April 16, 2012

The art of the gully man

Fielding at gully calls for its own set of skills

Australia's Jeff Thomson was the fastest bowler to draw breath, and fielding to Thommo in the gully was something else. With other fast bowlers, such as Dennis Lillee, you'd watch the bowler move in, and it was not until he released the ball that your gaze shifted from the bowler's hand to the edge of the bat.

My method for most medium and fast bowlers was to watch the ball out of the hand, then go to the edge of the bat. But for Thommo it had to be different, because there was no time to do as you did with the others. With Thommo, you'd watch that approach until he loaded up. You knew that the ball would come at breakneck speed. Dear moderns, imagine the velocity if you can: about two yards quicker than Shoaib Akhtar at his absolute quickest. Often in the gully I'd catch a glimpse of a red sphere flash past my eyes on its way to Rodney Marsh behind the stumps: the ball rose like a 747, its climb stopped by Marsh's gloves, making a sound that resounded like a solid right hook to the jaw from Muhammad Ali.

Get closer
I watched some of the great gully fieldsmen, such as Richie Benaud, who made the position his own for more than a decade. Benaud fielded close to the bat, which Alan Davidson reckons Benaud learned from fearless gully fieldsman Ron James, who took some sensational catches at leg- or regulation gully in his 45 matches for NSW. "Ron got as close to the bat as he could," Davidson recalled. "He reckoned that the closer to the bat you were in the gully, the more chances you would get, simply because the closer in you are, the less of an angle is produced."

That always made sense to me. I was amazed how far back Steve Waugh fielded to Glenn McGrath. The big fast bowler took 563 wickets in his brilliant Test career, but he should have had more, given the number of edges that bounced before they reached the gully fieldsman. Waugh, Geoff Marsh and Matthew Hayden were blessed with sure hands, but all of them stood far too deep in the gully. So too does Mike Hussey these days. Twice in the recent series against India, Hussey had to dive forward at gully to catch edges that ballooned off the shoulder of Gautam Gambhir's bat. Hussey is usually so deep in the gully that you could sneak a single to him. It's a pity because he has brilliant hands and great anticipation. But he should get in closer to the bat.

I stood some seven paces back in the gully. On the bouncy Perth track I made that about eight paces, which probably equates to near ten yards. I was always mindful of how the edge of the bat looked to me from my position at gully.

Stay low, time it right
Like a wicketkeeper, the gully fieldsman needs to crouch low on the balls of his feet - balanced as to be able to spring to his left or right. Staying low is essential, as many catches come low and fast, either a forward drive or a defensive push to a late outswinger. The drive usually comes hard and fast, but the defensive push can often sort of loop in the air and be on the "down" when you move to complete the catch.

My hand-eye co-ordination was boosted by catching a rebounding golf ball off a rough wall in practice. On my left hand I wore my baseball catcher's glove. After hours of practice, I could catch a ball, sensing its exact location, speed and direction by instinct alone: you didn't have to watch the ball into your hand

I found the key to success in the gully was to get the timing right, and that with the right method you would take more than you missed. You need to know almost to the split second when the ball will arrive. If that sense of timing is missing and the ball suddenly looms at you, the instinct is the grab at it, and invariably it either goes missing or goes down.

By staying low you could do as a wicketkeeper does when taking slow bowling: you come "up" with the ball, thus covering for a low snick or a high slash. By the time the ball is within a few feet of the batsman, you have to be in good position, knees bent and hands cupped together and ready for the catch.

You have to combine timing with watching the edge of the bat like a hawk. When you got the timing right, the whole scene seemed to be to be in slow motion, even a snick from a Thomson fireball. The ball careered from the outside edge, but it was easy to see and to complete the catch.

From the hand to the bat's edge
The great Australian slip fieldsmen, such as Bob Simpson, Mark Taylor, Mark Waugh, Jack Gregory and Ian Chappell might have struggled to field in the gully unless they changed their method. In the gully, you cannot succeed if you watch the ball from the bowler's hand all the way down the track until the batsman plays his shot.

Martin Chappell taught his son Greg to catch a cricket ball by the time Greg was two years old. "My way was simple," Martin once told me, "If I threw the ball to my son, his eyes would invariably look at his dad - his eyes were on me, not the ball, making it impossible for him to catch it. So I showed him the ball, then tossed it against the wall. Greg's eyes left mine and focused on the rebounding ball, which he caught easily." In a way, that is a simplistic version of the method good gully fieldsmen use: your gaze goes from the ball release to the edge of the bat.

In my own experience, my hand-eye co-ordination was boosted by catching a rebounding golf ball off a rough wall in practice. On my left hand I wore my baseball catcher's glove. After hours of practice, I could catch a ball, sensing its exact location, speed and direction by instinct alone: you didn't have to watch the ball into your hand.

Watching the batsman
Batsmen give clues as to how the ball might come at you in the gully. A batsman who stood with an open face of the bat always lifted your heart rate - you knew the likes of a Roy Fredericks or a Ken Barrington would edge square, towards gully, when they made a mistake driving at a ball of full length that swung away late.

I would watch the batsman, see how he shaped. When he wasn't quite to the pitch of the ball, did it go very square? All these things help build a picture in your mind's eye. Today we have batsmen such as India's Gambhir and Virender Sehwag who open the face and hit square of the wicket. They heighten the expectation of the gully fieldsman. Sehwag gets away with a lot of lofted shots through the gully area because, as I said earlier, most gully men these days field too far away from the bat.

Others who open the face a bit and edge through the area are Sachin Tendulkar, especially on wickets that allow bounce, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, and Ed Cowan and David Warner.

The great England left-arm spinner Tony Lock was the best leg-gully man I've seen. The method is the same as for regulation gully, only difference is the ball would suddenly appear from behind the batsman's front pad. As the best close-in fielders watch the bowler's hand to the point of release to get a sense of when the ball is likely to arrive, so too those who field at leg gully. You figure out when the ball is likely to come your way, via the edge of the bat and the pad, and it usually comes like a balloon, easy to snare. Sometimes the bat is in front of the pad and the ball skips off the edge quickly, but if your timing is right, you can take the chance.

Fielding at gully had its rewards. Once at the Adelaide Oval in the 1974-75 Ashes series, Colin Cowdrey back-cut Lillee. The ball was on the down but somehow I flung myself towards it and clutched it with my left hand. Cowdrey looked at me in astonishment; then he touched the peak of his cap and said cheerily, "Well caught, master."

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell