Too close for comfort
What does the close-in fielder focus on?
While standing at short leg or silly point, I focus on the body language of the batsman, his foot movements and his back-lift. These three aspects give away the length of the ball and the kind of shot the batsman is looking to play.
Most catches come when the batsman is playing a defensive shot, and the likelihood of those is a lot higher if he's on the front foot. The back-lift is a lot shorter if the batsman is playing a defensive shot, except when the batsman has a very high back-lift. Fielding to someone like Yuvraj Singh or Virender Sehwag is extremely difficult because the high back-lift doesn't give away anything: every time they lift the bat you think they're preparing for an aggressive shot, but it could just as well end up being a defensive prod.
Personally I don't like to look at the bowler to gauge the length of the ball because it involves moving my neck, which in turn means shifting focus to the batsman once the ball is released. It is not only taxing but could also hamper your concentration on the subject, the batsman.
The right posture
A lot of players go into a full squat while fielding at short leg, but I prefer a half squat. The disadvantage of going down fully is that the moment the batsman plays the shot, your first reaction is to get up. Your eye level changes the moment you get up, which makes you lose focus. But if you are in a half squat, there is no need to get up. Such a posture is slightly more crouched than the one used while standing in the slips.
The key is to stay low, with the hands close to the ground, which means that the back is perpetually bent. This is very taxing both on the lower back and thighs.
Not being too tall is also an advantage. It makes staying low easier, and the lower centre of gravity allows the shorter person to be more agile compared to taller men. No wonder most good close-in fielders weren't the tallest men around.
A key difference between fielding at short leg and silly point is the way the fielder protects himself when the ball is hit. At short leg you must go down as much as possible and become as small as you can: batsmen rarely try to keep the ball down while pulling or sweeping.
At silly point the fielder must jump to defend, because batsmen rarely try to hit the ball in the air on the off side. They aim to keep the ball along the ground, and hence you can avoid the line of the ball by jumping. While jumping you must remember not to turn your back towards the batsman because all your protective gear (shin-pads, abdominal guard and helmet) are worn on the front. Keeping an eye on the ball helps too!
Why is it only batsmen who are close-in fielders?
We see only pure batsmen taking up these positions. One of the reasons is the need batsmen feel to contribute in the team's success by fielding and cheering. Not that the bowlers are not required to field and cheer, but I personally think that it's the duty of batsmen to lead the pack in these aspects. A batsman's contribution is a bit of a gamble: even the best succeed only about six out of 10 times, and we lesser mortals even fewer. Practically, as a batsman you simply can't contribute in every game, and that's where fielding and cheering comes in.
The second reason is to with temperament. Standing close to the bat requires a certain amount of concentration, and it can also be quite demanding on the legs.
Yet another reason is that fielding in catching positions can hurt your fingers, and bowlers' fingers and hands are far more precious than those of batsmen.
Also, the bowlers need to conserve their brains and energy to plan their wickets, rather than waste them on the chatting that is part of the job when you field close to the bat: you need to constantly remind the batsman of your presence.
Why only young batsmen or newcomers?
Close-in fielding positions are considered dangerous and physically demanding, and that's why - though no one likes to admit it - the job falls to the juniors. It's a system I've been part of, and I don't have any complaints about it. I used to be a regular in these positions for a few years after my first-class debut. But when I graduated to senior level I started fielding in slips, which I was pretty good at right from the start but never got the opportunity at.
It's what happened with Rahul Dravid as well. He's one of the finest fielders at short leg, but when new guys like me came into the side, we took up the responsibility. I felt it my duty to give him a break.
The only problem I faced from time to time was that as an opener I got only 10 minutes between innings, and it takes much longer than that to get rid of the tiredness of fielding up close . I'd always try to talk someone else into fielding at short leg once the opposition had lost eight wickets, but unfortunately it didn't work every time.
At times batsmen take the chat from the close-in fielders personally. I remember once, Lou Vincent, fed up of my chirping, telling me to either shut up or face the consequences. I didn't stop, and the next ball, from Anil Kumble, was hit directly into my knees. It was a short-pitched delivery, and Lou was batting on 100, so instead of hitting it to the fence he chose to target me. It hit my knee, which had been operated on a while ago, and caused quite some pain, but I couldn't show it, and I didn't. It was a little mean of him to react that way, but that's how the game is played at the highest level. He got out to the next delivery and I celebrated as if it was my first Test wicket.
The importance of the bowler
Your confidence while fielding at short leg or silly point depends on the quality of the bowler, and the way a particular batsman plays. I'd feel extremely confident when Anil bowled, because he rarely bowled a short ball that could be pulled, and he's a tough bowler to sweep. But when a part-time bowler was on, I'd be praying incessantly.
I remember fielding at short leg for Ambati Rayudu on an A tour. He'd bowl a full-toss or a half-tracker between good-length deliveries. Abhijit Kale had already been hit on the head off Rayudu's bowling, and I was naturally wary. The moment he pitched short (and these were the only times I'd turn to watch his release), I'd lie flat, face down, on the ground. Everyone laughed, but the balls were so short that squatting there would have made me a sitting duck.
Is it scary?
The correct answer would be a firm "no", but the honest answer is "yes". I have been scared a few times. For example, while fielding at short leg when Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer were sweeping almost everything. The shots were so ferocious that the fielders at long leg - and this was at huge grounds like the MCG and SCG - were ducking for cover. A few yards left or right of them meant a boundary.
I got a real fright once when the ball hit my helmet on its way to crashing into the fence, bouncing only once in between.
I truly enjoyed my stint at short leg, but it would be inhuman to not be scared - and that has nothing to do with being cowardly. Besides, I did not fear the pain a blow might inflict; I feared something scarier: getting hit on the arm or fingers, which might jeopardise my batting in the next innings, next Test, or perhaps the rest of my career.
I've been hit many times and don't fear the pain. I've dropped my wrists plenty of times on purpose and allowed the ball to hit me in the chest or on the shoulder. I have also made the odd error of judgment by ducking when the ball wasn't all that short or didn't bounce as expected, and hence have had the ball smash into my body.
I recognise the pain a cricket ball can cause, and trust me, it isn't threatening. The key is knowing where the ball is going to hit you and at what speed. The moment I decide to allow the ball to hit me, the brain processes that information and prepares the body. It might sound weird, but once you know it's going to hit you, it doesn't hurt all that much.
Expecting the ball
What has always worked for me is that, regardless of where I'm fielding, I expect the ball to come to me. While standing at short leg or silly point, I would try to put my hand to every ball that went past me, barring the full-fledged pull, sweep or cover-drive. Whether I managed to get a touch on it, managed to field, catch or miss it was inconsequential. Perhaps that's why I managed to hold on to a few good catches.
Also, you need to sharpen your reflexes because they are your only allies when it comes to taking a catch or defending yourself.
The angle at which you field is based on the way a particular batsman bats and how much the ball is turning off the surface. Even the distance from the bat is dictated by the speed of the ball, bounce in the pitch, the kind of shots a batsman plays, and nowadays the quality of the pads.
The fielder needs to be a lot closer to the bat for people like Dravid, who offer a dead bat, compared to those who jab at the ball, like Marcus North did in the second Ashes Test at Lord's. Fielders need to be further away from the bat if the batsman is using leg-guards with more give, like Sachin Tendulkar and some New Zealand batsmen do. You also stand a bit further away when a quick bowler is bowling.
I can't dream of going close to the bat without protection, so it's tough to even imagine how the late Eknath Solkar did it, and with distinction at that. Life has become a lot better with helmets, shin-pads and other protective gear. It helps to know that you won't die if the ball hits you on the head - though not enough to make you completely carefree.
While one can wear chest-pads, shin-pads, helmet and so on, there are still enough areas left exposed where a strike could prove fatal. I can never forget the untimely demise of Raman Lamba, who was my senior and a mentor of sorts to me. Of course, he wasn't wearing even a helmet, but we've all stood many a time for a ball or two without wearing any protection.
I remember borrowing a chest-guard from Dravid and using it to protect my ribs in Sydney. After a few sweep shots missed me by a whisker, Sachin asked me which side I was wearing the chest pad on. I wore it on the right, but without realising it, I kept moving towards my right, thereby exposing my unprotected left side. Sachin pointed this out and I corrected it immediately.
Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here