September 17, 2010

Why are India a poor fielding side?

Fielding is more important in cricket than ever, as the game gets shorter, but India lag behind as they always have done

India's cricketers have always looked at fielding the way a chef might at a chutney in a thali; it's there to complete the offering, occasionally add some zing to the meal, but you wouldn't practise making it the way you would a main course. Cricket was always about batting and bowling - mainly batting - and fielding was what you did to warm up, or something you had to do at the end of training, just before the shower. It wasn't something that defined you, and so good fielders have always been talked about like the distant aunt remembered only for her pickle.

But as the game becomes shorter, as the menu shrinks and every bite becomes important, fielding, the country cousin, is demanding to be heard. When you have just a hot dog the mustard becomes important, or since I'm vegetarian, when you only eat a dosa the chutney is critical. And so India's cricketers, brought up on batting and bowling, are looking out of place, like they don't belong. Singles hit to them become twos, catches fall short and direct hits are infrequent. With only 120 balls to play, the one percenters are getting more and more important, but young India is looking the other way.

You saw that when the Mumbai Indians played with Teflon hands against the Highveld Lions and the Southern Redbacks. And you saw the importance of it when Davey Jacobs and the Warriors from Port Elizabeth fielded like every ball was their last in the game against Victoria. Jacobs himself created two wickets with his fielding and those really turned the game their way. In the 20-overs game, fielding is nudging its way up the value chain; a fielder who saves 15 and scores 20 is better than a batsman who scores 40 and lets go 10.

In Durban you saw the difference in athleticism between the Mumbai Indians and the Southern Redbacks. Daniel Harris created a catch when Ambati Rayudu was well set and saw two go down when he batted.

So what is it about India? Why is it that we rarely produce athletes? At different times in history India have been a very good catching side but rarely an athletic one, and that is increasingly what Twenty20 demands. Is it a gene? Is it the hard outfields that make diving a hazard? I'm not convinced of either answer.

The importance of diving is grossly over-emphasised. The best fielders don't always need to dive, since they get to the ball quicker. And that means the time they need to accelerate is small. It can only come with practice, but while a coach can teach that, a player must feel it from within. It is the same as studying mathematics, preparing for the ballet or cooking a fine dish. If you feel the need to, you will do what it takes. And it worries me that not enough Indian players want to be athletes, even though it gives them a better chance of being selected - as with Sathish of Tamil Nadu and the Mumbai Indians, who, I suspect, shines brighter because of the lethargy that defines his surroundings.

So too with the throwing arm. Five throws rifled in from the deep can save five runs, and once you build a reputation for a great throwing arm, you save even more. Increasingly, too, as the boundaries come in, you no longer need to throw 70 yards, but even over 60 a fielder must feel the need to practise, to save his side that extra run, and in doing so to add one to his contribution to the side.

India's ambition to remain a world power on the cricket field, as opposed to off it, will depend on how quickly the new generation adapts to the requirements of the shortest form and on whether they have the rigour to sustain their game in Test cricket. The requirements are vastly different and the shortcomings are standing out increasingly. India is still the top Test side, a legacy of the cricket a departing generation played, but they are struggling in Twenty20 cricket, the trademark of the new kids on the block. Maybe there is a story there.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here