How T20 has juiced fielding
When Trevor Penney became India fielding coach in 2011, he was tasked with reinvigorating the team's fielding. It was his fortune that, as the ageing legends retired, a new generation of zestful cricketers arrived in their stead.
"Sachin was still coming for fielding practice aged 40. It's just that, if he were 20 coming through, he would have put effort in like a Virat," Penney reflects. While the old cohort "grew up thinking, 'I'll just do enough. I want to be a decent fielder but I don't want to be a great fielder'", in the new India "they all want to be really good."
It was a microcosm of how fielding standards have been transformed. Improvements can be traced back to the invention of one-day cricket in 1963, through to the formation of the World Cup, the professionalisation of the sport during and after World Series Cricket, and the relentless pursuit of cricketing perfection that characterised Australia under Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting. But never has fielding been given as much attention as in the age of T20.
"T20's been the thing that turned the corner," says Mike Young, the former baseball coach who started working in cricket, initially with Australia, in 2000. "T20 has forced fielding to get better. The athletes now are so much better. Seriously it's not even close. It's a different game."
A format designed with close finishes in mind has compelled selectors to give greater emphasis to fielding. "You're debating that No. 6 or seven spot in T20, and you'll just go for the better fielder. So everyone is fitter and faster," Penney says. Increasingly the judgements on a player's fielding proficiency are informed less by gut feeling - which fielders might look the most athletic - and more by cold data. "You've got a spreadsheet where you can see who's saved runs, who's given away runs. Have they attacked the ball properly?"
The specialist fielding coach has been among the great winners of the T20 age. During the 2003 World Cup, a couple of months before the first game of professional T20, Young recalls being the only fielding coach; by the last World Cup, the fielding coach was integral to all 14 nations. The quality of fielding training is incomparable. "We did batting first and had to fit in the fielding later. There wasn't time during nets to go off and do fielding with small groups," Penney recalls of his time as Sri Lanka assistant coach between 2005 and 2007. When he returned, for a stint before and during the 2015 World Cup, it was as full-time fielding coach, working intensively with groups of two or three players for half-hour bursts.
If what Penney terms "the basics" - catching, diving, collecting the ball cleanly and throwing properly - remain the foundation of a good fielder, the requirements are even more onerous in the shortest format. "You've got a different type of training for T20: a lot more high catching, a lot more boundary catching."
Because so many more balls go to the boundary edge - due to the licence batsmen are afforded in T20, bat technology, how cricketers have evolved as athletes, and ropes being been brought in - the modern fielder has had to master multifarious skills. Among these are the relay throw, with one player parrying the ball back and his team-mate throwing the ball in; the dive on the rope to stop it going for six, catch the ball or parry to a team-mate; and the art of releasing the ball into the air while hurtling over the rope, and then catching it after regaining balance. "Every team practises that," Penney says. "It's something the players love doing. It's vital as well because, especially in T20, so many balls just carry, or don't quite carry, over the boundary."
In a Test in Wellington last month, Trent Boult launched Nathan Lyon to long-on, where Usman Khawaja ran to meet the catch as he hurtled towards the boundary rope. Just before going over, Khawaja flicked the ball up in the air with his right hand, and then nonchalantly caught it after returning from the wrong side of the rope. Here was one of Australia's least obviously formidable athletes taking what, a few years ago, would have been considered an astounding catch, and looking utterly nonchalant about doing so. It distilled how T20 fielding has impacted all formats of the game. Pyrotechnics on the boundary edge have become the new normal.
Radical improvement is detectable well inside the boundary edge. Even in the 30-yard circle, players work together to hunt down the ball, aiming for one fielder to chase down the ball and palm it to another man to hurl back in. They are more comfortable sliding, helped by better outfields being used in training and matches. Teams also cut down on straight twos by using a right-hander at long-off and a left-hander at long-on, as pioneered by Australia's use of Andrew Symonds and Michael Clarke. But "the change in mindset is the real innovation" in fielding, Young stresses.
There remains ample room for further advancement. "I'm generalising, but many people don't know how to actually do professional coaching of fielding," Young says. "All the drills with the whole team are a waste of time. I like to work on small incremental things with each individual athlete because each guy's different. There's still a lot of time when everybody gets together and they just hit balls around. They don't work on the actual technique and how to get better, especially at the highest level. They're doing it wrong."
To Penney, the paucity of direct hits reflects a lack of good-quality training. "In most fielding drills, when it comes to direct hits, players are missing the majority of the throws. So they're practising missing, not hitting. Drills I've designed involve hitting the stumps a lot more from close range and then slowly progressing backwards. So after ten minutes you've probably hit the stumps 50 times. In some team drills, they throw at the stumps ten times each and only hit once, and think that's enough. That has to improve."
Although innovation will continue - slip fielders are becoming ever more adept at darting to the leg side in anticipation of a batsman's shot, for instance - there might not be any great revolution forthcoming. While admiring George Bailey's ability to throw with both arms, neither Penney nor Young supports John Buchanan's enthusiasm for ambidextrous fielders. "The skills you need - throwing over the top from 80 metres, or hitting the stumps from 30 yards, it's very difficult to suddenly do it with both arms," Penney says. "Guys with their dominant arm can't hit the stumps enough anyway," Penney says.
Much of his focus remains on the oldest fielding skill of them all: catching the ball. He likes to give his team specific training depending on where they field, because catching an uppercut at third man is a different art to snaring one at long-on. During his recent stint with Melbourne Renegades in the Big Bash, "there seemed to be quite a few dropped catches every game. Batsmen have got better bat speeds, and they're hitting the ball a lot harder. The fielders are still adjusting to that."
The rise of T20 and specialist coaching mean that fielding will continue to evolve - just not quite as quickly as it could. "Not enough people are motivated to go out and improve their fielding, because the money is in scoring runs and taking wickets," Young says, lamenting the lack of "statistics for errors and runs saved". He believes that another simple change would speed up fielding's ascent. "If fielding's important, and everybody agrees it is, where is the validation? Why isn't there an award for international fielder of the year?"
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts