May 28, 2014

Time to give fielders their due

The standards of fielding, particularly catching, have improved out of sight, but there are still no proper numerical measures of its value

There was a time we couldn't imagine fielders outdoing Jonty Rhodes and Mark Waugh. Now it's the norm © Getty Images

At first glance, Phil Sharpe would hardly have struck you as a paragon of athleticism. A stocky 5ft 7in, crinkle-haired and chubby-faced, he looked as if he had strayed into the wrong field, armed with bat instead of plough. Cool enough to defy Hall and Griffith in their pomp, he was best known, nevertheless, as England's foremost slipper of the sixties, an edge-snaffler even more deceptively brilliant than Colin Cowdrey.

Though lither than he looked, that lack of obvious agility mattered no more to him than it did to the more corpulent Cowdrey: his anticipation and reactions were keenness personified. "He instinctively knew which way the ball would go as it left the bat," recollected Don Wilson, a fellow cog in the Yorkshire machine that still stands as the last to win three consecutive County Championships. In taking the ball with hands behind body, Sharpe also gave himself precious extra microseconds to observe its speed, path and trajectory.

In the wake of his death last week, it seems a timely moment to dwell on cricket's least-sung catalysts. How apt, indeed, that he should breathe his last on the same day Kieron Pollard gave us one of the most awesome tussles between body mass and gravity imaginable. So bedazzled was the third umpire in Motera, he sanctioned a "catch" that probably never was.

For the most vivid illustration of the world Sharpe left behind, rewind a little further, to April 24, Royal Challengers v Knight Riders: six to win, three balls left and ABD, probably the best all-round batsman on the planet, booms Vinay Kumar towards long-on, where Chris Lynn loses his footing. Yet not only does he recover with astonishing rapidity, he performs a back-flip belonging equally to the Moscow State Circus and the Olympic gymnastics mat, taking the heat-seeking missile in both hands centimetres inside the boundary. Lowering his right hand to cushion his fall, he somehow prevents any retreat. That this marvellous piece of legerdemain accounts for the game's finest contemporary run-stopper supplies the most sweetly ironic of twists.

Scientists insist there are limits to human athletic accomplishment. No member of our species, predicted John Brenkus in his book Perfection Point, will ever scamper the 100 metres in under eight seconds. Since the extant record, 9.58 seconds, represents an improvement of 0.48 seconds on that set by Bob Hayes at the Olympics 50 years ago, this doesn't sound the safest bet. Slashing 9.58 to 7.99 would require an improvement of 16.6%; given the recent advances by Mr Bolt, that might not even take a century. Unfortunately, asserted another academic, this time from Harvard, there is an insuperable obstacle - biomechanics. Which is why, apparently, Bolt's grandson won't be giving 22nd-century cheetahs a run for their money.

All the same, fielding standards seem to be rising more sharply than the patter of human feet, which may or may not make biomechanical sense. Emphasis on fitness for purpose has played its part, ditto the glittering prizes. Once, I was certain we would never again see an outfielder like Jonty Rhodes, or a slip fielder fit to place Mark Waugh's bets; now I'm fairly certain we will. Or have. If there's ever been a better all-round fielder than ABD, I'm Mrs ABD.

Nobody has encapsulated the change in outlook more succinctly than Rhodes himself. "I am not marking them on the balls that were dropped or the balls that were missed," explained the Mumbai Indians fielding coach recently. "I am watching for the balls that they haven't made an effort for."

Until T20 began shifting the goalposts, my own favourite snapshots were set in stone. For on-the-spot gawping, none stood taller than Jack Bond's unfeasible jump at extra cover to cut down Asif Iqbal at Lord's in 1971, deciding a riveting Gillette Cup final in Lancashire's favour: a captain's grand intercession but chiefly a triumph for the little guy. A slight, unprepossessing 39-year old, Bond looked as if he would struggle to run 100 metres in succession. "Bondy tripped over," recalled his team-mate David Hughes; he was joshing, of course, but the improbability of it all made the memory imperishable.

Screen-wise? Images blur. Ian Healy, Alan Knott and Rod Marsh have contributed mightily to the hard drive; above all, the Kentish pixie's stunning mid-flight switch in direction to swallow Marsh's own glance at Headingley in 1977. Indelible, too, are Australia's cordon heroics in the 1974-75 Ashes and England's in 1977. Yet distance can also diminish. Nothing, surely, could compete with Roger Harper's quicksilver return throw to run out Graham Gooch in the 1987 MCC Bicentenary Test; an inch or two higher, though, and we might have demonised the executioner, as we did Steve Harmison when he ambushed Inzamam-ul-Haq in Faisalabad in 2005.

These days, for all that the IPL offers a quotidian collection of the laudable and the laughable, it is the regularity with which breaths are snatched that astounds. The preference for batsmen-keepers may have sapped standards of glovemanship, but still… pick a day, any day.

Delhi last October and the Indians of Mumbai are trouncing the Scorchers of Perth in the Champions League. Dwayne Smith pulls Brad Hogg and the ball whooshes towards the deep-square fence - a one-bounce four at worst. Instead, Jason Behrendorff plunges to his right, just inside the boundary, and pulls off the most acrobatic act I'd seen pulled off in long trousers since…

Well, since Jos Buttler less than two months earlier. At the outset of Surrey's chase in the T20 Cup quarter-final at The Oval, Jason Roy biffs towards the boards at straightish midwicket. Unlike Behrendorff, the Somerset slugger - on this occasion gloveless - has to turn and hence take his eye, however briefly, off the ball. Somehow, as it swan-dives over his shoulder, he flings himself forward to capture it in mid-air, clamping both hands around it at full stretch. And we thought only Clark Kent and Michael Jordan could fly.

Fast forward to Durban last December, on the fourth evening of the second Test: Shikhar Dhawan dances down the track and unleashes a screecher, only for Faf du Plessis, unflinching at midwicket, to propel himself high, wide, handsomely and wickedly to intercept - a supreme exposition of gravity-flouting and hand-eye co-ordination that still owed almost everything to sheer guts.

Loath as one is to propose learning anything whatsoever from ice dancing and gymnastics, where judges rule and objectivity reels, why not emulate them and throw in bonus marks for degree of difficulty and artistic merit?

Then, just to start 2014 with a bang as well as a bash, Brisbane Heat's chase against Sydney Sixers stutters as Craig Kieswetter drills Brett Lee towards deep mid-on, where Jordan Silk lives up to Ricky Ponting's proclamation that he is Australia's ablest fielder, switch-backing and clinging on with an outstretched left mitt.

Even so, given that slips usually have rather less time to respond, it was hard to imagine anything trumping Alviro Petersen's gast-flabberer during Pakistan's first innings in Cape Town in February 2013: one-pawed to his right at third slip, Sarfraz Ahmed the incredulous victim; even the younger Waugh twin might have turned a peculiar shade of green.

So how can formal recognition remain so obstinately, insultingly elusive? How often, even in a T20 fixture, has anyone been named Man of the Match primarily for their sliding, diving or stopping? Where are cricket's equivalents of baseball's seasonal golden gloves, awarded to the leading practitioners in each position? Where are the responses to ESPN's "Web Gems", a nightly nod to baseball's worker ants, where five candidates are nominated, No. 1s are tallied and, come season's end, the most prolific chart-topper is crowned? Given cricket's slimmer diet of televised top-level fixtures, "Clever Pluckers" would have to be a weekly show, but we need and deserve more.

This column can therefore only reiterate the plea it made a few years ago: is it not time someone somewhere devised a means of statistical recognition, along the lines of baseball's error column? Baseball being cricket in reverse, with runs vastly harder to come by, it would be pointless to emulate it by totting up every misfield - especially since every infielder and outfielder at Busch, Dodger or Yankee Stadium has the appreciable advantage of a glove bearing more than a passing resemblance to a small frying pan. Baseball stattos also record putouts, assists and fielding percentages (putouts plus assists divided by chances). Catches and run-outs supply another, more realistic, excuse for plagiarism.

Loath as one is to propose learning anything whatsoever from ice dancing and gymnastics, where judges rule and objectivity reels, why not emulate them and throw in bonus marks for degree of difficulty and artistic merit? It would make no less sense than deciding what is or isn't an error.

But hey, let's go there, if only to raise the standards of the fluffers, muffers and cock-uppers. Employing a neutral arbiter to determine errors - as baseball does - might lead to charges of unacceptable subjectivity, but in terms of determining whether a catch or run-out has been missed in a culpable manner, why not? Provided the arbiter (the match referee?) has played the game at the highest level, preferably recently, he is likely to err on the side of generosity: as a counter-balance to broadcasters and the written media, who tend to classify half- and even quarter-chances as the full guilt-trip Monty, this seems only fair. You can bet those video-analyst chappies are already doing much the same.

Name and shame? There's bound to be a bit of that, sure, but that is neither the aim nor the name of this particular game. Perish the thought. Name and acclaim, my dear thing, name and acclaim.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book is Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport