Eyes, hands, guts
Akash Chopra, who did a brilliant job at forward short leg in India's first Tests against New Zealand at Ahmedababd, must have read the article below when it first appeared in the May 2002 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket. Yajurvindra Singh, who played Tests for India in the 1970s, was considered one of the great close-in fielders of his times, and jointly holds the world record for the most catches in an innings (five) and in a Test (seven). He spoke to Amit Varma about what the job entails - a lot of skill, and a touch of madness.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with SS Das; he had been having a hard time fielding at forward short-leg, and I thought I should go and see if I could help. The first thing he said was that he hated standing so close to the bat. "They're always trying to hit me," he complained.
One more: Yajurvindra Singh, in his heyday, celebrates yet another catch
Indeed, fielding close to the bat has become a punishment posting in Test cricket today. Nobody likes to field close-in, and it often falls to the youngest member of the team to stand there. That's not a very happy state of affairs, especially for a team that relies on spin, like India.
In the one-day era, most people don't realise that a close-in fielder is a vital extension of the spin-bowling attack. India's spin-quartet of the `70s would not have been so potent without close-in fielders like Eknath Solkar, S Abid Ali, S Venkataraghavan himself and Ajit Wadekar at slip. Great spinners need good fielders around the bat. They may get batsmen bowled once in a while, but most of the magic comes from flighting the ball, befuddling the batsmen; and they need men who can catch the edges.
And those men have to love the job. I always relished the challenge of fielding in close-in positions. I've always thought of it as similar to sparring: it is a constant, unceasing combat where you're battling against circumstance; how fast the ball comes at you, at what angle it comes. Every delivery sees a fascinating duel.
What weapons do you need to win that duel? Well, the most basic requirement for the job is fearlessness. One of my early inspirations was England's close-in genius, Brian Close. He used to stand incredibly close to the batsman and always kept his eyes on the ball. You would never see him turn away or flinch. Once, he was struck on the head by a ball, but he kept watching it after it had rebounded off him and actually caught it. He had courage to the point of madness.
Fitness is key. Like a wicketkeeper, you have to concentrate hard every ball. Chances are, the very delivery you let your guard down, you'll have a flier coming past and you'll muff it up. A dropped chance can ruin the labour of an entire day. It's also what people will remember, not the hours of good work you may have put in. Fielding up-close is also very hard on the back and the neck; ideally, a good team should have at least a couple of specialists it can rotate in that position.
I am amazed at how many modern close-in fielders don't observe the most basic rules. The most important of these is: always keep your eyes on the ball; never, ever turn away. Having said that, you should make as small a target of yourself as possible whenever the batsman moves into position for an aggressive stroke. Crouch down with your palms in front of your face, fingers upwards, forearms erect, looking at the ball through the fingers. That way you have a very good chance of taking a rebound if it hits you. I've been hit on the forearms very often, and if the ball comes to hand, well, there's a good chance it'll stick.
Reflexes. You have to have them, and you have to trust them. We often tend to underestimate them; but when you're out in the middle, with the ball travelling from bat to body in something like 0.08 seconds, that's when you discover the inhuman in you. Reflexes are like dormant muscles; exercise them enough, and you'll soon be snapping up incredible catches off full-blooded sweeps and pulls. You'll be winning matches for your team. And there's no better feeling than that.