After losing the Champions Trophy final in 2017 the Indian team management led by its captain, Virat Kohli, and the selectors, drew up a list of key changes they needed to make to prepare for the World Cup, 24 months away.
Replacing fingerspinners with wristspinners was top priority. The second item was fitness and fielding. India were lacking on both fronts and Kohli wanted a fielding unit that was not just agile but also capable of making a difference. The current fielding side may not be spectacular, but they are competitive. As their fielding coach, R Sridhar, says in the following interview, there is barely a fielder to hide.
What are the major changes in India's fielding since the 2017 Champions Trophy? What areas did you identify as key for the World Cup?
In the very first match of the 2017 Champions Trophy we were off the boil. We won the game by a margin, but we dropped a few catches. After we lost to Sri Lanka, the game against South Africa became a virtual quarter-final. In that match we outfielded South Africa. Hardik [Pandya] ran out AB de Villiers, and [Jasprit] Bumrah also ran out someone. We fielded brilliantly.
So the main takeaway for me was: how can there be such a big difference between our good day and our bad day? There onwards my endeavour has been to reduce that gap.
I always tell the players that on the good days if you execute at 99-100% then on your bad days you execute at 96-97% and not drop to 86% in terms of conversion rate. So it was about attaining that consistency in the last two years.
Also on the priority list was working on the athleticism and agility of the players. We wanted them to cut the angles, stop those twos into ones.
Has fitness helped the Indian players improve their attitude towards fielding?
It has given them the confidence, surely.
In January 2017 I had a chat with Virat [Kohli] about how we just don't quantify what we do as a fielding team. So we set up some processes where each ball is recorded. We have a competition every series on who ends up as the best fielder, which is arrived at through a rating and points system. We have categorised catches as grade one, two, three, each earning a set number of points. Every run saved earns the player a quarter of a point, too.
"You ignore fielding technique at your own peril. You got to be close to the basics. You can't deviate from basics and become a champion fielder. Why is MS Dhoni a champion?"
I wanted to make fielding more competitive, motivate the players and put fielding under the microscope. Having a comprehensive database leading into the World Cup would come in handy, I felt. Virat was keen straightaway.
Can you expand a bit more, with numbers?
In 2017 we played about 28 ODIs. Guys like MS [Dhoni] played 28, Virat played 25, Rohit 21, Kedar [Jadhav] played 24. In total we [recorded that we] saved 442 runs, missed 147 runs, took 122 catches, missed 23, carried out and missed 25 run-outs each. MS took 26 catches, completed 13 stumpings while missing two.
In 2018 MS did not miss any of the ten stumping opportunities in the 20 matches India played. Overall Indian fielders saved 315 runs and gave away 107. They completed 92 catches and missed out on 20. Rohit [Sharma] was one of the best fielders, saving 31 runs, letting just one run go, and he took all 11 catches that came his way.
I log data every ball, and then we interpret it. For example between over numbers X and Z [Ravindra] Jadeja fielded only, say, five balls. Why? Why was he not standing in the hot zone?
What is the hot zone?
Those are areas where the ball is likely to go, based upon the batsman's strengths, where he has been getting his runs, the bowler's game plan and where he is going to bowl.
Do you rate catches on difficulty?
We have this points system where we grade catches. Grade one is a straightforward catch that comes to you and earns you one point. Grade two, which gets you two points, is where the fielder needs to move and is under pressure. Grade three are half-chances - nobody will complain if you don't take it, but if you do, it is a game changer. You get four points for a grade three catch. If you drop a straightforward catch, you lose two points. If you drop a grade two, you lose one point from the series kitty. No points are deducted for dropping grade three catches.
Overall, how do you assess a fielder?
There are five main parameters I log data on - interception (clean, fumble, misfield); throws (good, direct hit, off target); catches (grade one, two, three); run-outs (direct hits or run-outs with assists); runs (saved, given).
Using all that data, the net productivity (PR) of a player is calculated. That is the ratio of success to other outcomes, including on-field errors. Higher the productivity ratio, better the impact the player has had on the field.
The net PR is calculated at the end of the innings. Say X player fields 24 balls and he picks 21 up cleanly but fumbles three. Then PR is 21 divided by 24, which is 0.87. Similarly, calculations are made for throws and catches. I communicate to the squad by putting on our WhatsApp group the names of the best fielders - who saved the most runs, who took more runs, what was each one's PR and such.
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Would you say the yo-yo test has helped India improve as a fielding unit?
Hundred per cent. The yo-yo test is a comprehensive assessment of your energy systems. Cricket is played over six-plus hours and is an explosive sport. It tests your endurance levels, elasticity, etc.
If the player is able to clear the mandatory [qualifying] level in the yo-yo test, he not only has the confidence of being fit but is also aware of the fact that he can do it repeatedly. So if he has to chase three to four balls back to back - like running in from the deep to save two runs, then running to his right saving two runs, followed by running to his left, taking a catch - he can do it easily.
The fielder then has the confidence and fitness to get his breath back in 20 seconds and again be on his toes and give 100% the next ball. What it does is keep the intensity of the team really high and inspire the other fielders. Fitter fielders mean faster fielders. Faster fielders mean saving more runs.
"Chahal is a work in progress. He is working hard, but it is just that his hands are very, very small"
What has also helped is the fitness revolution that [Shankar] Basu [India team trainer] brought in. He started personalised programmes individually for players. We also now have the GPS device that players wear, which helps us accumulate data on every player. This data allows me to figure out the day before the match what kind of drills each player needs - which fielder needs high-speed running, which fielder needs to just focus on reaction time and direct hits. It helps us keep the player fresher for the main event.
Would you say the Indian fielders' baseline competency has improved considerably since the yo-yo test was introduced?
I would think so. Take, for instance, Kedar. When he first came into the team to what he is today, his fitness levels have gone up so much. He is now more athletic and saving more runs than before. In the Asia Cup last year he had a net productivity of 1. He fielded 97 balls in six matches, and 60 throws were on target, three were off target, without a single fumble. He ended up saving 17 runs.
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At the 2017 Champions Trophy, his productivity was 0.92. He played five games, fielded 17 balls. If he fielded only 17 balls in five games that means he was standing in positions where the ball was not likely to come. And 15 months later he fielded 90-plus balls, which means he was fielding in the hot zone.
Overall who has been the best Indian fielder since the 2017 Champions Trophy?
It is neck and neck. Jaddu is running Virat very close now, although Jaddu has played fewer matches. But since Asia Cup, Jaddu has been giving Virat a run for his money.
What makes Jadeja a good fielder?
I told him, "You can do a Colin Bland, man". I tell him, "Ek stump laga ke ticket bech sakte hain hum. Aap show kar sakte hain" [We can sell tickets to watch you hitting one stump.]"
He is very, very natural. Doesn't do much. He comes, he practises very little. I ask him what intensity he wants to go at, and he will say "full out". He will do direct hits and take catches on the boundary line. He is just naturally so quick. He amazes me.
Virat is somebody who comes to practice and works very hard, but Jaddu just comes there and makes fielding look so easy. I have always said that: Jaddu makes a difficult play look easy, whereas I have seen a lot of fielders around the world who make easy plays look difficult. In fact, in 2018, when he returned to ODIs, he played just nine matches but saved 30 runs, while conceding only three runs, with an overall PR of 0.99.
Do you reckon Jadeja might have sometimes made it to the team over a senior spinner like R Ashwin purely because of his fielding?
I will be lying to myself if I say no. Fielding was a clincher for Jaddu. Ash [Ashwin] was brilliant in the IPL as a bowler. But in terms of selection, fielding is more than a one per-center.
Who are three gun fielders globally, other than Jadeja?
Among those who are currently playing, it would be Glenn Maxwell, Virat and de Villiers in no particular order.
What about those who are not natural athletes? Take Bumrah, who fields in crucial positions like short fine leg or short third man.
From the day he first came in, to today, the difference is chalk and cheese. There has been a massive improvement in his fielding purely because of his attitude. In 2016, when he made his debut, he was an absolute novice. In 2017, Bumrah, who played 23 matches, converted the maximum number of run-outs for India - six. So he is a much improved fielder. He is a good catcher in the deep. He has a rocket arm. The throw gets even faster if his previous over has not gone very well! His diving skills are not great. There is a little bit of work we need to do on his throwing technique, but he has improved a lot.
Do India have any fielders to hide in the field?
Maybe one. He is a work in progress. He is working hard, but it is just that his hands are very, very small.
"Jaddu is very, very natural. Doesn't do much. He comes, he practices very little. I ask him what intensity he wants to go at, and he will say 'full out'"
Who is that?
[Yuzvendra] Chahal. He has very, very thin fingers. There is hardly anything to absorb the pace and intensity with which the ball comes.
So how do you make him a safe fielder?
He is a good ground fielder and has a terrific arm. He slides and dives well at the boundary, and is a reasonably good chaser too. His arm can be very deceptive.
The only challenge is catching. He does not make a good cup with his hands. The skeletal fingers don't help either. He is not a bad catcher; he just drops catches off his own bowling.
Since 2017 leading up to the Australian series in India in 2019, Chahal missed nine catches [eight off his own bowling and one in the outfield]. Having said that, I want to highlight that he has had injuries - three or four fractures to his fingers on both hands. But he is resilient. He bounced back well in the Australian series recently in India where he was very safe. With him, we train with tennis balls, soft balls, so he can absorb them [catches] better.
Earlier you spoke about how a fielder's positions are determined by who the batsman is. Let us say you are setting the field against Jos Buttler. Who are the men in key positions?
Say, if the plan is to bowl yorkers, Buttler is someone who is going to move around [the crease] and play over short fine leg, so your good fielders might have to be behind. He is going to either slash it through gully or he is going to move inside the line of the ball and ramp it over towards fine leg. If you are bowling slower deliveries and asking him to stretch and go over cover or extra cover then I will have my best fielders in those positions.
A lot depends on how the bowlers adapt to the pitch on match day. We speak to the bowlers and remind them about the bowling plans and make sure the right fielders are in the right positions. And to do that, we have MS behind the stumps. He makes sure that happens.
Dhoni is himself a superb fielder. Does he do keeping drills?
He does one drill. He just asks someone to throw the ball at a plastic spring stump, so the ball just deviates and he catches it as a nick. That is one drill he does before every game. Sometimes he might join slip catching, too.
Has there been a moment where a player came to you to say thanks, making you feel satisfied and happy about your contribution?
KL [Rahul] said thanks after last year's tour in the UK. Kuldeep [Yadav], too, recently. It feels good. KL had mind-boggling numbers during the tour of England last summer. In the entire tour he dropped just one catch, which burst through his hands in the final Test. His catch conversion rate was 93%. He had 31.25 points on that tour [the highest], and also saved 11 runs in the series.
Is there any area that Indian fielders need to improve in?
I would like more direct hits. There is no particular reason we are not good [at it] because we practise a lot. It is not that we have been bad; we've been a little inconsistent. In certain games we hit the stumps five times, but in the next game we have ten shies at the stumps and we don't hit even once. So the consistency of hitting the stumps needs to improve.
Athleticism has improved. Speed and agility has improved. The ability to create an opportunity has improved. Having created that we should be able to convert it [more often].
How do you rate India as a fielding unit in this World Cup?
We have seven guys who played the last edition. These guys will have the experience, they read the game better, they understand the angles better, they are keen to be more involved. Jaddu, Virat, Vijay Shankar, Hardik can set the field on fire. We have a combination of guys who are very smart and safe catchers, and a few guys who are agile and athletic.
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo