Want to win the Cup? Don’t forget the fielding

I get more and more intrigued by the modern day game of cricket. From the gentlemen’s game that we all learned to play and live that role model some decades ago, the game has evolved into a well calculated pointer where a foot in the wrong base could land not only you, but maybe your teams whole mission in mortal danger.

Yes there was a time when cricket was played with a Randall or a Rhodes or two such individuals in a playing XI and the rest may be guys who could hold a catch and they rest their case there.

On Tuesday, in the game between New Zealand and Pakistan, there was one very glaring factor. It was the side that put more emphasis on the nitty-gritty of the game that walked away with the plum. At this point of talk it was the New Zealand fielding vs the Pakistan fielding that balanced the scales.

The Pakistani firebrand Shoaib Akhtar with one scalp in his bag was going for his other – that of the New Zealand vice captain Ross Taylor, a dependable bat who was now searching for his feet after he had lost them a couple of series ago. Shoaib found the hapless batsman’s edge twice in one over, but the uninspired Pakistani fielding let the fast bowler down by allowing the catches fly past them. The result, the same batsman who was groping at that time hit Akhtar for 28 runs in one over and thus opened the door for a cricket ball massacre that is very rarely enacted on a platform so aplomb like the Cricket World Cup.

Fielding is a vital ingredient in the winning formula. Pic by Sanka Vidanagama

Anyway, the 35-year-old Akhtar himself is not the most masculine sight on the field either. One commentator quipped, “Akhtar is hiding himself at backward of point hoping the ball won’t haunt him, but it keeps coming in search of him wherever he goes.” This was said after the fast bowler had failed to bring back any pressure on the batsmen with a weak throw back to the stumps.

In contrast, the New Zealand fielding was a revelation. Having the added burden of policing the boundary in spite of a slippery and wet ball owing to the very revealing dew factor experienced at the Pallekelle Stadium, the Kiwi fielders stuck to their task. They knew if they kept backing their bowlers with a hundred percent dedication, the bowlers too would be inspired to stick to their guns.

Among the New Zealand fielders the most prominent was 22-year-old Timothy Grant Southee who looked so agile and alert. One of the stops that he made at the mid-wicket boundary when Pakistani batsman Abdul Razzak was trying to get into his stride was startling. Challenging and running into the ball hit by Razzak, the lanky fielder slid, covered the ball, picked it up and threw back from deep mid wicket, spurring the rest of the team to keep their morale high.

Mind you in spite of the 300 run mark, New Zealand was forced to go into the entire length of their stay on the field minus their best bowler and Captain Daniel Vettori. This means they were ten overs short of their final dressing room discussion where they made the game plan. That was drawback one.

Drawback two was the huge dew factor experienced halfway through the Pakistani innings. Initially, the New Zealand bowlers did well exploiting the conditions at hand well, but once the dew set in, keeping the ball on course to the batsman -- let alone the other fancy stuff -- was a task of its own.

The other side which often gets caught up in napping on the field is England. In their game against the Netherlands, the English butterfingers opened the doors for the Dutch to go near the 300 run mark, but luckily the mainland Europeans batted first and the English batsmen made the required runs. But, when it came to defending their total against Ireland, England relaxed at 111 for 5 and paid dearly once again as a result of dropped catches.

In World cricket South Africa, Australia, New Zealand are considered the best fielding sides while in the Asian sub-continent, Sri Lanka is the sharpest on the field in comparison to both India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. In contrast to their attitude towards the nitty-gritty in the pre-’96 era, the attention given to fielding and allied areas of cricket saw a phenomenal increase.

Lankan fielding coach Ruwan Kalpage is a specialist. Kalpage explains that being a fielding coach is a specialized field where you have to identify each cricketer and concentrate on them differently. While the batting coach or the bowling coach may have only a section of the pool to look after, the fielding coach has to keep every player on his toes, feeding them with all the modern techniques of fielding and attending to each player individually according to their strengths and weaknesses.

To prove Lanka’s emphasis on fielding their camp consists of four specialist fielding coaches in Ruwan Kalpage, Upul Chandana, Manoj Abeywickrema and Nuwan Seneviratne. During Sri Lanka’s current World Cup campaign at least three of these coaches are in constant attendance with the team wherever they are at practices and keep them in an alert state for their next game.

Having said that if Sri Lanka is to field akin to what they did against Zimbabwe in the quarter final against any of the big fish in the pond, they can be assured of a sombre dressing at the end of the day. Just keep in mind, Ross Taylor cannibalized the Pakistani attacking in five overs. Yet, earlier was let off from the devouring jaws very early in his innings. Just imagine giving that chance to Chris Gayle, Virendra Sehwag or A.B. de Villiers while not forgetting Sachin Tendulkar.

In contrast on Tuesday it was heard Rameez Raja lamenting, “Kamran Akmal needs guidance, but, in the Pakistan camp there is no such person. Aqeeb Javad’s job is to be bowling coach and he may be looking after the fielding aspects too.”

Coming back to Southee now it depicts the stress put upon the aspect of fielding in present day cricket. Previously one could hardly come across a fast bowler who is also a brilliant fielder. Now you can find Southee, Anderson, Morkel, Steyn, Lee and Mathews who are capable fielders in world cricket today.

We at this end feel that especially at this Cricket World Cup, where it is a contest which is also fought on many areas in addition to the usual bat-ball contest, the side that pays more attention to the nitty-gritty of the game will take away the cup, while the teams with half measures will sulk on for another day.

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