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The slips just keep on coming: How England's fielding is undermining their Test ambitions

Problems mount after three or more missed catches in a Test on five occasions this year alone

George Dobell
George Dobell
An unsettled slip cordon has put down a number of chances this year  •  Getty Images

An unsettled slip cordon has put down a number of chances this year  •  Getty Images

It was the sixth anniversary of Stuart Broad's career-best performance on Friday. If you need a reminder, Broad claimed 8 for 15 as Australia were bowled out for 60 on the first morning of a Test. Happy days.
The other feature of England's cricket that day was their catching. Remember Ben Stokes' stunning catch at fifth slip to remove Adam Voges? While that was a high point, it was also characteristic of a series in which England generally fielded well. A pre-series training camp in Spain was subsequently credited though, in retrospect, it might also be relevant that it was, to some extent, a new-look England side who had just welcomed a new coach in Trevor Bayliss and were still fresh, focused and confident.
It all seems a long time ago now. For, as three catches went down in India's first innings here, it sustained a grim record which has played a significant role in their struggles as a Test side. Maybe a side with a formidably strong top-order could afford such profligacy in the field. A side struggling for runs as England are simply cannot.
This was, according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, the fifth time in 2021 England had put down three or more catches in an innings. Even more damning was a table shown by Sky Sports which showed that, since the start of 2019, England were ranked ninth among the Test nations in terms of slip catching. By the end of the day, with both Joe Root and Dom Sibley having put down chances in the slips, they were down in tenth. New Zealand, by contrast, take around 90 percent of the chances offered to them in the slips. England take just under 75 percent.
Spare a thought for James Anderson, in particular. Since the start of 2018, he has seen 22 chances put down off his bowling in Test cricket including 16 in England. To put that in perspective, Anderson has taken 99 wickets in that period. Only Nathan Lyon has seen more catches dropped off his bowling (27) in Tests over the same timeframe.
There's probably some mitigation. Just as batting in England, against the Dukes and in conditions where the ball may move in the air more than elsewhere, is generally more demanding, so it stands to reason that fielding - and slip catching, in particular - may also be a bit more difficult.
But it's not just the catching that was underwhelming. England also missed four realistic run-out chances in India's innings. And while direct hits are always going to be difficult, there were a couple of errors which suggested a lack of technique or composure that was more of a worry. One of those saw Dan Lawrence attempt a direct hit when he could have simply thrown to the keeper - a point Jos Buttler seemed to make to him at the time - while another saw Rory Burns fail to aim at the base of the stumps and his throw bounce over them as a consequence. The first of those could have run out Ravi Jadeja on 4; he went on to make 56. In a low-scoring match, such moments may be definitive.
At such times, it is inevitable that attention will focus on the fielding coach, Carl Hopkinson. While it's unfortunate that his name lends himself to the nickname 'Dropkinson', his long-term reputation is very good, so it seems somewhat facile to presume that replacing him will resolve the issue. The use of specialist consultants may be of some benefit, but it really is possible Hopkinson has made a poor fielding side almost as good as they could possibly become.
It's worth focusing on that point for a moment. For in that 2015 Ashes series, England not only had Stokes available - and, at that stage, Stokes looked an outstanding fielder in almost every position - but they also had Ian Bell and Adam Lyth in the slips. Lyth, whatever his issues with the bat, remains outstanding in that position and took eight catches in his seven Tests. Sibley, who stood at second slip here, has taken 11 in his first 20-and-a-half Tests. Dan Lawrence has taken one in seven-and-a-half. The lack of a settled side is one issue - England have utilised five Test keepers since September 2019, for a start; building a settled slip cordon has been almost impossible - but the raw standards of resources is also a factor.
So, maybe selection is part of the potential solution here. We live in an era when data is supposedly used to inform selection - though what data decided Jason Roy was a good option for the opening position in the 2019 Ashes remains unclear - so perhaps data related to prospective selections' fielding should be given more weighting? Paul Collingwood is a fine example of a player whose value to the side was never adequately defined by his batting or bowling average; the value of his fielding was, at times, immense. Haseeb Hameed, who would appear to be next in line for a top-order spot, wouldn't appear to offer significant improvement in the field.
England's schedule may be an issue here. They play so often that time to work on such skills is limited. Take this week, for example: they travel on Monday and are expected to have light training sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday ahead of the second Test which starts on Thursday. And while the same applies to India, they did have a training camp ahead of the series. England's players were, in general, involved in different white-ball sides and came together a few days before the first Test. And while their white-ball sides are generally very good in the field, it's the specific Test skills - notably slip fielding - which appears to be holding them back in Test cricket. They really are going to have to dedicate more time and thought to the issue if they are going to improve.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo