June 10, 2009

Who rates the fielders?

Is Dravid as good a catcher as Mark Waugh was? There's no objective way to tell. Surprisingly for a game that can boil most achievements down to cold stats, fielding is mostly overlooked

Never mind the grouchy weather. Never mind those national anthems (could you ask for a tackier or more transparent attempt to reassert the primacy of the international game?). Never mind Ricky Ponting's permanent pout, Brett Lee's rusting mojo, or Jamie Siddons' fury at his Bangladeshi lemmings. Let's hoist our glasses and toast the celebration of underdoggedness that is the World Twenty20. Here's to Dutch courage, to Irish luck, and to the game's most neglected jewels - the fielders.

Monday's Sri Lanka-Australia encounter brought two glittering examples of comparatively unsung artistry from opposite ends of the physical spectrum: chunky David Warner's two-handed overhead pluck to foil Sanath Jayasuriya's terrace-bound heave, and pin-thin Isuru Udana's one-pawed return catch to gobsmack Michael Clarke. The previous day, nonetheless, both were comfortably outdone for athletic endeavour and aesthetic impression by Kyle Coetzer. He may sound more like a Port Elizabethan than an Aberdonian but that back-arching, gravity-dissing, logic-mocking effort to confound Mark Boucher on the boundary edge did not so much take the breath away as jump down your throat and make off with both lungs.

Statistics may fib with inordinate frequency, but nobody would deny that they also tell us something truthful and instructive about batsmen and bowlers - how consistent they are, how destructive, how fast, how turgid, how expensive, how expansive, how inefficient, even how entertaining. Unlike baseball, however, the game has yet to come up with even a partly satisfactory method for assessing the quality - or otherwise - of fielders, even though their contributions are every bit as crucial to the outcome of a match.

Which leaves us - inevitably, regrettably - with judgments based on nothing more tangible or verifiable than pure, unadulterated subjectivity. If I could nominate a wicketkeeper and slip cordon to do duty for Earth against Mars' finest, one that would turn every quarter-chance into a wicket, I'd plump for Alan Knott, Bobby Simpson, Mark Waugh, Garry Sobers, Roger Harper and Gordon Greenidge, but how on earth would I justify it? I couldn't.

Aye, and there's the rub. It's my word, and my standards, against yours. Or, rather, my eyes against yours. For a game that sets so much store by numerical proof, this is scarcely ideal, not least since the one thing everyone is agreed upon, that fielding standards have never been higher, is utterly unproveable.

Sure, we have those mosts to comfort us - most catches, most stumpings, most dismissals - but these are two-dimensional at best, eschewing any trustworthy measure of efficiency, much less brilliance. Catches per match - even hauls as laudable as those of Simpson (110 in 62 Tests, at a rate of 0.94 per innings) or Eknath Solkar (53 in 27, 1.96 per game) - only tell us so much. And not all that much at that. Only in recent times, furthermore, have run-outs been formally credited to those who pull them off, and even then only erratically.

Adam Gilchrist, to take the most obvious example, averaged 2.178 dismissals per innings in his 96 Tests, the most productive output achieved by any keeper appearing in more than 20 five-dayers, but that tells us more about the quality of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne - and the nature of the chances they created - than that of the persevering chap behind the sticks. Similarly, among those who have won more than one cap, the most prolific Test stumper to date has been Chandrakant Pandit, who averaged 2.6 dismissals per innings for India in the 1980s and early 1990s, yet he tended the timbers in just three games, strictly as deputy for Kiran More, whose mean was a seemingly puny 1.44.

Astonishingly, moreover, I have never seen any official records for byes per match, even though that is one statistic that would surely tell us something - albeit, again, not terribly much - about a keeper's efficiency. That no attempt is made to classify gloved and ungloved fielders alike in terms of catches, stumpings or run-outs completed as a percentage of chances offered is less objectionable, but we'll come to that anon.

This highly unsatisfactory state of affairs has seldom been better exemplified than when Rahul Dravid recently overtook Mark Waugh's record of Test catches by an outfielder, a feat that rightly drew plaudits aplenty in India and beyond. But what, beyond durability and longevity, did it signify? That Dravid - who took six more games to reach 182 than Waugh required to pouch his 181 - is the more capable or reliable? Hardly. That Dravid has achieved higher standards of excellence? No chance. For all his unflappability, for all that enviable ability to remain still, to anticipate, to coordinate hands and eyes with uncanny consistency, nobody who has seen both strut their considerable stuff would put him in the same ballpark as Waugh for jaw-dropping athleticism.

It gets worse when one considers history's backward-points and cover prowlers, the Paul Collingwoods, Ricky Pontings and Tillekeratne Dilshans, the Colin Blands, Jonty Rhodeses and Clive Lloyds, the Learie Constantines, Derek Randalls and Neil Harveys, much less those, such as Andrew Symonds, who reign supreme in the deep. Trading less in hitting stumps than stopping runs, as often by presence and reputation as by agility, alacrity and accuracy, their accomplishments are appreciated by cameras, crowds and colleagues, yet go scandalously unrecognised by the scorebook.

Fortunately, there is a remedy at hand. Baseball utilises scorers, often journalists, to adjudge whether centerfielders have dropped a catchable chance or committed a throwing error. Granted, the miscreants not only man unvarying positions but also have the decided advantage of wearing a mitt the size of a wok, making it easier to attribute blame, yet the diamond has encouraged such subjectivity for decades, using it as a basis for annual, much sought-after and widely applauded awards. Why shouldn't flannelled fielders receive their due?

With its relentless scoring-rates, and those fingernail margins separating success from failure, Twenty20 would be a perfect vehicle for such an innovation. There would be room for compassion as well as criticism - one man's drop, after all, is another man's brave try - but the time has come, surely, for a grotesque wrong to be righted. If we can disempower umpires in the interests of justice, it wouldn't be that great a leap, would it?

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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