After 'big emphasis' on improvement, South Africa get their slip-catching mojo back
South Africa created 14 catching chances in the first Test against West Indies and took 13 of them
Dean Elgar had asked for centuries and five-fors in his first series in charge of South Africa's Test team and, so far, Quinton de Kock, Lungi Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada have delivered. Though he didn't say it, Elgar probably also wanted everyone to hold on to catches after South Africa spilt eight chances in their last two Test series. Cue a near-perfect performance against West Indies in the first Test, with only one chance put down, and even the things Elgar didn't know he had wished for had come true. South Africa created 14 catching chances in the first Test and took 13. Their only miss was Kyle Verreynne putting down Roston Chase on 6, while stationed at short leg. Ngidi was the bowler denied, after taking 5 for 19 in the first innings, and Chase went on to make 62, the highest West Indies score of the match. It was a miss all right, but in the context of the game, it didn't change much. South Africa still won by an innings and 63 runs.
Notably, ten of the 13 successful grabs were behind the stumps: seven in the slips, two by the wicketkeeper, and one at gully. That's the region in which South Africa dropped seven catches collectively against Sri Lanka last year and Pakistan earlier this year - five in the slips and two by the wicketkeeper.
"We came under criticism over the last few series we played so there was a big emphasis on trying to get it (our fielding standards) back," Justin Ontong, the fielding coach, said. "And there was quite a bit of assistance for the seamers and we knew that slip-catching was going to be a critical part of winning the game."
He put South Africa's previous lapses down to changing personnel in the cordon after the retirements of high-profile regulars. "We've lost the likes of Faf (du Plessis) and Hashim (Amla), and they played a huge part," Ontong explained.
"You want to try and get your best slip fielders in positions two and three. That was a key area for us. Aiden and Wiaan were exceptional in this Test. It was a matter of getting them in the right places"
Against Sri Lanka, du Plessis was still part of the Test outfit and was in the slips, but against Pakistan, South Africa used Elgar, who dropped two chances, Rassie van der Dussen, who has since been moved to the covers where he had a flawless match against West Indies, Temba Bavuma, who put down a catch against Sri Lanka and two against Pakistan including at leg slip, and, occasionally, Aiden Markram. Against West Indies, they settled on Elgar, Markram and Wiaan Mulder, who took four catches all told, including the toughest one.
Mulder reacted quickly to pouch the chance off Kyle Mayers' edge, off Anrich Nortje, which had to be taken low down at third slip, which he has likely cemented as his spot. "You want to try and get your best slip fielders in positions two and three. That was a key area for us," Ontong said. "Aiden and Wiaan were exceptional in this Test. It was a matter of getting them in the right places."
Ontong said the coaching staff identified Markram and Mulder as members of the cordon because, "normally good batsmen are good slip fielders, they have good eyes and good reflexes". They then did specialised work to prepare them for the task: "It's good to have Mark Boucher (as a coach) who has played a lot of Tests and stood behind the stumps. There's some great input from him. We do a lot of one-handed stuff, reflex work to sharpen the guys up and so far the guys have responded well."
So well, that Ontong couldn't identify any areas that need improving ahead of the second Test on Friday and said South Africa would work to maintain the bar they have set. "It's difficult to follow a Test match like the first one. We were brilliant in all three departments," he said. "There's going to be harder work behind the scenes to make sure we don't drop standards."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent