'The more fielders think for themselves, the better for the team'
Steve Waugh once said that "fielding is a true test of players sacrificing themselves for the interest of the team because it's the only facet of the game where you don't get statistically rewarded for your efforts". Do you agree?
Hundred per cent. When you're growing up, the first things you concentrate on are the other two disciplines, of batting and bowling, but in the last ten years the relevance and importance of fielding has just gone through the roof. There's a huge difference between someone who can field and someone who can't, selection-wise. The amount of runs you can save and wickets you can take through fielding now is huge, so it's a big test of a team's character and whether everyone's buying into what the team's trying to achieve.
Do you feel that when you started with England, the fact that you were a top-class fielder, and perhaps were seen as someone who embodied that selflessness of the team man, bought you some time?
Yeah, probably. I've always found fielding a very enjoyable aspect of the game, and something I enjoyed working on in training. I think back then you would have had standout fielders in the side, but you look at the difference now and you get seven, eight people in a team who are doing ridiculous things in the field. The pace of fielding has just gone to a different level altogether. So I've got to say, yes, I stood out then, but I'd find it hard to stand out in these modern times.
There have been a few innovations with fielding recently: the slide and rugby-style offloads, the two-man catches on the fence, all that. How much time is spent practising that kind of thing? It can look very clumsy and "clubby" when you get it wrong.
I think it's more of a mentality than anything else. It's about seeing what people can achieve. It's the same thing with batting: the targets that get knocked off these days is because people believe they can achieve them. You watch someone like an AB de Villiers, one of the best fielders in the world, and you see what can be done, what can be achieved, so you think, "Right, I'll maybe have a try at that in practice". There's always someone who sets the benchmark and it's a matter of seeing if you can emulate them. The speed of release - when you've hit the deck and you've got the ball in your hand, how quickly can you get up to throw it - there's so many different aspects of fielding that can make people stand out.
What do you think is the next innovation?
I really don't know until someone does it. The things I've seen recently with catches on the boundary - people about to go over the rope and chucking it to another player 15 yards away - I really didn't think would be possible. Maybe the next phase of fielding is that awareness of where your partner is.
What about ambidextrous fielders?
Yeah, maybe. There are guys coming through now into international cricket who are playing switch hits, this kind of stuff. Not everybody can do it, but what you're seeing is the next generation of players practicing switch hits more than our generation. So you're going to get fielders coming through who can throw both right and left-handed. It only takes one person to do a special run-out and the next generation says: "Okay, I'll practise that now." These are things that don't come overnight, though. If I throw with my left arm now, it would look pretty hideous, and it would take me probably 25 years to become any good at it.
You recently had a short-term appointment as England's fielding coach for the World T20. What can you teach an elite cricketer about fielding? Is it just fine-tuning?
Yeah, it is fine-tuning. But listen, everyone has a different physique, and it's kind of identifying how you can get the best out of those physiques. A fast bowler who's tall and gangly is not going to be able to do what someone who is 5'10'' and a lot stronger in the legs can do. So it's identifying what different people's strengths and weaknesses are and working with that. But there are obviously basics in fielding that can help you with accuracy, with power in the throw, with catching, with the strength in your hands; how strong your hands are around the ball when you go to catch it. The ball's getting hit harder and harder and you've got to make sure your hands are strong. The old terminology was: you've got to have "soft hands". If you've got soft hands these days when the ball's being hit that hard, it's going to burst through them.
When you led England, in ODI and T20 cricket, your optimum position was backward point. But it's not necessarily the easiest place from which to captain. In which position could you best put your skills to good use and still skipper effectively?
In actual fact, backward point, in T20 cricket, isn't the most vital position. The general plans we had in the England side back then, certainly in the first six overs, was bowling "heavy length" straight. Generally you're going to get balls hit toward midwicket and extra cover - right throughout the innings, especially with the spinners on. So it was pretty easy to go from backward point to extra cover, where you can communicate with the bowler a lot more. If you need to change players' angles, it's a good place to do that from, even if it's just four or five yards. Sometimes, just as the bowler's about to turn, you might just have a hunch that a batsman's lining someone up and it might just need a five-yard shift here and there to give you the opportunity to get them out. It can be done in a split-second.
If you were at backward point, then running up to communicate with the bowler could send a negative signal to them.
I actually started off captaining from backward point. I found it very tough. You didn't have the instant communication with the bowler and what you were getting was mid-on and mid-off talking to them, and you almost felt as if you were out of the game a little bit. In ODI cricket I knew that was my best position to field but as a captain it's very difficult. You've got to be as close to the bowler as possible, really.
Skippering in T20 is pretty hectic. The momentum shifts in the game and the modern repertoire of shots mean that the optimum place for your best fielders is always changing. Did you go out with a clear plan as far as allocating fielders to the right positions was concerned, or did you do it off the cuff?
It's actually the case that they police themselves when you're out there. It's amazing the kind of rhythm that fielders get into. At strategic points in the game they know where to go. When Swanny would come on, they knew where to go. Very rarely would I say, "You two have got to swap." Ryan Sidebottom, for instance, who wasn't one of our strongest fielders, knew he'd be at 45.
You've touched on the hunches a skipper has with field placings and angles. Did guys ever wander out of position, and did you ever get annoyed with that?
No, the guys were pretty good. As I say, we self-policed, but when you've got big crowds in, that's probably the most difficult thing: trying to get someone's attention. But the guys were quite good at focusing on me right up until the last moment when the bowler was running in. Sometimes it was only a look and a slight hand movement. And you're only talking two or three yards at times, but it's just a kind of hunch you get. Thankfully during that 2010 T20 World Cup, a lot of those hunches came off. And you could see batsmen were getting sort of frustrated: "Ah, that's exactly where I was aiming it".
What are the most important qualities of a good backward point?
Everyone's got different theories on it, and I'm not saying my theory works best, but I used to watch the ball from the bowler's hand, even at backward point. Only to give us a cue as to what kind of length we were talking about. If it was a short ball and someone may be slashing at it, I may just a hang [back] a bit. As soon as I see a good-length ball I'm thinking, "Right, I'm in on the one. I'm going forward." So the more cues you can get before the batsman's hit the ball, the better - whether it's the shape of the shot or whatever. But I would watch the ball from the hand in the first part of its path, to get the length, and then I would zoom in straight on the batsman.
A lot of good fielders have got amazing anticipation. I recently watched AB de Villiers in Bangladesh and I was absolutely amazed by how many yards he was making up before the batsman had hit the ball. It was almost cat-like. Fantastic to watch. I wish I'd had a video camera on him just to see his movement, the pace that he moved at throughout the full 20 overs. He was captaining that night and absolutely whizzed round for the full 20 overs.
When you were doing backward point, did you get in tighter to cut off the angle or sit deeper for more reaction time?
Depends who was batting. That's another thing: you've got to know your players very well. De Villiers, for example, in his early career, would come in to bat and look to drop and run. So you can get five yards tighter to someone like that compared to Chris Gayle, who'd come out to bat and might just look to hit fours, pretty much. You've got to be able to gauge how deep you can be to still save the single. But understand your batsmen - whether they're going for fours, so you can just hang a little bit. It's like anything else: you've got to analyse the opposition and understand what they're trying to do.
When you were at backward point but weren't captain, did you ever move yourself three yards squarer or finer on a hunch?
All the time. I used to play around with angles a lot. Not just at backward point. Especially at midwicket for the offspinner, a position I used to love playing around with, trying to cut out the mid-on gap and the drive down the ground for one. I'd play a game within a game, try and make him do something different. The more you have fielders who are thinking for themselves out in the middle, trying to beat the batsman, it can only be great for the team.
The direct hit - from backward point, in particular - is a particularly difficult skill. What sort of practice did you do for that?
I was a big believer in getting your hips aligned to the target. It's something I did with England [as coach]: talking about getting the hips rather than the shoulders aligned. The hips are the things that will get your shoulders aligned, rather than picking the ball and thinking "left arm out". To me, the best fielders in the world are the ones who've got quick feet, who are very strong in the thighs, and who pick the ball up and shift their alignment with the hips.
Would you say learning on immaculate, "bowling green" outfields, such as you get here in England, is better than training on bumpy grounds, where you have to watch the ball more closely?
Well, I'm also a big believer that confidence is the key thing, no matter what discipline in cricket. So I always thought you should practice on good outfields and gain the confidence of picking up the ball cleanly.
It was interesting being out in Bangladesh, under lighting and with the ball getting very wet, how that knocked people's confidence very quickly. They are probably the hardest fielding conditions you will ever find yourself in. Not in terms of a bobbly outfield or anything, but that ball feels an extra ounce heavier when it's hitting the hands. It feels like a bar of soap when it's hitting the hands and when you're throwing it, it's slipping out of the fingers. The accuracy goes. It's almost like fielding drunk. We'd actually done some brilliant fielding out in West Indies. But once one person started dropping it, it just sort of filtered through the team. Confidence is a huge thing.
Is there a way to practise diving without doing yourself an injury?
Preferably you'll have had a bit of rain, and there'll not be so much friction on the grass. It's certainly a lot more enjoyable when you're not hurting yourself in practice! So maybe you can wet the area you're going to be practising a little bit. But we're definitely trying to get away from diving on your shoulders - so practice the rotation in mid-air when you're diving, if you can. Or if the ball's going along the floor, you're using your hip areas to land on, and using your forearms and palms to take most of the impact, rather than higher up where you're going to get hurt.
Aside from backward point, you also fielded slip a fair bit - for the spinners and at third slip for the seamers. Did you watch the bat or the ball?
I've always been a big believer in watching the ball wherever I was fielding. I always liked to keep my eye on the ball as much as possible.
What guidelines did you have regarding where you stood for the spinners?
Funnily enough, I used to practise fielding to a spinner standing five yards from the bat. In a match it would be seven yards, sometimes eight, and at Perth I was eight and a half yards back, which was incredible, really. People say, "Surely not, that's just ridiculous". But it was generally round about seven yards away. And depending how much it was turning, you'd work out your angles. If it wasn't turning much you'd generally get it a little tighter to the wicketkeeper's pockets.
Did you ever fancy short leg?
I actually did it in Sri Lanka in 2003. I got a few bruises too. I actually enjoyed doing short leg to the spinners. It's one of those positions that your team-mates really appreciate you doing. When you've got confidence in the bowler you can get right in there and have a bit of a chirp as well. It's quite a fun place to stand.
How big a thing is that in a fielding unit - not just the chatter, but strong body language? One immediately thinks of you stepping in to confront Matt Hayden at Edgbaston in 2005.
I think the verbal stuff is dying away now because of the introduction of stump mics. When I first started playing international cricket in the early 2000s, chirping was more a kind of a fun thing. Now I don't think it goes on as much, because people are worried that if they say something slightly wrong it can be blown way out of proportion. But I think body language is the key thing in the field. If you've got 11 players out there with strong body language, you don't really have to say too much.
With the Matty Hayden incident, we wanted to stand up to Australia in all departments. We wanted to be aggressive in terms of body language. But that was something off the cuff. It was impulsive. There was just that moment when you think, "He's taken a step too far here. I need to step in and make a point to him."
What do you think is the most difficult type of catch?
I think the low and hard ones are the toughest ones, the ones where your hands haven't got anywhere to go. You've got to get a real strong hand on it and get it right in the middle of the palms. The ones I used to like most were the ones where you'd hang in the air for a length of time and think, "I can get my body in a position to catch this." That moment when it does actually stick is an unbelievable feeling.
Matty Hayden again.
Yeah. A lot of people ask whether that was my best catch. I actually think it was Devon Smith at Barbados in the World Cup game. That was probably my best catch, because I covered more ground than the Matty Hayden one. When he hit it I thought, "Oh, I'm probably not going to get this, but I'm going to give it a try", and just at the last second I gave it a kind of extra oomph to grab it and it went straight into the middle of my hands.
Was there ever a time when you had dropped a couple and didn't fancy a catch coming to you?
Yeah, lots. There's times you have those little spells where you don't want the ball to come to you. As I said, the mental side is so crucial with fielding. The confidence you get when you're catching them all the time. You just want the ball to come time and time again. But it only takes one catch where you think, "That felt so easy, why didn't I catch it?" Every catch is different. When you catch a catch at slip, you're happy you've caught it, no matter how quickly it's come. It's not an easy place to field.
So what would be your fielding dream team?
Well, AB de Villiers would certainly be in there, probably at point. Keeper: if it's solely on keeping, then probably Jack Russell. Slips: Graeme Smith was very good at first slip, Jacques Kallis, and Marcus Trescothick is a very safe pair of hands. Gully: I couldn't put myself in there, could I? Go on, I'll go in there at gully. Short leg: I think Hashim Amla's pretty good in there. Extra cover: Faf du Plessis is very good. Mid-on? I think Chris Jordan's an exceptional fielder, so he'll go in. And a strong arm at long leg: I'll probably go Ben Stokes or Flintoff.
Scott Oliver tweets here