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How come Australians prefer to catch the ball with their hands reverse-cupped? Steve Rixon and Ian Chappell weigh in
March 5, 2012
For much of the 1990s, cricket in India was infatuated with Australia. The team was on its way to becoming the best in the world, and games played there provided the best television product in India - the quality of pictures, the commentary. Kids in playgrounds - I was one - would run in a few extra feet when taking outfield catches, so that they could take them with fingers pointing up. During international matches in India, when a fielder caught the ball that way, the Indian commentator would say: "That is the Australian way of catching."
Like other kids back then, I dropped a few. I got hit in the face once because I covered my eyes with the "reverse cup", losing sight of the ball. Then I stopped, going back to what came naturally to me, believing the Australian way of catching was some sort of idiosyncrasy that belonged to them alone. Like the inverted scores. Like their own cricket dictionary. Like the eight-ball over. When I finally got to Australia, though, I just had to try to trace the history and the logic behind the practice.
I ask Ian Chappell, a brilliant slip fielder and someone who has watched most top-level cricket in Australia from the '70s onwards, about the "Australian way of catching" with the fingers pointing up.
"That's not my way of catching, I can tell you that much," he says, to my shock. He turns to Mark Taylor and asks, "Ever heard any Australian player call this the Australian way of catching?" Taylor says no, but adds, "I liked to catch that way, but not everyone does."
"I think the other nations might talk about it," Chappell says. "I have never heard one Australian player say that."
Why do the Aussies catch that way, though? How did it start? I ask a few players from older eras, but they can't pinpoint how the reverse cup became the preferred way. A possible explanation could be the influence of baseball, which is quite popular in Australia, but Chappell quashes that notion too.
"I can remember the first time I ever caught in baseball. I was about 11 years old," he says. "And first time it popped up, and I went like that [gestures with fingers pointing up], and I dropped it. I was walking up to pick the ball up and throw it back to the pitcher. I looked at my glove and said, 'Ian you are an idiot. Have a look at the shape of your glove. It's much better [fingers] down.' I don't remember my father telling me [either way]. He probably did, but I don't remember it."
It was not all uniform in the Chappell family. Ian and Greg preferred the traditional method; Trevor caught with fingers pointing up.
Taylor offers a plausible explanation. "I think it comes from the fact that some of the Australian players have also played Australian Rules football in the past," he says. Fingers pointing up is how you catch in footy. "Typically the Western Australian blokes. Graeme Wood used to catch it that way," Taylor says. At which point Chappell chips in and says, "[Simon] Katich is terrible. Ricky Ponting too."
Steve Rixon, Australia's current fielding coach, is not entirely convinced footy is the key influence, but can see the logic. "I wouldn't have thought that is the reason they catch it that way, but that's not a bad summation," he says. "I reckon there is merit in that."
Rixon, a wicketkeeper himself, preferred catching the ball with fingers up. The idea for him, and for Michael Hussey, another Western Australian, is to get the eyes in line with the ball, bend the knees and use that foundation to absorb the catch.
"Either side of the body there is [a risk of losing] the ability to watch the ball closely," Rixon says. "When the ball is round about eye level, all the way into your hands, people find it much easier. I haven't seen Mike Hussey drop ever with fingers up. I have occasionally seen him drop some when the fingers are down."
There is merit to catching with fingers up but only if you do it as well as Hussey does, where you don't risk losing the ball in the background: you are just waiting for it to come at you.
This technique also obviously helps when you are at the edge of the boundary and can't push further back. We watch Peter Forrest take one such during a game against India, and Taylor immediately brings up his background. "He is a rugby league player. New South Wales. His dad was a first-grade rugby league player."
I ask Rixon, how the average Aussie father teaches his kid to catch the ball. "Try both," Rixon says. "With the understanding that if the ball is at chest level, [you] bend your knees, bring your eyes to the level of the ball, and just see how it feels. If it feels extremely uncomfortable that way, try the other way.
|Chappell liked to move to the side and take chest-high catches in a normal cup. Bob Simpson would let the ball hit him full force and then take the rebound. Most modern Australian fielders get down low to make sure they catch with fingers pointing up|
"What he will then find, like a lot of people, who play differently with a bat in their hands, a lot of people do things differently with a ball in their hand - ot is no different to a fieldsman, when it comes to the specifics of catching.
"The safe way of catching the ball is to obviously cup your hand, but a lot of people find it easier to catch it the other way, and my advice to young cricketers is, try both, find out for yourself which feels comfortable, find out which feels safer. I know if I ask Mike Hussey right now right here, he would say he feels safer with his fingers pointing up."
A source of ire to Chappell and concern to Rixon is the chest-high catch taken in close-in positions. The overhead ones you can take with fingers pointing up, and the low ones you can cup your hands under, but what about the in-between height? Chappell liked to move to the side and take them in a normal cup. Bob Simpson would let the ball hit his chest full force and then take the rebound. Taylor used to get his hands together, with palms facing the chest, as if hugging the ball. Most modern Australian fielders get down low to make sure they catch with fingers pointing up.
"I mean, it's abysmal the way Ricky does it down here," Chappell says. "For the obvious reason - lots of catches in the slips, the ball is looping down."
"Makes me a little nervous, yes, but he has got beautiful hands," Rixon says.
The chat with Chappell and Taylor also busts the myth that the Australians prefer catching with fingers up because it lets them have a second grab. "The whole basis isn't about if you drop, you get a second chance," Rixon says. "That's just an outcome of bad execution of the catch. The reason is, you are bringing your eyes to the same level of the ball coming to you."
Catching the ball with fingers pointing up has become more and more popular in Australia with time. Rixon sees a lot more players employ the method than did in his own playing days.
Australia continue to be up there among the best fielding sides. They seems to remain casual and natural with how they catch, but to outsiders, especially those who grew up watching cricket in the '90s, it is the "Australian way of catching".
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