CATCHES WIN MATCHES SO ENG­LAND MUST IM­PROVE!

Derek Pringle ex­am­ines the im­por­tance of cut­ting out field­ing er­rors if they are to be a suc­cess Down Un­der

The Cricket Paper - - FEATURE & OPINION -

How do you make catches stick, some­thing you feel Joe Root’s team must dis­cover if they are to have any chance of re­tain­ing the Ashes

They were words of fore­bod­ing, from a man who knows what counts in Aus­tralian con­di­tions, so Eng­land’s crick­eters should take heed. But just how do you make catches stick, some­thing you feel Joe Root’s team must dis­cover if they are to have any chance of re­tain­ing the Ashes this win­ter?

By gen­eral con­sen­sus, Eng­land dropped 14 catches in the three-match se­ries against West Indies and al­most that many in the four Tests against South Africa be­fore­hand. That they won both se­ries con­vinc­ingly is tes­ta­ment to the num­ber of chances cre­ated by their bowlers, though that is some­thing they can­not count upon in Aus­tralia, where harder pitches and a shy-seamed Kook­aburra ball await to make bowl­ing a much tougher prospect.

It is for that rea­son Trevor Bayliss, Eng­land’s Aus­tralian coach, has fired a warn­ing shot in their di­rec­tion, say­ing that Eng­land would not win the Ashes with such “ter­ri­ble” catch­ing. And yet per­fect catch­ing, at least over a se­ries, is one of those things for which a de­fin­i­tive so­lu­tion re­mains elu­sive, a bit like nu­clear fu­sion and good tast­ing tap wa­ter.

The amount of prac­tice is prob­a­bly not the is­sue though the meth­ods em­ployed might be. Once, when Duncan Fletcher was coach, Eng­land dropped sev­eral slip catches at Lord’s against right-handed bats­men. When it was pointed out that Fletcher, a left-han­der, was the one giv­ing prac­tice, Eng­land then al­ter­nated, giv­ing the slip cor­don left and right-hand sighters through him and Eng­land team man­ager, Phil Neale.

Prac­tices are in­tense, so play­ers of­ten catch ev­ery­thing dur­ing them as they can con­cen­trate fully for that short pe­riod. Repli­cat­ing a match sit­u­a­tion, though, with its longueurs, is im­pos­si­ble with­out keep­ing play­ers hang­ing around all day. But that is the re­al­ity of Test cricket, hours of noth­ing and then a chance. It is a sit­u­a­tion that tests even the most ded­i­cated con­cen­tra­tor.

My one per­sonal bug­bear is sun­glasses, which most play­ers now wear de rigeur and will do to a man in Aus­tralia this win­ter. Although mod­ern play­ers will con­test the claim, sun­glasses re­duce vis­ual acu­ity. Af­ter all, bats­men never wear them when bat­ting so why com­pro­mise your view when field­ing. It sim­ply does not make sense apart from to up­hold some kind of im­age.

Not that ‘Sun­nies’ are not the only cul­prit when catches go down. Alas­tair Cook dropped two at first slip in the Head­in­g­ley Test against the West Indies last month, chances that prob­a­bly cost Eng­land the match.

At the time his sun­glasses were on top of his cap so were not in­ter­fer­ing in any way. In­stead his spills, at least the first one pre­sented when Kraigg Brath­waite edged Stu­art Broad, were caused by the ball strik­ing a hard bit of his palm. When that hap­pens, es­pe­cially if the ball is still fairly new and there­fore hard and shiny (and slip­pery), the catch is un­likely to stick.

I have some sym­pa­thy for Cook. Catch­ing in­volves split-sec­ond re­ac­tions which re­quire not only in­tri­cate mus­cle move­ments in the eyes, feet, arms and hands, but also some fine judg­ment on the brain’s part as to the flight path of the ball. A guessti­mate, in other words.

As an open­ing bat, Cook will ex­pe­ri­ence that ev­ery time he walks to the crease to the point where most of it has be­come sec­ond na­ture. What is dif­fer­ent when he is at slip is that the sweetspot in his hands, the bit where a catch is most likely to stick, is much smaller than the blade of his bat, the length and breadth of which can be used to lo­cate the ball.

The other thing about that par­tic­u­lar drop was that nei­ther he nor wick­et­keeper Jonny Bairstow knew the best place to stand as the Head­in­g­ley pitch, by day five, had be­come a bit two-paced. The edge from Brath­waite flew quickly, ch­est high to Cook’s left. What fur­ther com­pounded mat­ters was that the ball turned over in flight and swung away a shade from Cook in the last few yards of flight, some­thing he tried to ad­just to with a lit­tle grab.

When your hand makes a sud­den move­ment like that, the ball has to strike the soft­est part of the palm to have any chance of be­ing held. It didn’t, so down went the chance and on marched Brath­waite to lay the foun­da­tions for West Indies’ even­tual, and un­ex­pected, vic­tory.

The best slip catcher I ever saw was Mark Waugh, the Aus­tralian in­ter­na­tional who played a few years for Es­sex. He’d been taught by Bobby Simp­son, an­other fine slip catcher. Simp­son’s mantra was to keep arms and hands re­laxed and loose. As a re­sult Waugh never snatched and while he was not in­fal­li­ble, he caught most things that came within his or­bit.You just wonder, with play­ers now spend­ing many hours in the gym bulk­ing up, whether you can keep your arms and hands re­laxed. Ten­sion is the en­emy of good catch­ing and be­ing mus­cle-bound surely can­not help in that re­gard.

Of­ten when catches go down, es­pe­cially in ar­eas other than slip or gully, the ‘see­ing’ qual­ity of the ground is ques­tioned. In my day, the Oval was con­sid­ered a poor see­ing ground and I’ve seen ab­so­lute dol­lies dropped there. The back­drop is usu­ally blamed, be­ing a riot of dif­fer­ent colours from ad­ver­tis­ing boards and the dif­fer­ent clothes spec­ta­tors wear.Yet ask any player which is the most dif­fi­cult back­ground from which to judge a skier and they’ll al­most all say a bright blue sky. So, go fig­ure that one.

Light­ing lev­els are also cru­cial. I

re­mem­ber hit­ting catches be­fore a Nehru Cup match in Delhi. It was a 9.30pm start so were were prac­tis­ing at about 8.45am in the morn­ing. It was misty so I don’t know whether it was that or the early start which were to blame, but fewer than 50 per cent of catches were taken. A sim­i­lar thing oc­curred dur­ing prac­tice at the SCG dur­ing the 1992 World Cup. Due to the power of lo­cal res­i­dents, we were only al­lowed to prac­tise with half the flood­lights il­lu­mi­nated. Well, I’ve never seen so many steeplers mis­judged, at least not by a good field­ing side.

There is no easy so­lu­tion to be­com­ing a bet­ter catch­ing side es­pe­cially in Test cricket where con­cen­tra­tion lev­els are bound to fal­ter. One way might be to amend the slo­gan coined by Tim­o­thy Leary, a fig­ure­head of 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture and an ad­vo­cate of LSD – “Tune in, turn on, and you won’t drop it.”

Down: Alas­tair Cook drops a catch off Kraigg Brath­waite

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