289 international catches
The art of catching the cricket ball after it has taken the outside edge is a special gift. Some do it well, some not so well, and then there are the gifted few who do it with what appears to be nonchalant ease.
No slip catch is ever easy because, generally, the ball gathers momentum as it flies towards the cordon. So what is required to be a top-class slipper? No doubt sharp concentration plays a big role in clutching on to the 156 grams of leather flying your way, but equally important is good technique. Crucial elements include excellent hand-eye coordination, soft hands, and balanced feet that allow for good lateral movement. Above all, a relaxed but sharp mind is key.
The best piece of technical slip-catching advice I ever heard came from Mark Waugh, who was the best slip fielder I have seen.
Whether standing back to the quicks or up close to the likes of Shane Warne and Tim May, Waugh was simply brilliant.
His advice was: “Don’t try and catch the ball, let the ball catch you.” What does that mean? Well, most slip fielders tense their forearms upon seeing or hearing the edge, thus creating tension in the hands, which can have a disastrous effect on the outcome.
Waugh was the opposite; he relaxed when the edge was taken and simply positioned his hands behind its line and absorbed its force upon impact. In simple terms, he caught it late in very soft hands. No tension, no panic. He made difficult chances look regulation.
Another great slip fielder in my time watching cricket was Clive Lloyd. Supercat was a supreme slipper with bucket-like hands that swallowed cricket balls. His ability to hold on to rockets from Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Andy Roberts and many more was unbelievable to watch as a young boy.
Jamie Siddons was the most brilliant all-round fielder, and most notably, unbelievably good in the slips. In Victoria’s Sheffield Shield-winning side of 1990-91, Siddons held on to a record-equalling 23 catches in 11 games at second slip, and I don’t remember him grassing a single chance. He was a supreme athlete who stood with an uncharacteristically wide stance.
A wide stance normally lowers the centre of gravity and makes quick lateral movement difficult. Most very good slippers like Waugh, Ian Chappell, Warne and Mark Taylor are examples of the narrow-stance technique. The theory behind this is to be able to move your centre of gravity outside your base of support (your feet) quickly, which in turn enables swift lateral movement to swoop on wider chances. Siddons broke all the rules and still managed to take some stunning catches.
Waugh, though, was the best. He was relaxed but always ready to swoop when a chance was presented. He took them high, low and wide. His stance was well balanced, his hands as soft as butter. Australian bowlers fast and slow knew when they found the edge they were in safe hands with Waugh in the cordon.
*Wicketkeeper Darren Berry played 153 first-class games for South Australia and Victoria
I struggle to remember Rahul Draviddropping a catch. He is far and away the best catcher I have seen. During my playing days with New Zealand I watched Ian Smith, Jeff Crowe and Jeremy Coney play a crucial role in Richard Hadlee’s success. Hadlee was a brilliant bowler but he had a great wicketkeeper, a great first slip and a great second slip. Equally, Rahul played a crucial role for India.
It was very obvious Rahul had the temperament, technique and desire to stand at first slip. His strengths: great concentration, the most beautiful soft hands and a naturally great technique. And he worked very hard. I would hit him many catches and I never grew tired of watching him catch.
Contrary to what some critics felt, Rahul was a natural slip fielder. He could not have kept wicket at the 2003 World Cup without having such good hands. All the great slip catchers have this softness in the way they catch and Rahul was the same. Their hands almost hang from their shoulders.
What also stands out is their rhythm and movement, the area they can cover. They give themselves the best opportunity to go with the ball, so there are times they are catching behind their eyes. There was one catch off Anil Kumble where Rahul was unsighted by the wicketkeeper. It had gone fine and it was the keeper’s catch. But Rahul took it behind him with his left hand.
The ball had almost passed him but he somehow caught it going backwards.
Rahul caught brilliantly off quicks and spinners. Some critics have argued that most of his catches came against spinners, which they say compares unfavourably to others like Mark Taylor and Mark Waugh. But I would argue the job is more difficult in the subcontinent. You get a lot less time to see the ball. When there is bounce in the wicket, like in Australia, you can stand further back. The ball might come at you at a higher velocity, but you get more time to sight it.
Slip is a specialised position. There are no shortcuts. That is where most of the catches go. When I took charge of India as coach in 2000 we dropped three or four catches in the slips during my first Test. It was like Piccadilly Circus – people were coming and going. But Rahul was a specialist and his catching at first slip was one of the main reasons our results started to improve, particularly overseas.
*John Wright played 82 Tests for New Zealand and coached India and New Zealand.- [The Cricket Monthly ESPN Cricinfo]
[To be continued]