When I was appointed fielding consultant in 2000, Australia were the reigning world champions, and everyone was asking me, "How are you going to make these guys better?" I didn't know much about cricket then, but I'll tell you what: I was quite shocked at what I saw.
No one had any idea about fielding balance. They were diving around with flawed techniques, and wasting energy that they should have been conserving. There was so much diving and sliding going on, with people saying, "It's a great fielding side", and so on, but I'm thinking, "If you have to dive so much, it either means you aren't quick enough to reach the ball, or you're standing in the wrong position." I saw a big man like Glenn McGrath diving to stop boundaries, and I asked him, "Do you ever practise that?" He said, "Not really." So I had a chat with him and said, "Listen, you're a superstar with the ball and this side needs you. If you go on sliding that way, you're going to get seriously injured. Let's forget these dives and concentrate on getting quicker to the ball."
Also, I saw fielders in the ring take five to 10 steps towards the batsman, which meant they were not at all balanced when the ball was played. Both feet weren't together and steady; one foot was always in front of the other. It's the worst way to be ready for a ball. So we worked on that. Now I see across the world, everybody is into the split step, and they're more balanced when they face the ball. I'm very proud of that - we started it.
I also didn't understand why they were wasting so much energy. I said to John Buchanan, "I don't understand this. Why do these guys stand on the circle and then walk 10 steps towards the batsman? They can stand straight and be more balanced. If they're going to walk in, why don't they take three steps instead of 10 to save their energy - it's such a long game. Why don't they wait a little longer for the bowler to run up, and then take three steps and walk in?"
And John looked at me and said, "You walk in with the bowler." I said, "Of course, I know that, it's obvious, but why don't you take three and time it better? So when the bowler releases the ball, you've taken only three steps. By the end of the day they're going to save a lot of energy." And he said, "I've never thought of it that way."
Also, we needed to make the training sessions more focused. With me, simple is better. At the end of the day, you've got to catch the ball, stop the ball. Come up with a thousand different gimmicky techniques, but your job remains the same. We don't have any funky drills. What we're doing is trying to get quality practice: it's better to take 25 catches with the right technique rather than a hundred half-arsed ones.
We had a lot of fine athletes, but they just tended to underestimate themselves. Guys like Andrew Symonds just need to be motivated and told how good they are, and how much they can actually push themselves.
Overall, we've come a long way from 2000 but there's still plenty that can be done.
This article first appeared in the June 2007 issue of Cricinfo Magazine. Only a fraction of Cricinfo Magazine content is available on cricinfo.com. Cricinfo Magazine is now available as a digital download that is an exact replica of the print edition. Click here for a sample, and here for a special introductory deal.