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What makes a good close-in catcher?

Murali's men, who crowded around already nervous batsmen, talk of the fearlessness and intelligence the profession needs

Tom Latham prepares to take a stunning catch to dismiss Faf du Plessis, New Zealand v South Africa, 3rd Test, Hamilton, 2nd day, March 26, 2017

Tom Latham anticipates Faf du Plessis' paddle sweep and sets off  •  Getty Images

Before Faf du Plessis has even planted his front foot, Tom Latham has pushed off the ground with his hands and has begun darting right. In ages past, short-leg fielders ducked and turned and cowered when batsmen shaped to sweep. But this is not just a different age, it's a different sweep. The ball comes off the dead middle of du Plessis' bat. Latham tracks it, briefly waves his hands about his face, but eventually shoots out his right arm. He clings to the ball like an action hero to the side of a speeding truck - shades and all, body trailing behind him, limbs photogenically extended.
If the case is being made that this is the best short-leg catch ever, it is a compelling one. Short of levitating towards the ball, or performing a somersault as he caught it, Latham's every move was near-perfect.
"What Tom did there was anticipate when Faf was going to play the sweep shot, and that's the thing: understanding the shots a batsman plays," says Mahela Jayawardene, former Sri Lanka captain, close-catcher extraordinaire, and current coach of Mumbai Indians. "The way Faf went down there, you knew it was going to be a paddle sweep - it wasn't going to be a flat, hard sweep. Those kinds of attributes go towards being a good short leg fielder."
What else makes a good close catcher? Few ought to know as well as Jayawardene, because arguably short legs and silly points have not known a harvest like in the roaring noughties in Sri Lanka, when Muttiah Muralitharan routinely baffled batsmen on tracks designed specifically to amplify his threat. Jayawardene usually stood at slip directing his troops, but he was not an uncommon presence at silly point himself. Between him, Hashan Tillakaratne, Russel Arnold and Tillakaratne Dilshan, Sri Lanka had a sharp close-in phalanx.
"The No. 1 thing when you're fielding there is not being afraid to get hit," Jayawardene says. "You can see with the way Tom reacted that he was feeling very comfortable fielding there. The guy who's not afraid of getting hit - the first thing will be that his weight and everything will be going forward, because a lot of the catches will come down at you. The guy who's a bit worried, the first reaction is always going to be to fall back or turn around. Then that limits you."
Rangana Herath, who, since effectively taking over from Murali, has not quite had the fielding support his predecessor enjoyed, puts it rather more bluntly: "If you're constantly worried - if you're always thinking: 'Will it hit me? Will it hit me? Will it hit me?' - then, honestly, there's actually no use in putting that man there."
But if fearlessness is a close fielder's most vaunted quality, then the bowler also has a role in putting catching men at ease in their workspace. Arnold, who was regularly at silly point during the Murali years, remembers the difference a good bowler made.
"For me to be in there, if the bugger is bowling crap, I'm worried - that's the natural instinct," he says. "During our time, we had the luxury of Murali, and I don't think I ever felt unsafe when he was bowling. Me, Dilshan and Mahela used to do so many things. We were falling on the pitch every ball when batsmen were squeezing the ball between bat and pad. We were just jumping around everywhere, getting ourselves in the way of the ball. When one sticks, you've got a wicket.
"Actually when you have a bowler that's that good, and you know the batsmen aren't going to try anything, suddenly what seems like a dangerous position can be enjoyable. I remember one time when Jacques Kallis was trying to hammer him, Dilshan jokingly yelled out: 'Mou mata gahanna yanava, mokak hari kiyapan, [This p***k is trying to hit me, please say something to him'] - because Dilshan's English wasn't that great at the time. We had a lot of fun because we honestly felt safe. How else are we going to be cocky like that?"
Game awareness
The cockiness itself may help the fielder gain some psychological ground on the batsman, but if attitude can be allied to a sharp cricket mind then all the better. In addition to attempting to change the way a batsman plays, close catchers must log information on what the bowler, the pitch and the batsman are doing, then play these variants off against each other in order to compute their optimal position.
Imagine, for example, that an offspinner is bowling to a right-hand batsman. At the start of the match, while the pitch is still new, the ball is likely to fly quickly off thick inside edges, so the short leg might do well to position himself straighter - well in front of the crease. As the track begins to take more turn, the chances of it collecting a thinner edge increase, so he might find the catches flying finer. The reverse applies for a left-arm spinner bowling to a right-hander: short leg might start the match square, and incrementally move straighter as the pitch slows up.
"The bowler knows where the ball is likely to go, and the fielder should know that as well," Herath says. "It's a percentage game. If there are three balls that go through there, you've got to give yourself a chance of catching at least one. You've got to always be thinking what kind of bowler is operating.
"I bowl wicket to wicket usually, and so the chances of it going to the off side, for a right-hander, are slimmer. The ball naturally goes in. You can't just be passive in those positions. You have to work out in your head where the catches are coming and be proactive."
The batsman's defensive technique also plays a role in positioning. "I took a catch one day at Galle," Arnold says, "diving across Daryl Cullinan - maybe halfway on the other side of the pitch. Watching Cullinan play, he squeezes the ball between bat and pad. The ball will always just drop, and with Murali, they wouldn't try things.
"So, from silly mid-off, every ball I was diving across, and one stuck. But someone like Jonty Rhodes or Nasser Hussain, you can't come in, because they lunge at the ball. Bang! It comes out quick. For them you have to stand a little further back."
Energy and gamesmanship
Beyond the catching, and even the blocking of shots, the close fielders' access to the batsman throws open further modes of attack. "Some batsmen don't like fielders in their eyeline when they try to play a spin bowler," says Herath. Occasionally, he finds, a batsman begins to falter simply because the short leg has been moved over to silly point. And with so many fielders ringing the one opposition man, there is also the opportunity for a little theatre - all of which endeavours to make the batsman feel besieged.
"If you're being lethargic, the batsman is also calmer, but when things are happening, even the boru [fake] show can work," Arnold says. "That's why they say, always ping the ball back to the keeper - make the batsman move even. The idea is not to hit him but to show him that even after he's hit it, he can't relax. If he thinks: 'Bloody hell, the bugger's trying to hit me', it just adds a weight. Sometimes Dilshan would break the wicket and shout for no reason. Then the batsman is not thinking of the next ball - he's thinking of this idiot's mischief. It's about upsetting that batsman's thought process."
There is one other thing that catchers have access to, and in their use of the following strategy, Sri Lanka's noughties team achieved a higher plane of mischief than most manage. In any case, the tactic requires a talent for misdirection that seems beyond the skill of the current team.
"When Murali was bowling, we had the understanding that if I'm at silly mid-off, and it goes to the leg side, then I'm getting it. If it's on my side, the guy on the other side runs across to get it. Why?" asks Russel.
Easier to run forwards?
"No, men - running on the pitch! If it comes to my side, I'm looking lazy, and that bugger is being proactive, so he runs on the pitch to come across. We had a lot of those things going on. Other teams run on the pitch also, but I don't think any of them did what we did." Also, who is to say that when the ball falls on the pitch, the man who swoops in to field it might not, on occasion, make a slyly positioned turn here, or drag his heels there?
Can the position evolve?
Latham's catch - a first of its kind in international cricket - may prompt more close fielders to attempt more of those intercept catches. The paddle sweep and the reverse paddle are especially vulnerable to interceptions, as the stroke is relatively easy to read, generally sends the ball into the air for a short distance, and does so without generating much extra power off the bat. Wicketkeepers have been blocking those shots for years. Although Misbah-ul-Haq has devised a "feint paddle", which sends keeper and slip running towards the leg side, only for Misbah to change the shot and deflect it fine of third man, the innovation has not spread further afield.
"If the batsman is playing those sweeps and paddle sweeps, you should push the short leg back by a few yards to give them an opportunity - at least for a short period - to anticipate and go and take those catches," Jayawardene says. "That's going to play on the batsman's mind as well, and maybe you can get him out in a different way."
In fact, in Bangladesh's recent Tests in Sri Lanka, Niroshan Dickwella was out playing a reverse paddle in the first Test and a paddle sweep in the second - intercepted by the wicketkeeper, though, on both occasions, the close fielders also began to move in the direction they expected the ball to head in.
"It's just like anything else at short leg or silly point," says Arnold. "There's nothing to say that the ball's going to come to you. It's about getting yourself into a position to give you a chance of taking the catch or making the stop."

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando