Die-hard cricket enthusiasts would not have missed the marked improvement in the quality of fielding by Indian cricketers in recent matches. If one looked back into the past, fielding was never accorded much importance. The selection criteria hinged on a cricketer’s ability with the bat or the ball, even if he was a hopeless fielder. In the seventies and eighties, Erapalli Prasanna, Bishen Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar excelled as great bowlers and had to be included in the team despite their noticeably erratic fielding. The cricket managers of the yore wrongly thought that fielding was merely incidental to cricket, as long as good batting and bowling performance could be extracted. But since that era was dominated by test cricket, many other cricket playing nations too, did not focus too much on fielding. You had a Peter Burge in Australia or a Colin Cowdrey in England, who were in their national teams purely on the basis of their superb batting ability, even if their field skills were eminently forgettable. In the Indian context, if odd fielders like an Ekki Solkar, an Abid Ali or a Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi exhibited superlative skills as fielders, it was not based on the advice of the Team Manager. They did so, on their own volition. These few cricketers added colour to an otherwise drab, 5-day spread of laid-back cricket.
The golden rule of fielding excellence is deriving pleasure out of athletic running, bending or diving to stop the ball and put pressure on the batsmen. Unless someone starts enjoying his fielding, he can never become a good fielder. Ask Jonty Rhodes, who made headlines only as marvelous fielder. Rhodes will tell you how he loved his job in the field and dived for everything that threatened to pass by. In the process, he made a fashion statement in the art of getting his cricketing gear noticeably dirty. People like Rhodes, Ricky ponting, Keirron Pollard, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, and Virat Kohli easily come to mind as adding the zip to the game of cricket, wherever they play. It is worthwhile to add the name of Herschelle Gibbs here, who by sheer hard work, developed into a great fielder, having once been considered a mediocre in this department.
Coming back to the performance of the Indian team lately, they have certainly benefitted from their coach Trevor Penny, whose constant encouragement has worked wonders. He is a tough task master and insists that everyone participate in the drill under his watchful eyes. Suddenly the Indian team is better than Australia, South Africa, the West Indies and England in fielding, as evidenced in the Champions Trophy. Penny openly says that excellence in the field in not a novelty any more, it is a mandatory requirement. If you watch the Indian fielders now, you will find that the flat-footed movers are conspicuous by their absence, having been replaced by proactive nimble-footed sentries in the inner circle. You see them leaping, charging, diving and sliding when opportunities so demand.
The relevance of positive fielding has shot up on account of field restrictions in the shorter versions of the game. A well-knit fielding side can create doubts in the batsmen’s mind, other than providing zing to even an ordinary bowling. If 20-25 runs can be saved in a limited-overs game, the pressure on the batsmen gets reduced. In another positive aspect, good fielding breeds great camaraderie and fantastic team spirit. In the current Indian side, the youthful exuberance seems to be paying off. When these guys display terrific agility in the field, the effect rubs off on others, who may not be in the same genre.