Let us now praise the great fielders

Down the years, the top teams have had many agile, quick practitioners of the art

Ian Chappell
Ian Chappell
Ricky Ponting (right) and Andrew Symonds at practice a couple of days before the match, West Indies v Australia, 2nd Test, Antigua, May 28, 2008

Andrew Symonds and Ricky Ponting were among Australia's finest in the field  •  Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

The tragic death of Andrew Symonds in a road accident brought to my mind the importance of fielding in the game of cricket.
While playing, Symonds never took a bad route to the ball as an excellent infielder. Taking the right route doesn't necessarily mean moving in a straight line; it's about always putting yourself in the correct position to throw accurately to the vulnerable end. Symonds did this every time he fielded the ball and it aided him in ambushing batsmen.
When he came into the Australian side it allowed the versatile Ricky Ponting to move into the slips, where his superb hand-eye coordination helped him enjoy success. At the time Ponting and South Africa's agile point fielder Jonty Rhodes, were regarded as the hottest fielding duo in the game. I preferred Ponting on the basis that though both were great run savers and induced a huge amount of uncertainty with their skill, Ponting was a very accurate thrower. He was more likely to cause a run-out as his throws regularly hit the stumps or just missed the target. Rhodes, on the other hand, could win a sprint to the stumps but was unlikely to hit the target with a throw from an acceptable distance.
This is a crucial aspect of fielding and must be taken into account when assessing the merits of a player. In the Australia side of my time, I rated Doug Walters ahead of the athletic Paul Sheahan as our best infielder. Both were great run savers and speedy movers but Walters was immaculate with the accuracy of his throw. There used to be a country saying about direct hits: "There are no live rabbits where he comes from." There must have been very few live rabbits around Dungog in Walters' youth.
Another great combination was the English pairing of David Gower and Derek Randall. Such was their athletic ability that it allowed their fortunate captain to place one on each side of the field.
Another brilliant Australian cover fieldsman was Neil Harvey, who was revered as someone who "never got grass on his creams" but saved multiple runs and effected run-outs when ill-advised runners took on his lightning throw. Harvey emphasised his great skill by taking many superb catches when, later in his career, he moved into the slips.
West Indies had a number of great cover fielders and high on the list was the early-days Clive Lloyd. His agility earned him the nickname "Super Cat", when he prowled the covers and made many spectacular plays with his speed, long arms, and fast throw.
Taking the right route to the ball doesn't necessarily mean moving in a straight line; it's about always putting yourself in the correct position to throw accurately to the vulnerable end
Like Lloyd and Harvey, Viv Richards moved into the slips later in his career and performed brilliantly, but he was among the best when he patrolled the infield. He was extremely athletic and possessed a strong, accurate throw, and like all good fielders, he was highly competitive.
The reason Sir Garfield Sobers isn't mentioned more often as a superb infielder is because he spent much time bowling and caught brilliantly in the slip cordon. However, when he was in the infield, if you underestimated his prowess, you did so at your own peril.
Two of India's best in the infield were the quick Mohammad Azharuddin and the Nawab of Pataudi Jr. Azharuddin was often underestimated but I rated him one of the best all-round fielders with his quickness, accuracy and catching ability. "Tiger" was credited with improving a poor Indian fielding side with his brilliant cover-point work. In an Indian cricket documentary, he referred to India's poor fielding by saying: "The batsmen used to go into the slips and drop all the catches." It created a lot of laughter but Pataudi was recognised as the player who altered the Indian fielding mentality.
Good fielding is expected at international level. However, consistently excellent fielding can help win cricket matches, and is what most captains dream about.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is a columnist