Fielding – Is it physical or mental?

As hockey great Wayne Gretzky explains, ‘It ain’t where the puck is, it’s where the puck will be”, a quote widely used in many contexts, most recently used by Steve Ballmer in the context of Organizational Agility the ever so dynamic macro-economic landscape. I do not intend to explore such deep waters, as I surely do not possess any safety gear to tame those turbulent tides. I would much rather stick to the wading pool of Cricket which seems to be a safer playground for me. However, in doing so I wanted to bring up a point that off late has been occupying my idle head while watching our Indian players pitted alongside their foreign counterparts i.e. Fielding.

Lets look at couple of cases in point:

It was in one of the games in the IPL I saw a ball being hit in the air towards third man. The fielder on the third man boundary watched the shot being played and then started running towards the ball (taking a start on his heel), and quite predictably the ball dropped a few feet ahead of him. He dived on the ball and did make a valiant stop, and got generous applause from his skipper – Ganguly, but a slightly dejected look from his bowler Wayne Parnell. The commentators too acknowledged the effort made and intent showed etc etc.

Couple of overs later a similar turn of events, and this time Steven Smith the fielder dashed in from a similar spot on the boundary and took the catch by sitting underneath the ball, in the end a very comfortable and clean effort. In the second case, Smith wasn’t on his heels, he was on his toes, and when the ball was delivered on a certain length he started taking a start – which is a sort of quick jump on the spot after which he could start running in whichever direction the ball was played. By the time the shot was played Smith was already running forward, and when the ball started dipping, he had comfortable slid and positioned himself underneath to write the batsman’s obituary.

What happened differently in the second case:

  1. The fielder was watching the batsman intently
  2. He also knew all possible angles the ball would come to him and was trying to cover all the angles
  3. Anticipation – Wanting the ball to come to him
  4. Proactive effort – that gave extra time to get to the ball and effect a dismissal

So, as it turns out, its much more than just watching a ball coming your way and reacting. I guess, the game has shifted from being a Reactive effort to being a Proactive initiative. And shift, that involves a lot of observation, anticipation, focus, planning and execution – all in a spur of a moment. Of course, fitness, agility and sheer athleticism notwithstanding!

Jonty Rhodes once said “At point, anticipation is important. And you need to expect every ball to come your way. I liked to read the batsman’s body language, because from point you can’t watch the ball out of the bowler’s hand at 140kph. So I like to watch the batsman for cues – if he’s driving, the ball may still come to me off the edge, or even if he is working the ball to midwicket, it could come off the leading edge. I’ve found that by cutting down the angle you give yourself an advantage. When you get closer the ball may come quicker to you, but I found that if I dived full-length I could generally reach every ball, as opposed to being five metres further back and letting the ball get past me. It’s a bit like a soccer goalkeeper defending a penalty.”

As I think about it more, I realize, how far we are. While we keep lamenting on the inferiority of our fielding (or that of the subcontinent), yet we do not realize why we lag behind compared to players from Aus, SA, Eng, NZ, Zim etc. Of course, as someone told me, Rugby has a hand to play in this. Rugby players start very early and they beat the fear of throwing themselves around much early. Of course, running hard yards and being agile and fit are ingredients almost synonymous to being a good rugby player, so those aspects become an integral element of an upcoming player’s composition.

Apart from absence of Rugby there are many derailers in the road to become world class fielders in India:

  1. The approach based out of fear – There is a belief in majority of younger cricketers that their fielding might cost them their place in the side. Hence, a lot of them do not want the ball to come to them while they are fielding. This is evident in slow movements and reactive efforts
  2. Hard grounds – Traditionally our moffussil grounds are either and pits or hard as hell made of hardened morrum (red) soil with very little grass. These grounds create fear of injury and affects the psyche of the young cricketer, who doesn’t learn to throw himself around
  3. Age-old drills – Fielding practice on Indian grounds are still limited to standing in a semi-circle and doing catching practice. In some limited units, they have started doing some energetic drills, but more or less still focused on just catching. There is very limited or no, training around – Anticipation, Movement, angles etc.
  4. Time spent on Fielding – Negligible. Coaches across the country tend to pay a lot fo attention on a player’s bowling or batting and rarely do they hone their skills around fielding. This is also because most of the coaching units are run by single ex-player who has expertise in one discipline – and Fielding was never considered to be a discipline in Indian Cricket (Traditionally this was the job of the ball boys on ground who were there to just collect the balls and return to the bowlers).
  5. Of course, the aloo paratha culture – that has scanty respect for agility and fitness. The sheer girth displayed by many young cricketers (in their twenties) in the recent IPL is testimony to the kind of fitness prevalent in the domestic cricket level. (its one odd case like Manoj tiwary who has a classic cricketer physique, and it isn’t a surprise that he does bring in a well-crafted profile of a complete cricketer)

This is a classic Adaptive challenge that has its share of mental blocks, cultural hurdles and dated beleifs that are holding us from breaking into that next level. We do have a crop of youngsters who definitely are more fit and agile than the generation that’s fading out, and we do see some outrageously supreme display of fielding exploits from time to time. But for it to become an integral part of most of the upcoming talents, a cultural habit, a loved discipline and a much sought after differentiator, our thinking and approach needs to shift.  The belief needs to be shifted, and that can happen only by making the youth experience what it means to be Agile, Proactive, display high anticipation and Cricketing Awareness.

This may result in few bloody noses, few dislocated knees…what the hell! we will be there – where the Puck will be !


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