Fielding horrors hurt India
Late last year, after a five-match ODI series against Pakistan, India's fielding coach Robin Singh sent a report to the BCCI assessing the players' fielding skills. The report praised a couple of players' throwing arms, spoke of poor agility among others and lamented the concentration and commitment of a few, but there was one common theme to his observations: the need to improve anticipation and technique.
After another poor day in the field for India, you have to wonder what has happened since November 2007. At the SSC, where India lost by an innings and 239 runs, Mahela Jayawardene was dropped by wicketkeeper Dinesh Karthik on 55 and 93 and Thilan Samaraweera was dropped by Gautam Gambhir at short leg on 53. Matters weren't much better in Galle, where Karthik and Gambhir were the culprits again.
Today India refused to learn from their mistakes. Close-in fielders repeatedly reacted too late or too early, flat-footed rookies and veterans tripped over balls and failed to reach down in time, Harbhajan Singh kicked a ball away in frustration only to allow a single, and Parthiv Patel missed a stumping.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, struck the first blow with a sharp catch off Virender Sehwag by Samaraweera at gully; they hammered in the final nail when Sachin Tendulkar, perhaps wary of three lurking close catchers, padded up to Ajantha Mendis late in the day. It was in stark contrast with India's attempt to apply pressure.
Anil Kumble began the day with three short legs, one behind the wicket and two in front. In the third over of the day Gambhir stood up too early instead of crouching in anticipation and saw the ball fly past. Then Karthik reacted too soon and couldn't dive to reach a catch in time. India cannot expect to win consistently unless half chances are regularly converted.
Throughout the first session, Prasanna Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara worked singles past the three short legs, especially between the first of the forward short legs and the backward short leg. And when Kumble called his fielders in to try and prevent the single off the last ball of the 98th over, they were slow to react. Four balls later Pragyan Ojha, one of three substitutes, made a mess of a stop at backward point and allowed three, much to Kumble's fury.
India also missed two run-out chances: Sangakkara turned down a single to sell Prasanna down the river, but Rohit Sharma returned a wayward throw to Parthiv. Run-outs don't come easier than that. In the 129th over Mendis pushed the ball towards Sourav Ganguly at mid-on, Parthiv screamed for the return to the non-striker's end, but Ganguly missed the stumps with Dammika Prasad out of the frame. Rohit later mis-fielded and allowed two runs and received a nasty glare from Kumble. To cap it off, Parthiv missed a regulation stumping down the leg side off Kumble.
To makes things worse the fielders weren't helped by their bowlers. With six men on the off side, Harbhajan bowled far too many deliveries on the pads. And kicking the ball, only to concede an overthrow, is unacceptable behaviour. Zaheer Khan did the same during a one-day match in England last summer after a catch had gone down off Matt Prior. At mid-off Kumble could only shake his head.
For the most part of this series Sri Lanka have been disciplined, sharp and athletic; Tillakaratne Dilshan and Prasanna have epitomised this. Dilshan has been outstanding, diving around at forward short leg, leg slip, backward square leg. Even late in the day, three wickets down, he wasn't complacent, flinging a hand out to stop a single off the pads. In comparison Gambhir and Karthik, who repeatedly stood up near the bat instead of crouching low, allowed easy singles.
Prasanna's stock has risen considerably since he established himself in the Test side during the tour of New Zealand in 2006-07. In Brisbane last year he pulled off two terrific stumpings to dismiss Ricky Ponting and Phil Jaques, followed it up by an acrobatic left-handed stunner to get Michael Clarke in Hobart. The good work continued against England and in this series he has maintained those high standards, producing stellar efforts in Colombo and Galle. Karthik and Parthiv have fumbled regulation takes. Rated India's best wicketkeeper and one of the better in-fielders, Karthik's display this series has been substandard. Parthiv has improved marginally since 2004.
Sri Lanka's infielders dived around and cut off singles while India's struggled. Mendis and Chaminda Vaas, newbie and old hand alike, returned throws into the wicketkeeper's gloves; Ojha and Ganguly had a hard time getting it in on one bounce from the outfield. There was no discipline or ruthlessness from India, who seemed wilted to the extent that they hardly ever touched the stumps.
Reflexes and anticipation are key elements of a good close-in fielder and India haven't had one since Aakash Chopra's vigil at the position. Memories of Chopra's batting may not evoke a smile, but his fielding was top notch. Among his better ones are his catch off Kumble's bowling to get Adam Gilchrist in Bangalore in 2004, his brilliant one-handed effort to get Abdul Razzaq at Multan in 2004, when Pakistan trailed by 162 runs, and his catch at forward short leg off a Justin Langer pull in the Australian series of 2003-04, which was unfortunately a no-ball.
Chopra created half-chances, and in Tests each counts for a lot. India soon need to find another such fielder, for they have struggled to create half-chances and take the ones that were there to be held. The BCCI may not have assessed the reports; they cannot ignore the ground realities.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo