News Analysis

Australia 'proud' of fielding efforts - but have they been the best?

Fielding has always been a grey area in cricket, but Australia's emphasis on "creating energy in the ring" tells a story in itself

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Glenn Maxwell combines with Aaron Finch for a superb catch, England v Australia, World Cup 2019, Lord's, June 25, 2019

Glenn Maxwell combines with Aaron Finch for a superb catch  •  Getty Images

Fielding is one of cricket's grey areas even in this age of data. It is debatable how much it matters, clearly being the least important of the four main skills, behind bowling, batting and wicketkeeping. Then there is no agreement on how to measure or assess fielding. It is mostly subjective, and on occasions good fielding - reaching but failing to catch a ball that another fielder would have struggled to get near - can count as a drop.
Does fielding have an intangible effect on the energy you see in other skills? There are bowlers known to lose heart if catches keep getting dropped off them, especially at slip. Or do other skills have that intangible impact on the fielding? If bowlers are known to keep creating chances, fielders are less likely to lose energy at missing one catch. Some observers tend to look at fielding as an indicator of where a team is at, but then again if a team is good enough at the other three disciplines it can keep bouncing back from dropped catches.
Aaron Finch, Australia's captain, looks at it as a barometer himself. "It is not always the outcome," Finch says. "It's just about the intent, the intent with which you throw the ball, you attack the ball, cutting off ones in the circle. So it's always been a big part of our DNA of how we play our best one-day cricket and it says a lot about the attitude that the team brings on that day. We know [that] when we are playing our best, we are in the ring, we are cutting off ones, we are making the opposition feel uncomfortable with our movement in the ring and angles that we are moving."
Catches are not the only part of fielding when it comes to limited-overs cricket. Runs saved are important; they can at times create wickets if they combine well with good bowling. Ground fielding, how well you back throws up, how you anticipate balls, it all adds up. While arguments can continue over the importance of fielding, teams continue to talk about its importance, about how much pride they take in fielding well.
Australia, for example, are proud they have made their way back to the top of the fielding ratings. It can be arguable if they really have, but it is not an outrageous claim by any stretch of imagination. Fielding has three complex components: catches, runs saved and run-outs. Run-outs are the most complex because they are the most prone to be considered as missed chances just because you got to the ball sooner. Also while there is a lot of practice involved in direct hits, a lot of luck goes in too.
To look at ground fielding and catching more than run-outs won't be amiss. According to ESPncricinfo's data, Australia are not on top of either of these disciplines. That doesn't mean they are not the best team, though, because those ahead of them on each count are not the same sides. Australia have saved 42 runs in the field (79 saved and 37 missed), and have taken 89.3% of their catches.
Prepare yourself for a big surprise, if you haven't followed this side closely, but West Indies have saved more runs in the field than Australia, and they have taken two catches - Sheldon Cottrell and Fabian Allen - that can possibly compete for being the grab of the tournament. England have saved five more runs than West Indies' 51, but both these sides have also been less efficient than Australia when it comes to catching. The only team more efficient than Australia with their catching is India, who have dropped only two of the 37 chances that have come their way, but their ground fielding stands at a negative of 23. New Zealand have saved 41 runs but they have also dropped 18 out of 65 catches.
Fielding is great fun when you are doing it well. If you look around our group, we have got some of the best fielders in the world
Australia captain Aaron Finch
Clearly Australia were not this tight in the year leading up to the tournament because Finch sounds chuffed with the turnaround. "We put a lot of emphasis on our fielding," Finch says. "We pride ourselves on it. We work very hard on it. We are judged extremely hard from our coaches, JL [Justin Langer, head coach], Punter [Ricky Ponting, assistant coach], Hadds [Brad Haddin, fielding coach], on our fielding.
"So we have always prided ourselves on it, and touch wood, it's been very good in this tournament so far. There's been a lot of work that's gone into that over quite a long period of time. A lot of blood, sweat and tears in some fielding sessions that have happened over the last couple of months in particular.
"Fielding is great fun when you are doing it well, and I think that is one thing. If you look around our group, we have got some of the best fielders in the world. Obviously Davey [Warner] is not throwing like he was a few years ago [because of a previous shoulder injury], but Maxie [Glenn Maxwell] is as good as anyone in the world, Smithy [Steven Smith] is right up there. Nathan Lyon is seriously as good as anyone. And when you have got a lot of guys that can field in a lot of different positions, I think that inner circle becomes really crucial, and we are able to create a lot of energy and a lot of indecision in the ring."
It can't be denied what a joy it is to watch a smooth fielding unit where everyone knows their role and performs it perfectly: the keeper running in if a ball is hit to point, two fielders chasing that ball should a relay throw be needed, square leg behind the keeper to collect the over-throw, the ball reaching the bowler quickly and saving over-rate hassles. Whether it is the cause or the effect, it is that joy that sides are after.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo