Of all the disciplines in cricket, fielding is, perhaps, the least recognised. Sure, catches win matches and all that but excellence in the field doesn’t guarantee you a spot in the XI. Batting is the eternal main event, bowling gets the respect it deserves, wicketkeeping draws sympathy every now and then, but good ‘ol fielding doesn’t always receive its due.
Right from the time one picks up the sport as a kid, the charm tends to lie in batting and bowling. You want to hit your favourite shots or rattle the stumps with your variations. You don’t want to be that kid who fetches the ball after each delivery, do you?
Pause, Rewind, Play
Relive epic moments, rare interviews and more from the world of sport.
Jonty Rhodes is arguably the finest fielder the game has ever seen. The South African’s ability on the field, his gravity-defying efforts, were truly extraordinary. His skill set in his “domain” was right up there with those considered the best cricketers of all time. But will he make it to anyone’s best XI? Probably not. To be counted among the greatest cricketers, one has to be high up on the chart of top run-scorers and wicket-takers.
Fielding can be a thankless job. Especially in Test cricket, where the adrenaline provided by raucous crowds rarely comes to your aid. You’re standing under the sun, sweat pouring, mouth dry, trying to focus ball after ball for overs on end. Every ball bowled doesn’t provide you the incentive of getting a wicket or scoring a run. Sometimes, tens of deliveries go by without you getting to touch the ball. But you can’t afford to lose concentration for even a moment. The test is real.
Despite this challenge, there have been a number of players in the history of Test cricket who mastered the art of concentration while fielding. They were hardly ever caught off guard and pounced on most opportunities that presented themselves. These players added great value to their teams with their presence on the field.
At the top of the list of most catches (by non-wicketkeepers) in Test cricket are India’s Rahul Dravid, Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene, South Africa’s Jacques Kallis and Australia’s Ricky Ponting and Mark Waugh. Apart from scoring heaps of runs for their respective teams, these players were major assets on the field as well. They had all the attributes of a good fielder – soft hands, balanced feet, sharp reflexes, hand-eye coordination and anticipation.
Most catches in Test cricket by a non-keeper
These five players were stationed in the slip cordon for the better part of their careers. Sure, by standing in the slips one does get more opportunities to take catches, which is why players like Eknath Solkar are remembered for creating opportunities out of nothing as close-in catchers, but the focus required as a specialist slip fielder is immense. You usually have to stand in the same position for long periods, your body becomes stiff, it gets monotonous, but you can’t drop your guard for a single delivery. You’re standing there to take a catch and help the team get a wicket. There’s no margin for error.
On that note, here’s a closer look at Dravid, Jayawardene, Kallis, Ponting and Waugh as fielders in Test cricket:
It comes as no surprise that Dravid is at the top of this list. Known for his focus and discipline, he was quite the wall behind the stumps as well. He was a wicketkeeper in his junior days before he moved to short-leg and silly-point in first-class cricket. Even in his first four years in international cricket, he spent plenty of time at bat-pad.
Dravid has said he wasn’t a natural slip fielder but grew into the position over time. Playing the majority of his Tests in India, he took most of his catches off the spinners, with Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh having a lot to thank him for.
“You should enjoy it (being a slip fielder). You should want to be there. It is a position where you’ve got to concentrate the whole day, where you are always in the game,” Dravid had said in an interview with ESPNcricinfo in 2010.
“Then you’ve got to take a lot of catches. There is no substitute to taking a lot of a catches as a youngster if you want to do slip catching – you’ve got to catch, catch, catch. One of the important things I have found with slip catching is, you need to have relaxed hands. When an edge is coming towards you, the last thing you want to do is tighten up or freeze or snatch at the ball.”
Just like Dravid, Jayawardene had to contend with low, turning subcontinental pitches for most of his career. And he was simply outstanding as a slip fielder to spinners, none more so than the legendary Muttiah Muralitharan.
If wicketkeepers aren’t considered, the fielder-bowler combination of Jayawardene and Muralitharan has accounted for the most dismissals (77 in 96 matches) in Test cricket.
“I loved fielding in the slips to him (Muralitharan),” Jayawardene had said in an interview with The Guardian in 2011. “The most special was the final one, when he got his 800th wicket with his last ball in Test cricket.”
Jayawardene was surprisingly athletic as well. Even off fast bowlers, he took a number of catches with full-length dives. His brilliance in the field wasn’t restricted to Test matches, he was also prolific as a catcher in ODIs and T20 Internationals. With 440 catches in 652 matches, he has by far the most number of catches to his name (among non-wicketkeepers) across all three formats.
How Sport Inspires
In these tough times, lift yourself up with inspiring stories from the world of sport.
South Africa has always had some of the greenest, quickest pitches in the world, where being a slip fielder to fast bowlers is extremely challenging. For Kallis, though, it was just another cricketing skill he mastered.
Arguably the greatest all-rounder/player the game has ever seen, Kallis was rock solid as a catcher. Having to deal with the pace, bounce and movement from the likes of Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, he used his bucket-like hands to take the most number of catches for the Proteas across formats.
Kallis was the embodiment of quiet determination. Despite having heavy a workload as a batsman and fast bowler, he never missed a beat as a fielder as well. Standing usually at second slip, he helped South Africa become one of the most successful teams of his time in the longest format.
Well, what one can one say about Ponting’s fielding that hasn’t already been said? Be it in the outfield, in the ring, in the slip cordon or at bat-pad, he set the standard wherever he stood.
Unlike the other players on this list, Ponting spent a considerable amount of time away from the slips. What was remarkable about his fielding was the sheer athleticism of it. He didn’t take ordinary catches, they were acrobatic, jaw-dropping. He is second on the list of most catches (364 in 560 matches) by a player across formats.
“If I ever missed a run-out or dropped a catch while playing for Australia, I would barely sleep that night,” Ponting had written for ESPNcricinfo in 2015, sharing insight on his approach to fielding.
“Like a lot of elements of cricket training, fielding drills can often feel false relative to what actually goes on in the middle. As much as you try to mirror the game, it is impossible to replicate completely. Experience taught me that it was best to set the bar higher in training than in a game – aiming at one stump with your throws instead of three, or doing slip-catching drills as close to the bat as possible. The mental skill of being ready for that one ball at any point over five days is very different to spending 30 minutes knowing you are going to be honing your catching.”
He may be last on this list but when it comes to slip catching, Waugh is regarded by many as the finest the game has ever seen. Just like his batting, there was a sense of style in his fielding as well. It appeared nonchalant.
Such was his genius in the field that despite scoring 16,529 runs in international cricket, he probably made a bigger impact on the sport with his catching ability. Standing at second slip though most of his career, he was part of a fearsome cordon which included Ponting, Mark Taylor and Shane Warne.
“Waugh relaxed when the edge was taken and simply positioned his hands behind the ball’s line and absorbed its force upon impact,” former Australian first-class cricketer Darren Berry wrote for The Cricket Monthly in 2015.
“In simple terms, he caught it late in very soft hands. No tension, no panic. He made difficult chances look regulation. He was relaxed but always ready to swoop when a chance was presented. He took them high, low and wide. His stance was well balanced, his hands as soft as butter. Australian bowlers fast and slow knew when they found the edge they were in safe hands with Waugh in the cordon.”
Heroes of the sporting world
Away from the limelight, these heroes enrich our experience of following our favourite sport.