Despite the 0-2 scoreline going into the third and final Test in South Africa, India have been drawing some comfort - if comfort can be drawn - from how they have not had the opposition declaring on them and beating them by ridiculous margins. They believe they have had chances in both Tests, but have let them go. This should, in their minds, make their slip-catching blunders even more crucial; except it is not apparent how they are trying to improve this aspect of their game. It is good to hear the captain saying he wants "120%" for his players every single ball they bat, bowl or field, but there are serious technical flaws in how they go about their catching.
Go back to Shikhar Dhawan's drop of Keshav Maharaj in Cape Town. Maharaj, on 0 at this moment, goes on to score 35, but his partnerships while at the wicket are worth 19 and 37. India eventually lose the Test by 72 runs.
As Bhuvneshwar Kumar lands to deliver the ball, you see three pairs of feet spread quite wide apart in the slips (see screenshot above). Only one of them, Cheteshwar Pujara, at first slip, has his hands between his legs. Virat Kohli at second and Shikhar Dhawan at third have their hands resting on their knees. At the moment the edge of the bat is taken, these hands are still on the knees (see screenshot below). A second later, Dhawan has dropped the catch. Kohli is disgusted; he doesn't even look at Dhawan.
Freeze the frame at the moment Dhawan drops it, with Kohli ready to go for it behind him (see screenshot below). Neither of their heads is anywhere close to the line of the ball in order for them to judge the catch. In the words of Daryll Cullinan, a long-time first-slip fielder for South Africa and also a respected coach, they are working across the ball as opposed to getting behind it and gathering it in.
The problem is two-fold: wide stance and hands on knees. "The moment you are wide, the ability to track the ball becomes compromised," Cullinan says. "You don't see a goalkeeper defending a penalty kick with feet wide. You will see him come forward, feet come together, so he has got the agility to go left or right. The moment you are working laterally, if your feet are too wide, your head is stuck, you are then working across the ball. So it is important from tracking point of view. Judging pace is best when your eyes are behind the ball. So you can pick it up. With heightened awareness, good concentration, good balance, a good stance - at the point of delivery and not at the point of the nick - you are set and ready to go."
Here, even at the point of the nick, the feet of India's slip fielders are wide, and apart from Pujara, almost all of them have their hands on their knees. "I watched Dhawan for the whole Test match, and I watched Virat Kohli as well," Cullinan says. "Their hands are on their knees. The whole time. Suddenly a nick comes. Now in that moment, look at the head [the hands go off the knees and the head falls a little].
"I'd say to them, put a bat in your hand, and as the ball is delivered, do that with your head [letting it fall]. You have lost 10 metres. You are not going to track it. I don't see a wicketkeeper get in that position. Mark Waugh and Mark Taylor were examples. When the bowler started their run-up, they were in the wicketkeeper's position."
It takes not even a second for the edge to travel from Maharaj's bat to Dhawan's hand. In that moment, the fielder has to overcome this movement of the head - the camera, so to speak, if he was looking to take a picture - and have it steady by the time the ball reaches him. It is too short a time to do so. Also, according to Cullinan, hands on knees means compromising an important part of taking any catch: soft hands.
"When you are in this position [hands on knees], look at my shoulders," Cullinan says. "Look where my tension is. My tension is in my arms. My tension is in my shoulder. So the moment you do that to get ready, you are so tense in the shoulders and the arms. Your top half has to be good. If I am on my knees, all my tension is in my arms. Then I am having to suddenly react. Too much happening. Too tight."
It's not just the preparation for taking the catch that is faulty, according to Cullinan. The actual process of accepting it is flawed too. Look at Dhawan's bottom hand as he tries to accept the catch (see screenshot below). Never mind that he gets nowhere close to the ball because his stance and the moving camera have already disadvantaged him badly. Dhawan's bottom hand is flat, almost parallel to the ground. The bottom hand has to twist up, according to Cullinan, in a way that the little finger is on the top and the thumb at the bottom, to make these sideways catches.
"It was a huge thing to be able to catch and turn [the bottom hand]," Cullinan says. "So then you have just got the closing to do with the top hand. The bottom hand dictates the quality of the catch to your side, it is the turning of that hand. If the bottom hand is flat, I am clutching with my top hand. If my bottom hand is turning, you are just cupping it.
"And now, if you are too wide, and you are asked to go, your elbow hits the inside of your leg. With the correct width, you can get your elbow outside your leg. You have got room to move. How many guys do you see get stopped because they are too wide and their elbow hits their leg? Now they have to fall. The head is gone, the eyes are moving, you are a 50-50."
A little worse than 50-50 - under 42% caught, before this series - is exactly what India are when fielding at slips and gully to fast bowlers over the last four years. When almost everybody in the side has been tried, it can be a fair conclusion to draw that India don't have natural slippers. That is not as disastrous as it sounds. Cullinan says he was a "50-50" catcher himself, but with the right training he worked his way up to being a successful first slip for one of the best attacks in the world at the time.
This is where the fielding coach's role comes under the microscope. Hitting thousands of catches - and these fielders don't shy away from hard work - is not the right training drill. Slip fielders need to train like wicketkeepers. To get your bottom hand turning for sideways catches, for example, you need to take a lot of one-handed catches with the bottom hand moving across to the other side of the body. You see Hashim Amla do that before a new innings. He gets catches hit to his right and he takes them one-handed with his left, and then vice versa. You rarely see an India fielder do that even at training.
You need to take catches with new balls to train for that late swing - it is almost a pitch length that the ball travels from the edge to the slips - but India are not particular about that. At fielding drills, they often catch with gloves on, a luxury they don't have during the match. When they do not bat in the nets with any extra protection that they will not be allowed on a Test field, why do they do so when taking catches?
The most damning part is that the technical issues with their stance and their hands have either not been identified or, if identified, not sorted in R Sridhar's tenure of more than three years. The reason most offered for the problems in the cordon has been that injuries and selection requirements have turned the slips cordon into a revolving door, but that doesn't mean their techniques should be all wrong.
India went to Centurion and put down more catches at slip, this time off the spin of R Ashwin, which again cost India all the momentum. You can afford to be 50-50 that at home where the spinners will keep creating opportunity after opportunity. For once it is not about giving 120%. It is about finding the right technique and the right man to impart that technique. A side run by the richest and most powerful cricket board in the world, a side that desires to dominate world cricket like Australia in the late 1990s and 2000s, should not have this issue for four years running. There is help and knowledge available around the world; they just need to seek it out.