Cricket, despite being a team sport, is strictly an individual event until the batsman hits the ball. The bowler initiates the action and only after the batsman reacts are others spurred into action. But the collective effort of the remaining 10 players on the field, at times, makes or breaks the game. That's why teams looking to make a mark focus a lot on fielding to make up for their lack of skill and experience with bat and ball. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe did so in their early stages.
The same goes for teams gunning for the top perch. Since the difference in skills isn't much at that level, they try to get an edge over the opposition with their fielding. Australia and South Africa often steal a march over the others in this department.
While cricketers are becoming multi-dimensional, there's still enough room for specialists in all three departments. Like batting and bowling, there are a lot of positions in the field that need to be manned by fielders with special skills. At point and square leg you need agility to intercept a ball rapidly spinning away from you, and in slips you need a bagful of concentration and quick reflexes. You ought to be brilliant at covering ground and must have a rocket throw to be an effective fielder on the fence.
Standing at slip is as specialised a position as opening the batting. It requires concentration, patience, quick reflexes and good hands. It can be as tiring or even more so than batting for six hours because you must expect every ball to come your way but may not get even one the entire day. That's why switching on and off between deliveries is extremely important. Good fielders - Mohammad Azharuddin was one such - wait till the very last moment to switch on, which is only after the bowler jumps in his delivery stride.
Every slip fielder, depending on where he stands, needs to look out for certain things. For example, the first slip must follow the path of the ball right from the moment it leaves the bowler's hand. Those from second to gully are advised to concentrate on the outer edge of the bat. Keeping the head still is paramount while fielding in the slip cordon. While you can watch the bowler and follow the path of the ball to the batsman without moving your head from first slip, it's almost impossible to do so while standing wider.
While it is important to field with soft hands to avoid the ball popping out, on the basis of my experience and from watching others, it's equally important to keep your hands firm to counter the pace at which the ball is travelling.
Staying low - maintaining a low centre of gravity - and keeping your weight on the inside of the balls of your feet are also important. That not only helps you to take low catches but also allows for swift sideways movement. Mark Taylor used to stand at slip with his knees bent inwards to shift the weight to the inside of the balls of his feet.
Remember to open your toes in the direction of the ball. It will allow you to follow the ball better and also increases your reach. Mark Waugh took those catches that seemed to have gone past him with brilliant reflexes, great hands, and by opening his toes.
Perhaps the toughest place to field. Most catches that go to gully are hit very hard and you need super-quick reflexes to catch them. In ODIs, the fielder at gully is only 15 metres away, which under normal circumstances gives you very little time to react, let alone try to catch a Virender Sehwag cut off Shoaib Akhtar. That's why in one-dayers most teams prefer to keep two slips instead of a slip and a gully.
Standing at gully to spinners is tougher. The only way of taking a catch off a spinner is when the batsman has played a front-foot shot: you get more time to react and the ball is relatively slower. The moment a batsman goes on the back foot and plays an aggressive shot, you pray it doesn't come your way because your reflexes might not be sharp enough to save you. The best fielder I have seen at gully is Delhi's Ranji player KP Bhaskar.
Point and square leg
This is also a specialist position, usually manned by the quickest fielders in the team. At point, the ball spins rapidly away from you, so you need to be alert to intercept, recover the ball and return accurately. This is where getting a good start and cutting angles come in. Jonty Rhodes, arguably the best fielder at point, used to take a longish start and then hop into a near-stationary position just before the ball was hit. The stationary position is called "base-up" and it is extremely important to attain at the time the batsman hits the ball because it's not possible to move sideways when the body is in forward motion. By taking a longish start, Rhodes would also reduce the angles. The closer you are to the batsman, the smaller the angles; the farther you are, the greater the angle and hence that much tougher to stop. You will need good reflexes if you come too close because the ball is moving faster, but good fielders back their reflexes to do the job.
While playing for the Kolkata Knight Riders, Ricky Ponting told us the importance of getting in line with the target while throwing. To hit the stumps consistently, you must get into the right position as soon as possible. Perhaps that's the reason Ponting hits the stumps more than the rest. At times, you may have to throw while off balance, but it should be an aberration and not a norm.
Fielding in the covers and at midwicket also requires similar skills. But fielders at those positions don't have to deal with the ball spinning away from them.
If fielding in the 30-yard circle is mostly about intercepting, fielding at the fence is about getting in the right position to receive the ball. The boundary runners cover the ground quicker than the rest and possess good throwing arms. They must also cut angles instead of running in an arc. This saves time and gets them closer to the target.
Boundary fielders are usually good catchers of the long ball too. If you have the time to get under the ball and stabilise yourself before catching, you have more chances to succeed.
Though you get watchful the moment the ball is hit in your direction, it's impossible to train all your concentration on it all the way through. There are way too many things in the frame - the batsman, the ground, other fielders, the crowd etc. So initially you just focus on getting into the right position while keeping an eye on the ball. This is called soft focus.
But when the ball is only a few yards away, everything else fades away into oblivion and you start focusing completely on the ball, all the way into your hands. This is hard focus.
Sliding and diving
Sliding and stopping the ball is an effective way to prevent runs, and also, if managed right, to get up and into the right position to throw quickly. The trick is to time your slide in such a way that you go past the ball. You can pull out of a slide whenever you want, but it's not possible to extend a slide beyond a point.
While diving to catch, it's important you avoid your elbows hitting the ground, for that can make the ball pop out on landing. Good core strength allows you to recover quickly after diving.
A good fielding unit can make an ordinary bowling line-up effective and a poor fielding performance can make a good bowling line-up look ordinary. Unlike batting and bowling, fielding has little to do with luck. Pitches or your opponent's skill don't matter. You won't get a great ball, as you might while batting, or a belter of a track as while bowling. The conditions mostly remain the same throughout the match and for both teams.
When Azhar led the Indian team to South Africa in 1992-93, after a couple of games they decided to either not play the square cut at all or to run only after the ball had passed the wall called Rhodes. On bouncy tracks, the square cut is your bread-and-butter shot, and the area behind point is the most productive region in which to score runs. Imagine a team eliminating it from their gameplan because of one fielder. And if one fielder could do that, imagine the impact a good fielding unit can have on the opposition.