‘Catches win matches’. It’s a conventional cliche, but it does stand true. When Brendon McCullum was dropped in the slip cordon back in 2014 at Wellington, the New Zealander ensured he made India pay for this. McCullum went on to smash a record triple hundred and demonstrated how costly dropping catches could be in Test cricket. With India all set to tour South Africa in few weeks time, let’s introspect India’s slip fielding and how fatal the butterfingers could be on bouncy wickets.
Slip catching has been India’s major concern for a while now. It’s true, to succeed in that area one requires a different set of skills. One may be an outstanding outfielder but might struggle to get going in the slip cordon. It demands monk-like temperament and ability to stay focused for hours without any lapse of concentration, even for a blink of an eye. A fielder may be stranded for hours without any action in the slip cordon, but a fine edge might take him for a surprise out of the blue. He needs to be prepared for such occasional chances coming his way.
India romped home with another series victory against Sri Lanka at home and continued their unbeaten streak in this format. One wouldn’t be wrong in saying that India could have won the series by 2-0 had all the catches been cupped in the Delhi Test.
Sri Lanka put up a fight in the first innings with the bat and made Indian bowlers toil, which is rare. Angelo Mathews and skipper Dinesh Chandimal stitched a crucial partnership to weather the early storm and sail the Sri Lankan ship out of choppy waters. Mathews, who last scored a ton in September 2015, reached the 100-run mark for the first time on Indian soil after being dropped twice in the slip cordon.
Earlier, opener Dilruwan Perera also got a reprieve and eventually ended up scoring 42 vital runs when Shikhar Dhawan squandered an opportunity at second slip. Mathews was first dropped by skipper Virat Kohli while batting on six after which, Rohit Sharma gave him another life when he was just two short of the milestone. All the catches were dropped at second slip. Overall, these three dropped catches cost 131 runs to India, which is huge. And who knows, what score Chandimal would have managed had he not had a settled batsman in Mathews at the other end?
How badly does a dropped catch in slip cordon really affects? It takes a lot for the bowler to induce a fine outside edge that carries to the slip cordon. He has to set a batsman up and make him play to those deliveries, it involves a lot of hard work. A dropped catch not only shatters the confidence of a bowler but also gives the batsman a psychological edge. After getting a reprieve, most of the batsmen might become more cautious and bat sensibly, further provide less room for error.
One of the main reasons behind India’s failure in the slip cordon has been the rotation of slip fielders. For example, all the three catches in Delhi Test were dropped at second slip. But India had three different victims on every occasion. One needs to show faith in slip fielders and just can’t keep shuffling, as the angle at which ball comes is different at every position. And it takes time to develop such instinct and get used to it.
India does have one of the best fielding sides in international cricket, but somehow the slip cordon still looks vulnerable. The catches that were dropped on a sluggish Delhi wicket were all regulation ones and couldn’t get simpler than this. They have the potential but need to identify players, groom them as specialists and assign them to slip positions for a longer period of time.
The likes of Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravindra Jadeja, Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and much more render fielding a joy to behold. There is no reason why this crop of fielders cannot develop into a strong slip cordon.
Cheteshwar Pujara threw some light on India’s problems in the slip cordon after the Delhi Test. “It is a difficult question to answer as I don’t know technically what is going wrong. I do agree that we haven’’t taken enough catches, we are working hard. To be honest, we put in a lot of hard work in our fielding, especially we know slip catching is very important. All players standing in the slips are taking 50 to 100 catches. So we are trying to improve ourselves and eventually results will come,” Pujara told the reporters.
Pujara made a point when he mentioned how the injury has also affected their slip fielding. He said, “To be honest, we haven’t fielded well and I would accept that. At the same time, there have been injuries where openers have missed out. Someone like Vijay, who used to be at first slip didn’t play due to injury, he didn’t play cricket for months. So we had to replace Vijay with someone. So there have been occasions, where batsmen have got injured and we had to replace with some other player. We haven’t taken many catches but we will definitely get better at it. Overall, the Indian team has improved as a fielding unit but slip fielding is something we are still looking to improve.”
Speaking about South Africa, the number of catches in the slip cordon will invariably increase on the speed and bouncy wickets. India have an awe-inspiring pace attack to start with, which will test South Africa’s batting. But they just can’t afford to give reprieves to the likes of Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock and AB de Villiers.
Also, one can expect the catches in South African conditions to be a tad difficult than those in India. There will be more bounce and the catches will be cupped with the finger pointed upwards. India have played a lot of Test cricket at home in the recent times and for the slip cordon adjusting to the South African conditions will certainly be a tough nut to crack.
At present, Rahane is the best bet for a slip fielder in the Indian side, but he has often seen fielding at gully to seamers and at slips for spinners. It’s a smart move as gully also demands a specialist fielder and Rahane has been patrolling that position for a while now. In South Africa, a gully position will be very crucial due to the bounce. Rahane at gully would be an apt selection but that doesn’t reduce the importance of slip fielding.
Will India pull up or continue their terrible run in the slip cordon? It will be interesting to see how the slip cordon fares in South Africa. As of now, they do have enough time to assign roles on the field and work on it.