'There are no easy catches in the slips'
Shortly before India left on their tour of South Africa, Rahul Dravid spoke to Nagraj Gollapudi on the art, and heart, of slip catching
How deeply were you interested in slip fielding to begin with?
I have never considered myself a natural slip fielder, but I worked hard on it, I practised it, and I have taken my fair share of them. Growing up, in my Under-15 days I used to be a wicketkeeper and that carried on till I was 17. Then I started focusing on my batting and moved on. I got into the Ranji team quite early, and generally, as a youngster the first place you are put in is at bat-pad and short leg, so you had to work on your close-in fielding straightaway. GR Viswanath was the chairman of selectors in Karnataka back then and we did a lot of slip catching early in the morning.
I started really enjoying slip catching because it was very competitive. We had these competitive games with each other as Vishy sent catches our way. With a lot of younger kids coming into the team, we would try to outdo each other.
Once I was in the Indian team I was at silly point and short leg for about four years in the beginning. I started enjoying it by working on the reflexes and catching. Once I became a bit senior - if I could call it that - I moved to the slips. It was a natural progression.
How did you figure out which was the best spot for you in the slip cordon?
When John Wright came in [as coach] he was very keen that we get specalist fielding positions and stick to one position. I identified first slip as a good one for myself.
Mark Waugh believed that slip catching comes naturally, that you can't be taught by coaches. What do you think are the essentials of a good slip fielder?
Firstly you should enjoy it. You should want it to be there. It is a position where you've got to concentrate the whole day, where you are always in the game.
Then you've got to take a lot of catches. There is no substitute to taking a lot of a catches as a youngster if you want to do slip catching - you've got to catch, catch, catch. And more than doing the normal stuff, you have to vary your catching - you've got to take some catches with the tennis ball, you got to take some closer, some further away.
One of the important things I have found with slip catching is, you need to have relaxed hands. When an edge is coming towards you, the last thing you want to do is tighten up or freeze or snatch at the ball.
What about the position - where and how you stand? Is there an ideal one?
Bobby Simpson spent some time with us [the former Australia captain was Indian team consultant during the 1999 World Cup]. He was coach of a team that had what I consider probably the best slip-fielding cordons ever. Mark Taylor and Mark Waugh were the best slippers I ever saw - they were incredible. He [Simpson] came in and altered the way I stood in the slips in terms of positioning. That made a big difference to me. He got me to take the weight on my instep, rather than standing flat-footed. What it does is, you can transfer weight and quickly move in any direction and make sure that you don't have your weight only on your heels.
Each one of us has a unique body position so you have to work out what is exactly comfortable for you. I know some who spread their feet a little more, some a little less, and they catch as well as anyone that I know. In the end, you've just got to catch.
What about hand position? Is it always better to have your preferred hand taking the ball, with the other one wrapped around as a support?
The fact that I never thought about it means I am not sure if I do all that. I just catch the ball. I do have big hands and that does help in slip catching. I don't think you have time to think which hand should come on top; it just comes naturally.
You mentioned practising in different fashions. Can you tell us a little more about that?
It gives your hand a different feeling, of a different object. Like, catching one day with tennis ball, then another day with a slightly hard plasticene ball, then another day with a softer ball - you can even catch with a golf ball. It just makes it more interesting. If you continue taking catches in the regular fashion, it could get boring and repetitive, but if you can just vary it with different balls, with different angles, it could be more fun. It is all about fun.
When you mentioned angles - is practising against left- and right-hand batsmen part of it?
We do that and try and vary it around. At the moment Gary [Kirsten] is the coach and we get a lot from the left-hander's angle. But we get Eric [Simons] to change the angle.
Do you watch the bat, the batsman or the bowler's hand?
I just focus on the ball. As soon as the bowler runs it and as soon as he hits the delivery stride, I switch on and start focusing on the ball in a relaxed fashion. As for reading the hand, if it is a spinner, like Anil [Kumble] or Harbhajan [Singh], you are reading their hands, you are watching their hands - what they are bowling.
How different a challenge is it, standing to a spinner compared to a fast bowler?
Not a massive difference. With the fast bowlers the ball comes at you a lot quicker, but you are further away. With the spinners you don't have that time to react because of the short distance. Then again, it doesn't come at the same pace.
How do you decide where to stand?
From a spinner's perspective, in India it was never easy for me to judge where to stand: how far forward, how far back. Because on Indian wickets the ball does not carry as much as abroad. That is true of slip fielding in general. I wouldn't say only for spinner even for a fast bowler that holds true. A lot of foreign players have pointed that out to me. In Australia and South Africa the bounce is quite consistent, quite even, and you can stand way back. But in India since there is not much carry, the edges do not travel to you straight, so you get sort of tempted and dragged forward all the time. And it is very difficult to know exactly how far forward you need to go. So it is a just a judgement thing, based on the wicket, the bounce, who is bowling, which spell they are bowling, the condition of the ball... So you've just got to keep varying. There is no perfect place to stand.
What sort of pressure are you under as a slip fielder?
As I said earlier, you must enjoy being a slip fielder. Everyone in the slips drops catches at times. You are putting yourself in a position where you are seen, but you must enjoy the fact that you want to be able to make a play. One of the great joys of being a slip fielder who takes a catch is you are able to contribute to the bowler's success. Yes, you are putting yourself in the firing line if you stuff it up, but you must want to be in that position to make a difference, and recognise sometimes that you might make mistakes. There are no easy catches in the slips. But as long as you have practised well and put in enough time, you are fine.
Concentration. At times you will get nothing the whole day, but suddenly in the 110th or 112th over of the match, a sharp chance comes along. You've got to be ready and alert to be able to react. So it is about the concentration, about doing it, day in, day out, over after over, ball after ball.
One thing that could help is having a set routine, a pattern where you know exactly what you are going to do each ball. That keeps you in that space to do that.
You spoke of switching on. What about switching off between deliveries?
It is very similar to batting. Slip catching does help your batting in terms of your routines. Between balls I talk to my co-slip fielders. You talk sometimes about the game situation, but lots of other times about various other topics, not cricket. That keep you focused, keeps you relaxed. Like me and [VVS] Laxman talk about kids, house construction, plumbers, electricians, running errands. You cannot keep talking cricket the whole day - you have to switch off. But as soon as the bowler starts running in, you switch back on.
Could you talk about your two best catches?
In the 2001 Test series against Australia I caught Mark Waugh down the leg side. It was not a slip catch strictly - it was at backward short leg off Harbhajan in Chennai. It was a critical time in the match, during the third innings. It went down the leg side, flew to my right and I reacted instinctively and grabbed at it. The ball bounced off initially but I was able to hold on to it. It had come very quickly. We had practised for such a catch because we had recognised Mark Waugh was someone who played Harbhajan really well off his legs. And on a wicket that bounced a bit we knew one or two edges might come and we should be in a position to catch them. The fact that it was a tight game, that Waugh was already 50-plus - in that context was a huge catch and one I really cherish. Australia collapsed after that, so it was a good catch.
The second one is once again against Australia, in Adelaide: Damien Martyn against Sachin [Tendulkar] in the 2004 series, again the third innings. Sachin was spinning the ball a long way and Martyn drove at one and I stuck my right hand out and caught it. It was a reflexive catch, more instinctive. With such catches, a lot of the time, if you are able to stick your hand out, you have done well. It happens so quickly - sometimes they stick, sometimes they don't. At times the ball just grazes your hand or pops out but you have to put your hand in a position where you at least try.
Against fast bowlers, the one that is memorable is catching Ricky Ponting off Ishant Sharma, at third slip in Perth. The ball was flying across me. There was a bit of extra bounce in the wicket and Ponting played at it, but I moved quickly to my right and reacted quickly to hold the catch.
That's what I was saying earlier - one of the advantages of standing in grounds like Perth is that you have distance, and because of the bounce you have a lot of time. I have always enjoyed standing in the slips in places like Australia and South Africa because the bounce is true. You know you can stand back. The ball carries. It comes quickly but at a nice height and at a comfortable pace.
Who are the best slip fielders you saw?
[Mohammad] Azharuddin and Laxman from India. Andrew Flintoff was superb for England. As for Australia, Taylor, Mark Waugh, Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting. Mahela Jayawardene has lovely hands and is good from Sri Lanka.
What happens when you drop a catch. Do you let it affect you?
At some level it does affect you. You are disappointed about letting the bowler down because he has been putting so much effort to create an opportunity after a lot of planning and thinking and you have not been able to grab on to the chance. But you've got to quickly move on because the worst thing you want to do is to be lingering on it and not be in the right state of mind to grab another opportunity that comes along. With experience you learn to move on, accept it and try and get the next one.
Do you remember all 200 catches?
I can't remember every one off hand, but if you show me the scorecard I will remember.