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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Aditya on June 12, 2009, 20:21 GMT

    Perhaps, Dravid had less opportunities than Mark Waugh, behind the wicket. Indian bowlers, I believe, give the fielders in the slips, comparatively few chances, when compared to their international counterparts. On Indian crumbling wickets, batsmen are very likely to be bowled, specially by Kumble and Harbhajan bowling. But strangely enough, at the Kotla ground in Delhi, when Kumble took his perfect ten, in the second innings, in the famous test match, most were caught, but I remember only the catches taken in front of the stumps, not in the slips. Perhaps, not many were taken in the slips, or I may be very mistaken. My all time favorite slip fielder is V V S Laxman. He hardly bats enough for India, leave alone field in the slips in a match, but he is the best slip fielder in terms of technique, that I have seen who has played for India. The one game where I remember slip catches being taken by India is the Adelaide test match, which India won in the 2004-05 tour of Australia.

  • joel on June 11, 2009, 21:39 GMT

    Talking about athletic fielding, what about Angelo Mathews' effort in the WI/SL match? Sure it was controversial, but no one told Angelo that!

  • Pradeep on June 11, 2009, 17:29 GMT

    interesting article, but comparing to baseball is not appropriate. the role of fielding "error" plays a big role. so statistically quantifying feilding performance is not not possible, except in keeping. plus fielding itself has changed. waht the best fielders did in the 90s ,( people like Ajey Jadeja, Roshan Mahanama, ben Hollioke) is commonplace today. Obviously Jonty is still unparalleled . athleticism in the 90s is nothing compared to today.

  • Adam on June 11, 2009, 15:09 GMT

    It would be extremely easy to implement a simple fielding analysis system in the manner of baseball, and would be a fascinating study to see how it would be adapted to cricket.

    Fielders could be assessed in terms of overall fielding percentage, the percentage of catches they hold, the percentage of times they hit the wickets in a potential runout situation, and the percentage of balls that they let passed that they should have stopped. The variations in difficulty of chances varies over time.

    Over a longer time period, their position-adjusted range factor could also be determined, which is an insightful metric is baseball fielding analysis.

    Another advantage of accurately measuring fielding errors would be that we would be able to adjust our understanding of the bowlers abilities in terms of which bowlers had runs unjustly given away and catches dropped by their fielders.

    I can't see how anyone wouldn't in favour of an increased depth of understanding of this great game.

  • Theena on June 11, 2009, 3:21 GMT

    I was just thinking: how do you capture statistically the fielders who convert those half chances into catches? The catch Collingwood took off Hayden at Backward Point back in 2005 prior to the Ashes, for instance. Remember that? Very few fielders in the past decade and a half could have done that - I can think of only six. If that had gone for Four as most of us, and Hayden, probably thought it would, no one would have begrudged Collingwood for it. As it is, he turned it into a dismissal. Whatever system comes up for measuring the effectiveness of fielders would need to ideally take such variables into account as well.

  • Deepak on June 11, 2009, 2:49 GMT

    I remember sometime during the 90s there was a concept of awarding/taking away points to fielders based on the runs saved/runs given away during misfields. That is one good way to start off and may be build on it by awarding points for catches taken categorizing them as easy, tough, sensational catches (1,2,3) and similarly taking away points for dropping catches. Run-outs could be awarded points similarly and we have some kind of rating in place. This could be fine-tuned.

  • Sriram on June 10, 2009, 22:43 GMT

    This kind of accounting will not only allow comparisons between good fielders but also quantify the shortcomings of poor fielders and enable teams to make better decisions. In the long run, it could even improve the quality of fielding by providing continuous feedback. In a T20 match, I am guessing that on 80% of occasions (96 balls), nothing spectacular happens (good or bad); so these occasions the fielders effectively get a zero for doing the expected. On the remaining balls (24) where something above or below par happens, award positive or negative points to the concerned fielders. These points could be on a scale, say from +3 to -3 (further refinement will be of limited utility) with the extremes being reserved for spectacular attempts (stops, throws, direct hits etc) that happen once or at most a few times in the typical international match.

  • Tony on June 10, 2009, 22:19 GMT

    The only way that you could actually keep an accurate statistic for fielding would be to use hawkeye and take into account how far the ball is away from the fielder, how fast it got to the fielder and how far away from the bat the fielder is and then using that information make some sort of crazy calculation (which has already got my head spinning) about how many runs should have been scored or if a catch or run out should have happened and then compare that against what actually happened. Then we could tell who is saving the most runs and who is leaking the most runs in the field. Hmmm... I wonder if Mr Duckworth & Mr Lewis have got some time up their sleeves to write up the calculation.

  • yashaswi on June 10, 2009, 21:24 GMT

    Cricket statistics need improvement. There is no mention of how many man-of-the-match/series awards have been won by a player.

    Another issue is the strike rate for batsmen, because it measures runs per 100 balls. 100 is not an intuitive number in this context. It should be how many runs per 6 balls, because that is what constitutes an over. In other words, strike rate should be abolished in favour of individual run rate, so that it can easily be compared against team run rate and required run rate.

  • Somnath on June 10, 2009, 21:19 GMT

    I beg to differ with the author. I do not believe reducing the fielding to statistics is doing any good. Anyway, the runs saved or catches missed will be subjective at best.

    There are no points for fluidity or grace when a batter is hitting a stroke or a bowler is bowling. Reducing what are essentially intangibles to hard metrics is not going to reduce the debate or discussion on who is the better fielder. There are some like Jonty who will stand apart from the crowd and there will be others who will be rated pretty good fielders. So let us enjoy the ambiguity that lack of statistics provide. Otherwise any discussion about the beauty of athletic fielding will be reduced to a mere exchange of numbers. I, for one, will not vote for that.

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