Playing The Fielder: Friction Burns & Occasional Glory

The fielder is cricket’s labourer; the unsung hero who toils to save runs for his team. There is rarely any glory in this functional but vital role; the plaudits are usually taken by the bowlers especially when a delivery sends the stumps flying in a frenzied visual delight. But periodically the fielder steps into light when he takes a catch or engineers a thrilling run out. Breathtaking running in the outfield or reflex actions at slip can turn a match. However, a dropped catch can be costly and open the door to a big partnership or match winning innings. The maxim that ‘catches win matches’ is quite simply one of cricket’s commandments.

A captain will set their field with strategic precision, recalling the distant notion of battles won on the playing fields of Eton. Fielders will be moved like pieces on a chess board to accommodate the batsman on strike. A field will be adjusted to probe for weaknesses in stance; the tendency to hook or cut a certain delivery will be noted accordingly. Hushed conversations in the outfield look more like a meeting of Mafia bosses as they plot their next move. A batsman is rarely dismissed by one ball but a series of deliveries with the assistance of willing fielders. A player who slides in to save one run when three have already been run will inspire his teammates. They are the indispensable cogs in a team’s wheel.

Fielders will occupy positions within the perimeter of mid-wicket and cover point if they want to turn the screw on the batsmen. Typically, the slip fielders will take the lion’s share of catches in this scenario. The top 10 for most catches in test cricket strongly favours fielders at slip. Rahul Dravid tops the list with 210 catches over a sixteen year test career. His prowess at slip has now entered into the game’s folklore. Dravid’s catching skills developed early as wicketkeeper for India at U15 and U17 level. But competition for the role forced him into the outfield.

He came under the tutelage of Aussie legend Bobby Simpson who acted as consultant to the Indian team. He provided vital technical guidance as Dravid explained to Wisden in 2020 “one of the things he stressed was having your feet bent so that you could get your weight into the balls of your feet. That was something I took to heart and practised a lot”. Mahela Jayawardene of Sri Lanka is only 5 catches behind Dravid, and similarly coped with turning subcontinent pitches. He was an outstanding foil for the spinners and loved fielding at slip to Muttiah Muralitharan. Together they accounted for 77 dismissals in 96 test matches, a unique record unlikely to be equalled.

Mark Waugh of Australia is often looked upon as the consummate slip fielder. Graham Gooch once described him as the greatest natural catcher. Sitting at no.5 in the all-time list, Waugh stressed “don’t try and catch the ball, let the ball catch you”. As Darren Berry recounted to Cricket Monthly in May 2015 “Waugh relaxed when the ball took the edge and simply positioned his hands behind its line and absorbed its force. No tension, no panic”.

Whilst technique is important the other vital element is concentration. Ex-England international Ian Peebles once wrote Collectively and individually fielding is largely a matter of thoughts and discipline”. It comes as no great surprise that aside from all-rounder Jaques Kallis, the top 10 is comprised entirely of batsmen. They will spend many hours at the crease where concentration is everything and focus will logically fall on field placings. A key attribute for any slip fielder is to watch the trajectory of the ball through delivery, strike and/or miss; something that comes naturally to a frontline batsman.

Ricky Ponting (handily placed at no.4 in the all-time list) once said “Every batsman surveys the field before taking the strike and usually the fielders get imprinted on his mind. But in my head I don’t see the fielders I see the gaps”. Little wonder that batsmen make such effective slip fielders while bowlers are generally placed in the long and deep positions. The odd man out amongst this elite group of batsmen is Jaques Kallis. The South African lies third in the all-time list with 200 catches taken mainly at slip. Such stats are breathtaking when taken in context with his overall record at Test level. Kallis scored over 13,000 runs including 45 centuries and 292 wickets at an average of 32. It seems reasonable to conclude that Kallis is the ultimate all-rounder with no discernible weaknesses.

A fair way down the list in equal 40th place is Ajinkya Rahane of India. But still deserves an honourable mention as he took eight catches in a single Test match against Sri Lanka. He became the first outfielder to achieve a feat which hitherto was the exclusive territory of wicket keepers. In January 2021, Wisden excitedly reported a crucial catch in the third test against Australia. It brought inevitable comparisons with Rahul Dravid as a slip fielder.

Rahane took a catch at slip off the bowling of Ravindra Jadeja to dismiss Marnus Labuschagne who was on 91. It broke his partnership with Steve Smith which stood at 100 and unsettled the Aussies sufficiently to lose their next four wickets for 72 runs. Australia was restricted to 338 when a hefty first innings total was in the offing. It helped India secure a draw with the series poised at 1-1. They won the final test and the series 2-1. It’s tempting to overplay the significance, but one catch may have saved the match and series for India such is the power of pivotal moments.

Another close fielding position to garner attention is the perfectly named silly point. The fielder stands on the offside, around three to five yards away from the batsman on strike. Such brave souls put themselves in line with both the ball and a swinging bat. Ricky Ponting has again distinguished himself in this position having no need of a protective helmet. In the 5th test of the Ashes in 2009 Ponting was hit by a Matt Prior drive, which rather neatly split both his upper and lower lip. Prior asked if he was ok; Ponting replied with appropriate Anglo Saxon invective in keeping with the occasion.

Whilst this wonderful game is open to interpretation and analysis, there are certain realities as to where a player fields. A captain will logically place his best fielders close in, whilst those less able will occupy long and deep positions. They prevent boundaries being scored and hopefully take catches when the batsman skies a delivery. Some bowlers aren’t particularly gifted in the fielding department as Ian Chappell once quipped “the other advantage that England have when Phil Tufnell is bowling is that he isn’t fielding”.

It does perhaps raise the broader question of dropped catches and mis-fields. How many are clear cut opportunities or at best a 50/50 half chance of dismissal? Stats can be very obliging and give us the result we need to suit our argument. In an article for Cricket Monthly, statistician Charles Davis suggested that about seven catches are missed per Test. On first glance, it seems incredibly high when measurement is taken at the highest level of the game. However, in the course of a Test match even a casual observer could spot three or four chances that have gone begging.

Between 2000 and 2016 Davis collected missed chances in ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball texts for test matches. He would search for key words and phrases that might indicate a miss, from ‘drop’ and ‘dolly’ to ‘shell’, ‘grass’ and ‘hash’. As part of the process he also checked match reports and other ball-by-ball sources. Whilst it hardly seems scientific it’s as good a method as any; and a third of all test matches were analysed so provides a good working sample.

There were many additional caveats which are too numerous to list here but Davis produced some fascinating results. Missed chances would include catches and stumpings expressed as a percentage. By country Bangladesh came out with the highest rate of misses with a touch over 33%. The country with the lowest rate of misses was South Africa with a lean and mean 21%. The majority of countries occupied the mid-range of around 25% and included England, Australia and Sri Lanka. The West Indies and Pakistan were closer to Bangladesh with 30%.

Chances missed by position seemed to be fairly evenly spread. However, the biggest surprise was the percentage of misses recorded against the bowler (47%). I would never have previously considered the bowler a fielding position, but admittedly is well placed to take catches and save runs. Close behind was short leg (38%) and stumpings (36%). Slip registered 29% while gully came out at 30%.

Errors made by fielders always seem to stand out more as the impact is immediately obvious. A fielder could drop what appears to be a very simple catch, but is actually the result of a poor delivery from the bowler. Nevertheless it’s the fielder that gets stick for missing the opportunity. The figures prepared by Charles Davis show how frequently chances are missed; but also show how often they are taken. The stats for misses by country show at the very least that 70% of chances are converted. But as so often the case we don’t notice when things go right, but always notice when they go wrong.

Brian Penn

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