There has always been that cliche about the importance of fielding: “catches win matches” even though it is not exactly true; batting and bowling, the primary cricketing skills, dictate the outcome of cricket matches a whole lot more than catches.
In India, Kapil Dev’s running catch at Lord’s in 1983 is enshrined as one of the greatest athletic feats by an Indian cricketer. Mohammad Azharruddin was unlike anyone before him with his flair and made fielding look cool. Well, Azhar made everything he did look cool, if we are being honest. Other teams had gifted fielders too; Gus Logie, Roger Harper; Dean Jones, Derek Randall and Chris Harris come to mind.
However, it wasn’t until the 1992 World Cup in the southern hemisphere, and in colored clothing for the first time, that fielding really caught the imagination of the viewers. “Jonty Rhodes has demolished the stumps” said Ian Chappell on commentary as Rhodes leaped through the air to run Inzamam Ul-Haq out at the Gabba.
It was that image of Rhodes almost parallel to the ground with his arms outstretched bulldozing the stumps with his body that would be an “instant recall” for anyone that saw the 1992 World Cup, and would open the world’s eyes to the possibilities.
The Jonty impact
The Jonty phenomenon had taken such hold at that time that any player, whether on an international field or in the local park, did anything remotely noteworthy as a fielder, they had their first name changed to Jonty. Remember Jonty Sidhu?
Few Australians have dominated the scene since the 1990’s and were as good as, perhaps even better than, Rhodes. Look them up. [YouTube is an incredible time sink if you type in the search area “best fielding in cricket”. You’ve been warned]. Ricky Ponting and Andrew Symonds terrorized batsmen within the 30-yard circle with their speed – always made to feel faster because of the anticipation – with which they pounced on the ball, the easy one-arm pick up, quick release – underarm or over, and the accuracy of a sharp shooter.
They were excellent catchers too, in close as well out in the deep. Of course, no talk of great Australian fielders is complete without mentioning Mark Waugh who made catches look like the works of Picasso.
Even as fielding has become one of the skills that teams focus on, and push for the 1 per cent advantage, and consequently, almost every international side has had more than a handful of names that sparkled on the field, but no one’s name has ever risen to the level of cult hero as Jonty had. Maybe, because he was the “original”.
With modern cricketers playing an increasingly higher number of one-day matches, the need to squeeze out any possible edge, has led to the fielding abilities of an average international player being substantially higher than those of the past, and there are some whose skills are so outstanding that they could arguably find a spot in the playing XI and not for primary batting or bowling capabilities.
A timely run out that breaks a partnership, a 50-50 chance at a catch converted, few runs saved here and there, all have a small but not insignificant impact on the outcome of games, especially in a contest between evenly matched sides.
In the 2019 World Cup, several players could lay claim to be the scion of Jonty. Glenn Maxwell, Martin Guptill, Ben Stokes, Ravindra Jadeja, Faf du Plessis, and a few others have pulled off ridiculous run outs and catches over the six-week tournament.
“No. No way. You can not do that Ben Stokes”, pronounced Nasser Hussain on air when the Englishman was caught off-position but recovered to take a splendid one-handed catch by leaning backwards over his head while climbing an imaginary ladder.
As it is wont these days with commentators instructing the viewers that whatever they are watching is the best ever, the former English captain also proclaimed it to be “One of the greatest catches of all time”.
It is a testament to the sheer quality of athletic and physical abilities that the modern cricketer possesses that the Stokes’ catch looked about the same to the few that the Indian Premier League viewers would’ve seen (no offense Ben but hello Kieron!) just a few weeks earlier.
Jadeja did not feature in India’s plans till the last round robin game but regularly was on the field as a substitute, and he is, without question, the best Indian fielder. His influence on the defensive side of things was so much that with only being selected to play two matches in the entire World Cup, he still saved 41 runs, highest in the tournament, per CricViz’s Fielding Metrics.
Jadeja proved his value to the side, just as a fielder, when he took one of the catches of the tournament, to dismiss the marauding Jason Roy that allowed the Indian bowlers to claw back into the game. He would wreck the frantic push that New Zealand looked to get in the semi-final when he scored an inch perfect direct hit from the boundary to catch Ross Taylor short.
Despite final heartbreak, Guptill reigns supreme
However, it would be another runout in that semi-final that would sound the death knell for India. Martin Guptill, running in a good 25 meters off his position at the square leg boundary, picked up and fired a direct hit in one smooth motion, to catch one of the quickest runners in world cricket, MS Dhoni, inches short.
Guptill has, right through his career, been the best fielder in the New Zealand side, and arguably the best in the world. As several catches by other players were being hyped as the catch of the tournament, the greatest ever, etc., “Two Toes” Guptill shut down all the talk in the league match against their Trans-Tasman neighbours Australia.
You have to recognize that Lockie Ferguson is one of the quickest bowlers in the world, pushing 90+ mph regularly. Steve Smith played a full-blooded pull off a short delivery from the pacer and for all the money in the world, he would have been confident of earning a well deserved boundary, but Guptill had other ideas.
Standing at what could be called as leg gully, Guptill in full stretch to his unnatural left side as the ball passed him by, pulled in a screamer. The nonchalance of the catch was magnified several orders when the bowler and his team mates, the fans and the commentators were jumping out of their shoes in excitement at having seen something very special.
Guptill coolly got off the turf, chewed his gum, rolled the ball to the umpire and walked towards his mates for customary high fives.
Several players in addition to the ones mentioned above including Sheldon Cottrell, Chris Woakes and Fabian Allen plucked remarkable catches, that in a non-Guptill tournament could seriously contend for the best in the tournament.
Despite a distraught Guptill being consoled by his teammates after England’s dramatic Super Over win in the final being one of the defining images of the World Cup, we can confidently say Guptill has got the award for the best catch signed, sealed and delivered. Jonty Guptill – it’s got a nice ring to it. And this time, it is richly deserved.