At various points during the third day of the ‘Pollution Test’ between India and Sri Lanka at the Feroz Shah Kotla, one of the cameras kept panning to a colourful banner held by a fan: ‘MISS U WALL - Rahul Dravid.’ There’s no way to find out why the person concerned decided to bring this banner out to Kotla today – by all means this was just a fan of the man who has a cult following. But, knowingly or otherwise, that banner became, perhaps, most relevant to what India were experiencing in the middle during this Test match – a shocking inability to hold on to simple catches at the slip.
First it was Shikhar Dhawan. Next it was Virat Kohli. And finally it was Rohit Sharma. Three different fielders, put down three sitters at the second slip as Sri Lanka finally showed the stomach for a fight in their response to India’s 556.
Dhawan dropped Dilruwan Perera when he was on 16, going with palms facing parallel to the field – neither cupped upwards nor pointing downwards – at a ball that was travelling chest high. Kohli, in what proved to be the most crucial drop with Angelo Mathews batting on 6, went low to his left and got to the ball when it was a decent height, showing no real technical flaw, but he put down the chance all the same. On air, Sunil Gavaskar spoke about how he has a tendency to go hard at these catches, and as he has shown in the past, doesn’t have the best record at slips as a result.
The simplest of them all went to Rohit on Monday, with Mathews batting on 98. Again, a thick outside edge, that flew high to his left and the Mumbaikar was in no position to take the sitter, awkwardly turning to his right and putting it down – a mirror image of Dhawan’s earlier drop.
And this raises another question – why so much rotation at the slips? The only thing that’s consistent about India’s slip fielding is the chopping and changing of the players who try their luck there.
As Mathew Hayden and VVS Laxman pointed out later in their analysis, Indian fielders are used to catching with downward palms, a technique more suited against spinners and on pitches which don’t offer the bounce and carry that one encounters overseas. The different fielders India have used at second slip in this match have all shown a general tendency to be caught between the two different techniques – a sign that they are not naturally good slip fielders.
Much of the discussion in the past 24 hours has been around the ridiculousness of playing in Delhi with the smog, even overshadowing Kohli’s career-best batting effort. From a cricketing standpoint, India’s shoddy catching is a matter of concern and needs to be nipped in the bud quickly.
For, this is not a recent phenomenon. As dramatic as the rise has been in India’s fielding standards over the past few years, the catching has remained dodgy.
The record speaks for itself. In Test matches since 2011, India’s conversion rate when it comes to slip catches is the third worst – only Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have performed worse. It started with that horror series in England, when, infamously, India couldn’t hang on to catches if their lives depended on it. In a run of seven matches then, India put down eight catches in the slip region just off fast bowlers. Even in that series, the slip cordon was constantly chopped and changed with as many as five different fielders used at just the first slip.
And, in years since, there has been no one fielder who has emerged as a sure-shot safe pair of hands in the slips, against the fast bowlers. Which is odd, because Ajinkya Rahane also set a world record for the most catches in an innings during that time-period but is restricted to fielding at the slips only against spinners. India prefer to have their best catcher at gully against the faster bowlers for reasons best known to fielding coach R Sridhar and the rest of the think-tank.
Focus on South Africa
During his commentary stint, Harsha Bhogle had a Freudian slip, when he cut to commercials with “It’s 224 for 3 now for South Afric.... Sri Lanka rather.” It’s not just him, almost every stakeholder in Indian cricket is more invested in the upcoming tour to South Africa than anything else at the moment. And this problem of dropping catches is especially significant in that regard. In this seminal research essay in The Cricket Monthly last year, Charles Davis studied the statistics behind dropped catches in the last 13 years – a remarkably difficult study in itself. India’s record in that period (for all fielding positions) is still only the 7th best among Test playing nations, with Pakistan, not surprisingly, joining Zimbabwe and Bangladesh below them.
The other telling statistic is that the slip region is where the second most number of catching chances are created in Test cricket – a number that will be significantly high in the South African pitches. India have the fast bowlers to produce the edges from the best of the batsmen on their day, but do they have the support they need from their fielders? On current form, it’s a resounding no.
Kohli has many headaches ahead of the tour to South Africa, some of them the good kind. A problem of plenty at the top of the batting order, with the fast bowlers, and with the spin options available to him to choose from. But what doesn’t fall under that category is the lack of good slip fielders. India’s propensity to drop catches on a regular basis behind the wicket might not prove costly at home against not-so-formidable opposition but in South Africa, it’ll hurt.
And for a captain who prides himself on how he performs on the field even without the bat in his hand, this is an issue that Kohli would know that India can control, can improve upon and simply, must.