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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Philip on May 30, 2014, 8:13 GMT

    Once upon a time. keeping wicket was not a specialist task. It was the likes of Jack Blackham that made it in to one. However, over time, that was diluted to what we often see today - a batting role with gloves attached. Some places are less prone to this trend - wherever spin dominates attacks. It is no surprise that SL, Bangla' and even the modern WI keepers are better. Spinners need keeping of some quality to keep batsmen under pressure. Likewise, they need quality close catchers and slippers. So maybe if spinners were captains more often, such fielding might be held in higher regard. If it weren't for T20s of course. I think it is indicative of where things are going in Aus, that fairly recently I have seen some of the worst keeping in a baggy green in the last 40 years, at the same time that youth spinners here are expected to be economical, slog runs and outfield well. Surely, spinning the ball should be of more importance, then some declining fielding standards may be reversed.

  • Steve on May 29, 2014, 12:44 GMT

    Although I massively agree on the importance of fielding, it is unlikely to be valued highly enough by selectors who only pick wicket keepers if they can double up as not just competent, but genuine batsmen! Maybe though, articles such as this and Darryl Cullinan's will enlighten people into seeing top drawer fielders as all rounders, and brilliant keepers as valuable as specialist batsmen and bowlers.

  • Adam on May 29, 2014, 9:27 GMT

    You could have objective fielding stats, its not an impossibility, but they would only become meaningful when averaged over a large number of games, and separated for close fielders, infielders and outfielders.

  • Jamie on May 29, 2014, 5:54 GMT

    "Mark Waugh (181 catches in 128 Tests) was unique in that he brought aesthetic appeal even into slip catching - he looked like he had so much time to take the ball the way many batsmen do when they're batting. Maybe that's why he's often held as the gold standard for slip catching" - that's what they said about Wally Hammond (who took 110 catches in 85 Test matches) and was considered by many the premier slip fielder of his era.

  • shafeen on May 29, 2014, 3:47 GMT

    tad off-topic, replying to Xolilie - I see what your saying, but think the answer to subjectivity... can't be answered.

    Would Lillee, Warne, Steyn etc. average 23, 25 with the ball if they had to bowl to Bradman?

    Perhaps Larwood would have averaged 23 if he hadn't bowled to Bradman but the 70s batsmen instead?

    can't conclude anything with certainty, only speculate.(your speculation is valid - just noting its "speculation", as are any counter-arguments)

    Agree about difficulty of just counting up catches though.

    Rahul Dravid tops the table - and he's a fine catcher - but not the best I've seen.

    Team and home conditions also play a big part in the catching stats, e.g Aus players with their hard wickets get a lot more slip catches compared to say Pak players and their low wickets.

    Largely because the wickets shape the bowlers' style - on bouncy wickets, bowler can keep off-stump line and look for edges while Pak players have looked to inswing to get bowled/LBWs more.

  • Philip on May 28, 2014, 22:57 GMT

    Have to agree with @waspsting about the difference between eye-catching and efficiency. I remember Mongia and Khaled Mashud. Both anticipated well. Neither were spectacular, but one doesn't need to be spectacular when efficient will do just as well. Actually, fielding standards, although they have improved, haven't improved that much. There were great slippers years ago, and great cover fielders etc. Out-fielding is probably where the change has come, but that could be partly down to the introduction of the rope. It could also be partly down to fast bowlers putting in more of an effort with their fielding than they did 30-40 years ago which makes one wonder if that has had consequences for their bowling? Close catching though has gone the other way. I don't believe it's as good as it used to be and I think that is down to the fact that such positions are rarely employed these days and so there are few specialists now. Also, in the absence of helmets watching it closely kept you safe.

  • Pete on May 28, 2014, 17:03 GMT

    @Xolile -says "All numbers in cricket are subjective.

    I see what you mean, but that's not quite right. Don Bradman scored 6996 runs, averaged 99.94, and played in 52 Tests. These numbers aren't subjective - they are simple facts.

    The *meaning* of these statistics is subjective of course. It requires subject judgement to compare Bradman's average of 99 compare with, say, Miandad's average of 52 in an era with much better bowling.

    The trouble with fielding stats is that the numbers themselves are subjective. A scorer (or someone else) needs to decide what was a misfield. Even a common sense definition like 'failing to stop a ball when having a reasonable opportunity to do so' would require a judgement on what 'reasonable' meant. And as expectations change, so presumably would that expectation of 'reasonable'.

  • Deon on May 28, 2014, 13:22 GMT

    All numbers in cricket are subjective. Bradman averaged 99.94 - but the best he faced was Larwood of 1932 vintage and maybe Verity around the same period. What would he have accomplished against Lillee, Warne, Akram, Steyn and Marshall? Probably quite a few less. Catches are the same. I once took 6 easy catches in an inning. I also once dropped 3 very difficult catches in an innings. Those numbers could be grossly misleading.

  • Pete on May 28, 2014, 13:16 GMT

    Nice article!

    Mr Steen mentions that in baseball 'errors' are scored to fielders, which, as he points out is a subjective judgement. Perhaps an even greater problem, however, is that often good fielders attempt more ambitious plays, and thus end up with more errors than weaker fielders.

    There are various newer metrics that try to solve this problem in different ways, such as Defensive Run Saved (DRS), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and Total Zone (TZ) which attempt to make some objective assessment of the difficult of a play. However, these measures are controversial, and seem to miss things - even in baseball where the range/type of 'plays' tends to be more predictable.

    In short, meaningful metrics for fielding are easier to wish for than they are to create.

  • Adam on May 28, 2014, 11:45 GMT

    Baseball has range factor, which is basically a measure of how many times a fielder touches the in-play ball a game (normalised by position), and error percentage, which is errors over total touches. Between the two of them, they create a reasonable picture of the ability of the fielder.

    Cricket wise, you could have a catch percentage, a run-out percentage as separate statistics.

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