The problem with India's slip fielding
Alastair Cook had been going through a rough patch, heading into the third Test against India last year. Another low score would have been the final nail in the coffin, at least for a time. Marginalising the opposition captain, while leading 1-0, can increase your team's prospects of winning a series manifold. Cook was on 15 in Southampton when he nicked one off debutant Pankaj Singh to Ravindra Jadeja in the slips, but the catch was grassed.
It was not the first dropped catch in India's slip cordon after the Rahul Dravid-VVS Laxman era, and definitely not the last. It's not that catches aren't dropped in the slips; of course they are, and Dravid and Laxman dropped their share, but the frequency with which this young Indian team has spilled chances in the slips is a little disturbing.
From that dropped catch the fortunes of the two players involved went in opposite directions. Cook went on to score 95, regaining form just in time, while Pankaj played only one more Test. I'm not suggesting that it would have finished Cook's career or catapulted Pankaj's, if things had gone differently. But it's fair to admit that that catch was crucial for both. And also for the Indian team, for India lost that Test and eventually the series. One event can't change the course of a Test match or a series but it's criminal to undervalue the importance of small incidents like these.
Since 2011, India's overseas Test record hasn't been impressive, and while it has a lot to do with the lack of runs on the board and the lack of bowlers good enough to dismiss the opposition twice, it also has to do with dropping catches. India don't possess bowlers penetrative enough to create chances every other over, especially overseas, so it's almost criminal when the fielders drop the odd chance. Also, dropping a quality Test batsman almost always leads to a large individual score by that player. Shikhar Dhawan grassed Imrul Kayes in the recent Test match against Bangladesh, and Kayes went on to make a sizeable score.
It's important to mention that this Indian team is definitely one of the best fielding sides in the world. When I say "fielding", I include ground fielding, both in the circle and in the deep, and catching in the outfield. While the standards of fielding overall have risen within the Indian team, the standard of catching in slips and close-in has fallen. It seems tough to understand why someone who has the agility and reflexes to field at point or in the covers, has the legs to cover ground in the deep, and has a safe pair of hands to take high or flat catches in the deep finds it hard to take close-in catches.
That ignores the fact that fielding in slips is a specialised job, and so it's unfair to compare someone's brilliance fielding away from the batsman to his ineptness standing close in.
What makes a fielder in the slips different from one in the deep? For starters, there's a lot less reaction time, for you are closer to the bat.
While standing in the slips you must also train yourself to focus on different places visually, depending on your position. A fielder at first slip must watch the ball right from the time it leaves the bowler's hand but the other slip fielders should only look at the edge of the bat.
They must also master the art of switching on and off between balls. Concentrating hard for 540 balls is impossible. If you try to do that, you'll feel drained within the first hour. Also, you must not go towards the ball as you're taught you need to do when fielding in the outfield. You need to allow the ball to come to you.
The distance from the bat and within the slip cordon is equally significant to success. In England, the Indian fielders stood too deep and also too close to each other. On pitches with more bounce and pace, you stand a little deeper and spread the slip cordon to cover a larger area but in the subcontinent you come closer - to the bat and to your team-mates in the slips.
Apart from the technical stuff, which can be mastered with practice, there's the small matter of temperament, The question that must be asked before assigning a player the job of fielding in the slips is if he is temperamentally suited to the task. Anyone who is excitable and fidgety by nature isn't the man for the job. The ones who are successful in the slips are the ones who are slightly laidback and generally more relaxed in their demeanour. Jonty Rhodes, arguably the world's best fielder during his time, wasn't the best fielder in the slips. South Africa would go with Jacques Kallis and Brian McMillan instead.
The likes of Ricky Ponting and Mohammad Azharuddin were equally good in all fielding positions, but there aren't many such players.
There are few in this new generation of Indian cricketers who have the right temperament to stand in the slips, and the ones who are, the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara and M Vijay, are either not blessed with the best hands in the business or have not been groomed for the role.
Just as a settled opening combination is critical to a team's chances, a settled slip cordon is equally crucial. The sooner India takes steps in this regard, the better.
Aakash Chopra's book The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket, will be published soon by Harper Sports