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By Suresh Menon
The focus in the build-up to the World Cup might be on the bowling, but India’s greater worry will be their fielding. Only two players – Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina – are anywhere near international standards. Skipper Dhoni, aware that you cannot hide seven players in the field will be hoping that somehow all catches are taken, runs saved and balls whipped back from the outfield to affect run outs.
Unlike teams from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka who, whatever their batting or bowling strengths, maintain a high level of fielding, India have seldom worked hard enough on this crucial aspect of the shorter game. It is seen as enough if you are adequate; the best fielders have been safe rather than spectacular. And even Raina and Kohli do not guarantee a high percentage of direct hits – often the difference between a run out and a missed opportunity.
Part of the reason is the mindset of the Indian player. Proficiency in one of the three skills of the game is seen as being sufficient to carry any shortcomings in the other two. A Zaheer Khan might be an important bowler, and over the years he has worked on his batting. But his fielding has stagnated.
Still he is not as bad as his other medium pace colleagues Munaf Patel and Praveen Kumar who are downright embarrassments on the field. Yuvraj Singh who began his career as an outstanding all round fielder is today a shadow of the man who created openings with his fielding alone. Still in his twenties, he let himself go physically, and finds it difficult to carry the extra weight around.
Another reason for India’s discouraging prospects in the field is the average age of the team which is likely to be closer to 30, higher than most other teams. Sachin Tendulkar at 37 is not the worst fielder; he is safe and often sets the example by his willingness to chase everything down. His catching is reliable; it is difficult to remember too many catches popping out of his hands. Somehow younger players seem to find it difficult to follow his example.
When teams are chosen, especially for a one-day tournament, you will often have two or more equally qualified players for a single slot. In such cases, common sense dictates that the better fielder is chosen.
Part of the problem with India’s medium pacers is that none of them is a reliable batsman. Another problem is the fitness. That none is a reliable fielder doesn’t seem to enter the discussion at all. As the competition gets hotter in the World Cup, matches will be decided by a smart turn in the field – a run out against the grain of play, or an unexpected catch. And unless such opportunities go to the couple of reliable Indian fielders, the hosts are likely to make a mess of them.
In the Jo’burg one-dayer which India won, they allowed 160 deliveries to go scoreless. That is a huge number. Australia won the 1987 World Cup in India by consciously focussing on the singles and minimising the number of dot balls. It was a strategy worked out by their coach Bob Simpson, and it is one that has worked ever since.
With teams running so many singles and twos, the focus will be on attacking fielding, the quick pick up and throw, the direct hit. Indian batsmen will have to consistently score 30 or 40 runs more than the par score to make up for the inefficiency of their fielding. And even that might not be enough. Poor fielding puts pressure on both the batting and the bowling.