"You right to jump under the lid?"
The captain's phrasing may vary from region to region, but any youngster or newcomer to a cricket team knows the question. For the sake of accuracy, it's less a question than a veiled instruction, polished with hollow concern. It rarely matters if you're "not right" to field in close. Very few are. And that's the point: a fielding position of great value and a high degree of difficulty is often bestowed upon the team's lowliest member. With some exceptions, being stationed at short leg is usually an indicator of a player's hypothetical ranking rather than of their reflexes.
Of course, it is too simplistic to equate short leg with the lowliest team member. When a fast bowler is operating, the team's best three catchers will invariably hold positions one, two and three in the slips. If not third slip, then gully. There is a wicketkeeper, and of course a bowler. If one of the quicks is already bowling, then typically two will remain, one normally stationed at fine leg and the other somewhere relatively tranquil too. That takes the tally to seven players, with the remaining four vying to avoid discomfort. One might be a specialist spinner, and thus exempted from short leg's mental tightrope of simultaneously intimidating the opposition and managing the fear of getting hit. That leaves three. Whether by process of elimination or not, if you're short and young, you better get that lid ready.
So the conventional wisdom goes. But is it possible to reframe the status of short leg? Reams of rhetoric are dedicated to its importance, yet seldom do we see a specialist emerge. To wit, nobody likes to be hit by a cricket ball, and this is likely why the position is considered as much a rite of passage as anything else. Yet we marvel at the courage and skill of close-in fielders in years gone by. To name a few, there were Gus Logie and Roger Harper of West Indies, Tony Lock and Tony Greig of England, David Boon of Australia, and of course - widely regarded as the best of all - Eknath Solkar of India. "Ekky's" statistics are the stuff of legend: 53 catches in 27 Test matches is the best ratio of catches per Test among non-wicketkeepers. They are instructive too. Skilful close-in fielders are in the game; they can genuinely shape both matches and reputations.
"To be poor at short leg doesn't excuse you; to be good at it condemns you there for longer"
It is unsurprising that India produced possibly the game's greatest close-in fielder. The home conditions create a penchant for spin, and if Indian Test cricket were a postcard, its hero image could well be a spinner tweaking with men around the bat. Balls dart, twist, scythe and spoon off the blade, and the bat-pad plays a significant role. As a spin-heavy Australian touring party ventures to Asia next month, it is unclear who will take that important mantle. In recent years, a spate of would-be occupants have come and gone. Joe Burns was the personification of discomfort, his evident bravery overshadowed by his palpable dread. He was "not right" to go under the lid, yet was persisted with in the absence of any other takers. This summer, Nic Maddinson wore the lid. His efforts were commendable even if the results were mixed.
But late into the Boxing Day Test against Pakistan, something interesting happened.
One of Australia's other newcomers, Peter Handscomb, popped into short leg. Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq, comfortably Pakistan's two most dependable batsmen at that time, looked to be constructing a match-saving partnership. With men crowding the bat on both sides, Shafiq skipped down the wicket to work one of Nathan Lyon's overspinners to leg. He leaned on the ball and made strong contact, albeit in Handscomb's direction. The Victorian, whether by instinct or conditioning, moved smartly to his left in anticipation of Shafiq's intended placement. He remained low and balanced, and his exceptional hands absorbed the force of the ball, cushioning it upwards, before he took the ball as he fell to the ground. It was the catch of a skilled operator, and it will be interesting to see whether the "newcomer" retains those duties in India.
As it stands, there's a sense of poisoned chalice about going under the lid. It's a critical role for most teams, though appointments to the position are most often made by process of elimination. Most juniors seek an edge in all aspects of the game, though rarely is this true of close-in fielding. To be poor at it doesn't excuse you; to be good at it condemns you there for longer. It would seem that if you're new, young, and you bat, it helps to be a good slipper.