The intricacies of setting a field
The ball is turning square on a dry and crumbling Galle pitch. Muttiah Muralitharan licks his fingers, for he has already spun a web around the batsman. The batsman's legs are like lead, his mind frozen like ice. There's a slip, a short leg and a backward short leg to cash in on any mistakes. But why isn't there a silly point? A tentative prod off the front foot might just land straight into his lap.
There are many such field placements that make you wonder if something is amiss. Only later do you realise that the positions are all part of a bigger plan.
Here the close-in fielder on the off side is missing because Murali wants the batsman to go right across and play a defensive shot on the off side. This is to entice him and give him the confidence that he can use the bat and not get out. Little does the batsman realise that trying to play the viciously turning ball against the spin is to flirt with danger, and it's just a matter of time before the inside edge flies towards close-in fielders on the leg side. Also, by not having a close-in fielder on the off, the bowler might encourage him to flirt with the doosra.
So it's not only the fielders that matter, but also the spaces left vacant on purpose. It explains the fielding side's mindset and separates an ordinary captain from a brilliant one. Let's look over the play for field positions that almost always have a sub-text and hence make the game even more interesting.
For fast bowlersOn the first day of the Test match, on a track with some juice in it, you would ideally start with a few slips and a gully. The distance from the bat and in between the slips fielders is decided by the bounce in the track. The lower the bounce, the closer the fielders to the bat and to each other. For instance, we stood almost 25-30 yards from the bat in Australia and at not more than 15 at the Karnail Singh Stadium in Delhi to the same bowler - Ashish Nehra.
The pace also dictates whether or not to leave the first slip vacant. On slow surfaces in the subcontinent, you could do without one, but on tracks like Perth you definitely need the area manned.
On seaming conditions a short leg comes into the picture straight away. His presence is not only to remind the batsman about the upcoming bouncer, but also to make him tentative while coming forward, for there's always a chance of an inside edge when the ball moves sideways upon pitching.
For an outswing bowler like Ben Hilfenhaus, the mid-off region is left vacant to entice a straight drive. Since the lines are always going to be slightly outside off stump - to bring the slip cordon into play and get the maximum movement - the batsman will have to play against the away swing to drag it down the ground; unless of course it's an over-pitched delivery within the stumps, which should be a rarity.
For an inswing bowler, the covers are mostly left unoccupied for a similar effect, to make the batsman play against the swing. The mid-on fielder would be a lot straighter for an outswinger and a little wider for the inswing. The idea is to force a shot against the swing.
Similarly on tracks with bounce and pace, like in Perth, the point fielder will be a lot finer. His role is not only to protect the area where more balls are likely to be hit, but also to reduce the amount of time the batsman has to react if he wants to score off that region. In effect, to score, the batsman will need to hit a lot squarer and hit slightly early.
On slow tracks, the fielders at point and square leg are a lot straighter. Since there isn't much pace to work with, it's quite a task to play finer.
The dynamics change if the pitch is flat and lifeless. Mid-on, mid-off along with extra cover and midwicket stand straighter to cut off the deliveries played with a straight bat. Since the bowler is trying to pitch the ball within the stumps, one of the slips makes way for added protection in the front. The square, though, is left vacant to lure the batsman into playing across the line.
Then there are people like Matthew Hayden who rarely play the square-cut. I have seen teams leave that position empty as bait. Similarly for people who prefer to drive straight down the ground or fetch the ball from outside the off stump, like VVS Laxman does, we have often seen fielders placed almost next to the non-striker.
We may not have seen batsmen getting out solely because of these innovative field positions, but men in these positions have caused many dismissals when batsmen try to do something off the cuff or take on the challenge to get past these fielders.
A silly mid-off fielder is also an important position for a quick quick bowler to play mind games, on tracks where he would want to push the batsman on the back foot. It is unsettling for a batsman to have a fielder like that in his eye line.
For spinnersField placements for spinners make for an exciting study and spectacle because spinners need to plan more elaborately since a majority of their dismissals are through catches. Turning tracks bring about a lot of attacking field positions, while a flat track will have a mix of both attacking and defensive options. An offspinner would happily leave the covers empty even when bowling outside the off stump. His idea is to entice the batsman to drive or cut against the spin, and back himself to not bowl a half-volley or a half-tracker. But you'll rarely see him remove the slip even if he doesn't bowl a doosra. He'll retain it to keep the batsman guessing, and to discourage him from playing too late.
Obviously the line of attack changes with the strategy in an ODI, where the priority is to save runs. The bowler pitches more towards middle and leg, so his field placements also change. A big turner like Murali would keep a short fine leg, a square leg, and a mid-on in the circle, unlike someone like Suraj Randiv who doesn't turn it much and hence prefers the long-on. All leg-side shots to Murali will go a lot squarer than intended so the region between deep midwicket and long-on needs to be manned. Unless you reach the pitch of the ball, all lofted shots will swirl towards that region. Also, in limited-overs, the field is mostly set with four on the off and five on the on-side.
A legspinner or a left-arm spinner will choose his close-in fielders depending on the amount of turn he is extracting off the surface. The silly point is placed a lot straighter if there isn't much turn and is moved closer to the popping crease if the ball is spinning. A gully may also come into play if there's turn and some bounce. While a legspinner will prefer a short leg if he bowls googlies, the left-arm spinner will usually ask for the position only if there isn't much turn. And both will leave midwicket vacant if there's vicious turn.
When these bowlers go round the wicket and bowl in the rough, the field positions change dramatically. In setting the off-side field, they will play around the batsman's strengths. If the batsman likes to reverse-sweep, they will have a point fielder, and if he prefers to step down the track to play inside-out shots, they'll have the covers manned.
In Tests, the men who take the ball away from the batsman prefer a six-three off-side field. Surprisingly the same bowlers choose a four-five field in shorter formats because they are required to bowl within the stumps. Daniel Vettori will have a typical offspinner's field while bowling to a right-hand batsman.
Setting in-and-out fields with close-in fielders in catching positions and others in the deep is another tried and tested strategy. The decision to keep the mid-on or mid-off fielder inside the circle will depend on which way the ball is spinning. The basic idea is to make the batsman go against the spin.
The play of fielders around the park is an intrinsic part of the act of setting up a dismissal. A batsman could use it as a clue to decipher the bigger plan, but he must tread with caution, for firstly it could be a trap to make him try different things and secondly if he gets too absorbed in the setting of the field, chances are, he'll play into their hands.