there. "Some of the guys, maybe we didn't get our best fielders in those positions," he said. "It is quite crucial. [Off the] spinners, hitting and running, it is quite hard to stop. Fielding in general is quite difficult on that outfield. It is very very fast. Sometimes a bit wobbly. You have to take your chances, we didn't take ours."
So being the fielding coach, and given all the limitations of looking after arguably the worst fielding side in Test cricket, did Penney try to tell Dhoni to get the placements right? Penney's response stopped short of stating helplessness. "It's difficult sometimes with bowlers," he said. "Some of our fielders can't field everywhere. So they have got to go into positions like that. It's a pretty difficult situation sometimes…
"Sometimes in Test cricket you get to a position where people you'd rather have at, say, point but you have them catching because some of the bowlers might be tiring."
When Penney began to speak of tiring bowlers, questions naturally veered towards Zaheer Khan, whose fielding - as with the immense value of his bowling over four years preceding the great slide that began in 2011 - needs no introduction. A particular instance when he made no attempt to back a throw up, conceding an overthrow, was brought up.
"He is still fielding really well," said Penney. "He is bowling and he is back to his best. He is at full fitness. Some bowlers are not as good as a general fielder, say Virat." But fitness doesn't have much to do with wanting to back a throw up pretty early in the piece. To which Penney said, "In that particular instance, maybe he did that," Penney said. "In general he doesn't do that. Guys are practising well, and…"
And once again Penney couldn't complete his thought. Questioning then moved on from the specific instance to Zaheer's failure to take starts - walking in with the bowler - on 90% of the times. "He has got his own methods," Penney said, which drew uproarious laughter. "He is bowling a lot, and he has played a lot of cricket."
Penney then grew serious in defence of the strike bowler. "He is doing well," he said. "I don't want to comment on what he is doing. He bowls a lot. He is a super hero for Indian cricket. I don't want to start picking on his fielding. He does a good job in general."
The fact remains that since Kapil Dev's retirement, India have had only one outstanding fast-bowler-outfielder, Ajit Agarkar. And it was sensible to choose Zaheer's wizardry over some fast bowler who was merely a good fielder. The super hero, though, has misplaced his cape, and is keeping his underwear firmly inside his pants. He has taken 14 wickets in 12 innings this year, striking every 99 balls for 49.50 runs. Last year he played only three Tests because of fitness issues. And he won't even quit one format of the game so he can be fresh and ready for the other. And still, in Umesh Yadav's absence, Zaheer remains India's best chance of getting a wicket.
You can't blame Penney, though. He can't come out and blame the players. Nor can he turn poor fielders into world-class ones. Nor can he undo the whole situation of players not fielding in places they are best suited to - for whatever reasons. The best he can do is to get the BCCI to release all the reserves for Ranji games so that he can himself come on the field as a substitute, reprising one of Duncan Fletcher's best moves as an international coach. Just ask Ricky Ponting, it can be mighty effective.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo