In a Test in Christchurch in January 1992, Derek Pringle chased a ball out towards the boundary rope, lumbering as fast as his ample 6ft 4in frame would allow. The rope loomed as the 33-year-old Pringle finally caught up with the ball and stuck out a cursory boot as the ball completed its inevitable journey over the boundary. "That's a bit of a feeble effort," one of the New Zealand commentators said.
Fourteen years later, at one point in a one-day international on the same ground, West Indian batsman Dwayne Smith smashed New Zealand spinner Jeetan Patel into the crowd. Nathan Astle, 5ft 10in and 34 years old, was fielding on the boundary. As the ball dropped, it looked as if it would just about make it over Astle and the rope. Then Astle did something that back then was considered to be amazing.
He jumped vertically, and while in the air, only a few centimetres from the boundary, he stretched out his right hand behind him, took the catch one-handed and then landed just inside the rope. Steadying himself for a split second, Astle then sprang off towards Patel and his team-mates to celebrate the wicket.
During post-match interviews, New Zealand coach John Bracewell said that Astle's catch probably secured the win. He called the catch "sublime in judgement and skill".
Ten years on, modern boundary fielding makes Astle's effort look rather ordinary. The rise of T20 has seen many more batsmen trying to hit many more sixes on much smaller grounds.
Back in the day, boundary fielders were usually either bowlers having a rest between overs or spells, or the less mobile members of the side, or both. If the ball went straight to one of these players, they'd usually stop it. If not, at least there was someone out there to get the ball back from the crowd. Today every run counts and teams send their best fielders out to the boundary, not just to save runs but also to take wickets.
"Straight down the ground, the ball comes in more of an arc. The players then have to read the length of the ball, get into an early position on the boundary rope, then adjust to wherever the ball is going to land"Rich Pyrah, Yorkshire coach
Over the past few years, the likes of Trent Boult, Kieron Pollard, Eoin Morgan, Chris Lynn, Glenn Maxwell and AB de Villiers have all taken the kind of spectacular boundary-line catches that are increasingly common in the game.
In 2014, in a T20I in Dominica, West Indies had 126 for 3 in 17 overs and were in need of quick runs to set New Zealand a decent target. Corey Anderson sent down a high-bouncing half-tracker to Pollard, who got into a bit of a tangle while pulling it, but that massive bat of his still sent the ball out towards the midwicket boundary. Boult was out there a few metres in from the rope. He took a few steps backwards and flung out his right hand, his weaker hand, and caught the ball over his shoulder.
Great catch, but it didn't finish there. Boult realised that his momentum was taking him over the boundary rope. In a flash he threw the ball up in the air, stumbled over the rope, but rather than falling flat on his face, Boult sprang back over the rope, back onto the field, dived to his left and caught the ball two-handed before either he or the ball had touched the ground. Cue standing ovations, roars from the crowd, on-field celebrations, and a barrage of superlatives from the commentary box.
Pollard himself has taken a few boundary-line screamers. Playing for Mumbai Indians in the 2014 IPL, he did to Rajasthan Royals' Kevon Cooper what Boult did to him, except, Pollard threw the ball a bit too far infield and so had to complete the catch with a full-length forward dive.
Former Surrey and England allrounder Adam Hollioake, who played the first two years of domestic T20 in England before he retired, believes that boundary fielding standards have improved in recent years out of necessity.
"If someone did anything like that back when T20 started, it would be seen as a one-in-a-million effort," Hollioake says. "Now cricketers take catches like this as a matter of course because that's what the modern game demands."
Former West Indies captain Jimmy Adams, who played in the 1990s and has coached Kent since 2012, says that there's a practical reason why boundary catching has improved in recent years. "When we played, the boundary rope was tight against the wall or the fence. There was no room to do this sort of thing. Now the rope is four or five yards in."
As a result, fielders no longer give up on the ball when they are near the boundary. "Thirty-five years ago, someone like Derek Randall used to throw himself around a lot, but he was considered unusually athletic," says Julien Fountain, a specialist fielding coach who has worked with Pakistan, West Indies and England. "Now you see cricketers all over the world throwing themselves around."
To the casual observer, these catches might look like an instinctive blur of arms and legs, something only a super-fit fielder might try. However, like any other cricketing skill, they can be performed by a cricketer who has the right combination of technique, natural ability and fitness.
Look at any of the slow-motion replays and you'll see the same thing. The catcher tracks the ball from the bat, through the air, towards him and then into his hand. As soon as the catch is safely taken, or parried up, he looks to the ground, checks to see whether he's on or off the field, then steadies himself and moves into the position needed to complete the catch. All this within a second or two.
"In 1989, when I started playing, if you missed one, it was 'well tried.' By the end of my career in 2007, if you didn't dive properly with the right technique, people were having a go at you"Adam Hollioake
"That's the same skills you need to field in the slips, at backward point, anywhere on the field," Fountain says. "Combine those with ground fielding and catching skills and you have the ideal fielder for modern-day cricket."
During a 2014 T20 Blast game between Yorkshire and Lancashire, Lancashire batsman Tom Smith skied a shot straight back over the bowler's head. Adam Lyth, rushing to his left from long-off, leapt into the air and clawed the ball back from over the boundary edge before it landed. His team-mate Aaron Finch, who had run across from long-on, then took a simple catch. A few weeks later, the two combined again against Leicestershire.
Yorkshire players have been doubling up around the boundary rope for a while now. Their coach Rich Pyrah confirmed that his players practise boundary catching regularly in twos. One fielder stands at long-off, the other at long-on or at deep square and deep midwicket. Pyrah, standing as close as he can to the stumps out in the middle, hits the ball hard with two hands into the gap between the two fielders. Depending on where the ball ends up, players have to decide whether to catch the ball by themselves or with their team-mate.
During these practice sessions, Pyrah is keen to replicate the speed of the ball from the bat that a player would get in a match. "The trajectory is different if you're fielding deep-backward square than if you're at long-on and long-off. It comes harder and flatter and faster. Straight down the ground, the ball comes in more of an arc. The players then have to read the length of the ball, get into an early position on the boundary rope, then adjust to wherever the ball is going to land."
Fountain says that to take boundary catches, players will need to track the ball, reposition themselves, and if necessary, reposition again after first contact with the ball. Fountain helps his players practise this by having the ball bounce off an object, maybe a handheld boxing pad, which creates a deviation off the object to a secondary fielder. Or by hitting the ball over a player's shoulder, who then has to adapt on the move.
Yorkshire also practise safe landings indoors during the close season. Coaches set up crash mats and throw a ball over the player's head. "A player has to be brave and land on the full length of their back, so it takes the impact," says Pyrah.
Pyrah adds that players used to struggle with these catches because they wanted to land with their hands on the ground to cushion their fall. The trouble is, when a player's hands are free and facing upwards, he can use them to throw the ball up. He won't have time if his hands are facing downwards, ready to brace to take his weight. Pyrah thinks that a player needs to feel secure that if he loses balance during one of these manoeuvres and falls but lands properly, he will be okay.
Fountain is not a fan of using big crash mats during practice. He thinks there should be an element of realism in the training. "A player will think differently and use their body differently if they know there's a mat under them," he says. "On a hard surface, like a field, a player will have to brace themselves, and they need to get used to that during practice."
Boundary fielders need to make decisions quickly - whether to catch, parry upwards, involve someone else, which requires communication; or whether to just block the ball from going for six. And they won't know exactly what to do until the ball is almost upon them. Pyrah gets the Yorkshire players to practise these catches under pressure. "We'll shout to them, distract them however we can."
It's not all planning, though. There's still a level of instinctive brilliance to the sort of catches that Lyth and Finch, Boult, Pollard and Maxwell have been taking.
Adams explains that his Kent team practises a lot of high stuff in and around the rope area. "Then, when the opportunity arises, there are players who have it in them to do special stuff," he says.
"A player will think differently and use their body differently if they know there's a mat under them. On a hard surface, like a field, a player will have to brace themselves, and they need to get used to that during practice"Julien Fountain, fielding coach
Adams has no doubt that outfielding standards have definitely improved from when he played in the 1990s. "You've always had Jonty Rhodes, Ricky Ponting and Herschelle Gibbs, a few as good as that, but now most players are top fielders."
Back then, international teams felt they could carry the likes of Inzamam-ul-Haq, Devon Malcolm and Phil Tufnell in the field as long as the player was scoring runs or taking wickets. "In 1989 when I started playing, people hardly even dived," says Hollioake. "If you missed one, it was 'Well tried.' By the end of my career, in 2007, if you didn't dive properly with the right technique, people were having a go at you."
Fountain doesn't think that players today are necessarily more skilled or athletic than their predecessors. It's just that higher fielding standards are now expected, and this drives players towards ever greater things. "Whatever is the standard of the day is where people aspire to be."
Pyrah agrees that players train harder today. "Players will throw themselves around in the field and not worry about the consequences. It's no surprise they can do things we couldn't in the past."
However spectacular some of today's fielding might look, though, not everything about fielding has improved during the modern era, particularly in Test cricket. It has been a while since there has been an international wicketkeeper as good as Alan Knott or Ian Healy. Earlier this year, former Australia captain Ian Chappell complained about the decline of slip catching standards
During the Edgbaston Test this summer, when Mohammed Hafeez dropped Joe Root off Rahat Ali, it was the ninth time a Pakistan player had shelled a catch in the series. England had also dropped nine by that time. That's 18 dropped catches in just three Tests.
Inzamam and Cowdrey might not have been able to run out to the boundary rope, let alone dive once they got there, but they could safely catch the ball in the slips. And let's not forget that in a Test match, it's behind the stumps, not on the boundary, that you're most likely to get the likes of Root, De Villiers and Kohli out.