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
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