May 29, 2014

Is T20 giving fielding short shrift?

Ways to raise the standard would be to have substitute fielders, and to bring in stats, like there are for batting and bowling

Statistics play an important role in summarising a cricketer's performance and stature in the game. This may be true when it comes to batting and bowling, but when it comes to fielding, the stats are oddly meagre. It begs the question why, because fielding is what cricketers do the most when they are playing.

The time has come for this to change and there is no better place to start than in T20 cricket. While T20's entertainment value is at an all-time high, the time will come when it, too, will look to spice things up. A fielding-substitution option may be an interesting experiment.

Is T20 doing fielding any good? Not really, since fields are being made as small as possible in the belief that more boundaries will be struck. The downside is that fielders have less to do because the angles and ground they need to cover are smaller. On bigger fields batsmen have bigger gaps to play with and can weight or chip the ball into the outfield, which is a skill missing from T20.

On such grounds, batsmen would also be running more between the wickets, as more twos and threes would be on offer. As a consequence, fielders would be under greater pressure to gather cleanly and get powerful throws in over the stumps. With both batsmen and fielders having to make judgement calls and execute skills at full pace, the quality of cricket can only be improved.

There will also be more work for the inner-ring fielders, who would have to chase more balls to the boundary, whether to collect or assist.

The fittest, quickest and most agile players ought to be on the field at all times in T20, but this is not the case. One of the consequences of this is that you don't see captains spend too much time thinking about which fielders they want where and when. Bowlers are being murdered and their biggest asset, the fielder, is being marginalised.

Would a substitution option be good for a squad?

Every team has back-up players, one or two of whom are the best fielders in the squad, but their game time is limited and usually depends on poor form and injury to another. The substitution option would make the squad more inclusive and would bring a new dynamic into the selection process.

In the IPL, for example, there are too many stragglers in the field who get game time because of their match-winning potential with bat and ball. To see captains try to hide these players in the field makes for a poor spectacle, especially when you are trying to sell it as an energy and glitz extravaganza. Cricket must be the only team sport where sub-par performances are tolerated on the field when world-class performers are on the bench. We have seen far too many international stars spend just about their whole IPL careers on the sideline. Granted, you need a few as back-up but there ought to be room also for players who are potential fielding substitutes, as they would spend far more time on the field and be a smart investment, especially in this format, where a brilliant save or catch can win you a game.

Cricket must be the only team sport where sub-par performances are tolerated on the field when world-class performers are on the bench

How best can it be managed? The key issue would be when to deploy your substitutes. The easiest way to manage it would be to nominate them before the match starts, because during running play it could be problematic from a timekeeping point of view. It would mean that the substitutions named before the match would only be batsmen, which is pretty straightforward. To get around the timekeeping problem, you could have captains and coaches wired up with a match official so everyone can be notified of an impending substitution. The change-over should be quick and easy.

The tricky part is when a captain intends using a bowler, who he also intends to substitute, in split spells. It would make for interesting viewing how captains and coaches manage this, because in terms of the flow of the game, once a player is substituted, he should not be allowed back on the field.

Going back to fielding stats: what can be recorded? The argument for more advanced statistical gathering has to take into account the problem of subjectivity. Runs, wickets and catches taken are undisputable, but when it comes to how many runs a fielder saves, interpretation can differ. The solution may be for match referees to do all the adjudicating. All of them come from strong cricketing backgrounds and their assessments will be far more credible than, say, that of a whole score of unknown statisticians tasked with the job. On the point of subjectivity, it is worth remembering that the biggest moments in cricket, the dismissals of batsmen, are often hotly debated. Cricket by its very nature and construction can't get away from this.

So what can possibly be recorded over and above what already is? Run-outs could be recorded in three categories. Direct hits are indisputable and must be recorded as such. When one fielder and a receiver combine to effect a dismissal, it should be recorded as a direct run-out. All other run-outs, which involve three players or more, would be recorded as assists.

Mistakes in the field can't be ignored, and catches dropped is a pretty straightforward statistic, as long as a fielder has got hands to the ball. Fumbles made in the field, and runs resulting from such, must be recorded as runs given away by a fielder.

The issue of subjectivity comes in when determining how many runs a fielder saves. While this can never be determined with 100% accuracy, if a metric is devised for it, it will be the most telling fielding statistic, alongside catches taken in a player's career.

What about distance covered in the field? So much emphasis is on fitness these days. Distance monitors could be worn by every fielder to determine how good his work rate is.

And while it probably would be impossible to record, it would be great to know which fielders have the most powerful arms in the game.

The ultimate assessment would be an overall rating for performance and expertise in a particular fielding zone or all zones combined. The rating would be an aggregate of the good and bad. If baseball can come up with comprehensive fielding statistics and performance ratings, why can't cricket?

While a substitution option may not be acceptable to all, it can no longer be ignored that fielding needs a massive statistical boost. If fielding stats are brought in, cricketers will also attach far greater importance to the discipline because of the recognition rewards. Batting and bowling have individual rankings; why can't fielding have the same? The game and spectator experience can only be enhanced.

Daryll Cullinan played 70 Tests for South Africa between 1993 and 2001