“Mai kaptaan hoon, maali nahi.”
Thus deadpanned the king of one-liners, nearly 14 years back, during India’s first full tour of Pakistan in more than 14 years.
India had completed a brilliant innings victory in the first Test in the hot, dusty outreach of Multan, a match notable for both the first triple-ton in the longest format by an Indian batsman, and the controversy surrounding stand-in skipper Rahul Dravid’s declaration with Sachin Tendulkar on 194. The locals were far from amused at the outcome; the constant theme during the post-match press conference was why, when Pakistan’s strength was their fast bowling, had a pitch designed to assist Shoaib Akhtar and Co. not been laid out.
Inzamam-ul-Haq tried his best to explain that that wasn’t in his control. Finally, the big man’s patience snapped, triggering another in a series of gems that have escaped his lips over his storied career. ‘Just the captain, not the curator’.
Those sentiments must have resonated in Virat Kohli at the conclusion of the Test series against Sri Lanka. India’s designs of loosely attempting to recreate potentially seaming, bouncing conditions expected in South Africa came a cropper after the nail-biting stalemate of Kolkata. Neither Nagpur nor the Kotla provided the kind of surface the think-tank might have envisaged and requested, but to merely blame the curators for that will be splitting hairs. It is impossible to change overnight the inherent character of a playing surface. A cosmetic covering of grass means nothing if the base doesn’t facilitate lateral movement, hardness and subsequent pace and lift. It wasn’t in the curators’ hands, far less the team management’s.
What was in the players’ hands, in every sense of that term, was their catching. And it is this crucial component of their cricket that will worry Kohli and Ravi Shastri, and that should worry R Sridhar, the fielding coach, as the new year and chronicled new challenges await the No. 1 Test team in the world.
Are we making too much of the fact that the Indian slip cordon put down three catches in the first innings of the Kotla Test? We would have been, had it been an isolated, one-off incident. As Mohammed Shami succinctly pointed out, fielders aren’t machines that will grab everything that comes their way. Catches will be dropped, as they have been by the best in the business. Additionally, no one wants to drop catches. And mistakes happen.
But what if these are repeat mistakes? What if close-in catching, especially behind the stumps, increasingly begins to come into focus even though the team is winning? Is that a case of nit-picking and punching holes simply because? Or is it that those cracks have been somewhat papered over because India have found ways of overcoming that malaise through the ability of their bowlers to create more than 20 wicket-taking opportunities in a Test match?
India have traditionally produced extraordinary slip catchers, and especially in the second half of their existence as an international entity. Ajit Wadekar and S Venkataraghavan set the tone (Eknath Solkar was little short of magical at short-leg) with their special catching behind the wickets. Sunil Gavaskar gobbled up way more than he put down, especially once Kapil Dev arrived and started to find the edges at a pace that several of his new-ball predecessors hadn’t managed previously. Kapil himself was a wonderful slipper, a naturally gifted athlete who was supremely above par in everything he did.
Mohammad Azharuddin was excellent, his anticipation so wonderful that he seldom needed to dive. Rahul Dravid was overwhelmingly brilliant against both pace and spin, his reflexes razor-sharp even at the very end of his celebrated stint. And VVS Laxman was effortlessly awesome, allowing the hard cricket ball to almost gratefully nestle in his big, soft hands, cuddling it like a doting father does his totally trusting infant.
There is a reason why these gentlemen stacked up impressive records – just like Mark Taylor and Mark Waugh did for Australia, like Ian Botham did for England, like Jacques Kallis did for South Africa, like Alastair Cook and Ajinkya Rahane are still doing for their respective teams. Or, actually, it isn’t just a reason, it is a combination of factors.
One of the basic requirements of a good slipper is temperament. The calmness that doesn’t often come to the restless. The certainty that allows the ball to come into the hands as opposed to the hands grabbing at the little orb. The early decision-making that helps straddle the fine but vital line between anticipation and pre-meditation. Throw in powers of concentration. You need to be as switched on at the end of a long day under the searing sun as you are at the start of play, fresh and energised by the prospect of the red cherry taking the edge. You must want the ball to come to you. And you must practice. For long durations, like Azhar used to do when, at the end of the team’s designated training stint, he would linger on to take a hundred catches, at the very least.
It isn’t as if the current players don’t work hard enough. Far be it for us to question the work ethic of the best Test side in the world. But, having identified the personnel to man these key positions that will increasingly come into play in South Africa, England and Australia next year, are they being given enough time and confidence to settle into their roles?
Shikhar Dhawan, Kohli himself and Rohit Sharma all stood at second slip at various stages of the Sri Lankan first innings at the Kotla and spilled cliched regulation offerings. It is not so much that the catches went down – on the initially mentioned tour of Pakistan, India shelled half a dozen chances in a crazy 45-minute passage with a series win imminent in Rawalpindi – as that three different players actually manned that place which was astounding. Just like batsmen have fixed positions in the batting order in the five-day game, there have to be fixed responsibilities in the slips. The catchers will err from time to time, but the more they stand there, the more they will understand what standing there entails, and what they can therefore do to maximise the gap between mistakes. It is all about giving yourself the best chance of succeeding, and this current game of Russian Roulette in the slip cordon doesn’t seem to be meeting that objective.
“That is certainly an area that we want to keep improving in,” Kohli had said in Colombo in August, after a profligate slip-catching show in the second Test. “We will have to figure out who stands in those positions consistently and keep those guys there for longer periods. I think that is the solution going forward.”
Four Tests later, at the Kotla, Cheteshwar Pujara chimed, “We will assign a few players who will be there throughout the series. We will prepare a few players who will be standing in the slips. We are trying to figure out options, but slip fielding is something we are looking to improve. Eventually, the results will come.”
They must, too. Otherwise, they could be extremely costly slips, pun and all. It will be no great fun watching a reprieved Hashim Amla or AB de Villiers pile on the misery.