When I read the headline ‘Kumar Sangakkara apoplectic about fielding’, I wondered for a moment why the Sri Lankan captain was taking India’s shambolic effort so much to heart.
We missed a caught and bowled because the bowler stayed back and preferred to take it on the bounce rather than dive forward and try to make a catch out of it. We missed a catch at point when the ball lobbed off the shoulder of the bat because the fielder there reacted late, and then froze. We missed a run out because the bowler — who, incidentally, has made a habit of this throughout his career — took up position between the ball and the stumps. And all of that happened in the first six overs — after which it only got worse.
With Indian cricket, you can never tell how, and when, it happens — but it is axiomatic that just when matters seem to be looking up in one particular department, there is a precipitous slide that leaves us back where we started from, or even further behind.
The need to up fielding standards was the initial argument for jettisoning the veterans and getting youngsters in, and for a brief while it looked like the team was improving. Suddenly — and damned if you can put a finger on the how and the when — the team is if anything worse in the field than it was during the early part of this decade.
On date, there are at least four fielders you need to hide – and then there’s Virat Kohli, who oscillates between brilliant stops and shambolic muffs. Hide? Scratch that — hell, at one point Ashish Nehra [whose chronic inability to bend beyond 15 degrees makes you want to wheel him into the nearest operating theater and surgically remove the stick up his ass] was stationed at point; the graceful way he turned as a ball drifted past him, and ambled along in its wake, made you forget the pain of the runs he was giving away and laugh at the old-world amateurishness of it all.
There are a couple of statements those who write on cricket get a lot. One is ‘It’s easy to say…’. The other is, ‘If it were so simple, don’t you think the captain/coach/team would have seen it?’. I’ve had my share of these, and I’ve never known how to answer. Still, consider this:
The safest thing for a batsman to do on a cricket field is to play the defensive push with the straight bat, correct? A batsman resorts to this when the ball is good and he can see no opportunity to score? And when you play that stroke the ball goes, depending on the line, to mid off or mid on? Granting all that, why do we invariably station our mid off and mid on halfway to the boundary, so that every single time the batsman plays the safest of shots, he is guaranteed a single? [Compounding that is the fact that spinners work best when luring the batsmen to try and go over the top; bring the fielder in and the tactic is on, push him out, and you remove one of the main weapons of the attacking spinner.]
Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey scored 132 runs between them. That included 60 dot balls — and 76 singles, besides 7 twos. 25 of those singles were scored through mid off  and mid on . That is 25 runs added to the total for free during that phase of the game when the bowling side looks to check the scoring; 25 times the batsman turned the strike over and forced the bowler to work on a different player. [By way of contrast, Pakistan is not the most electric of fielding sides, yet India managed just 98 singles in its innings of 248 the other day].
We don’t take them when we bat; we give them away with generous prodigality when we field — in other words, we get it coming and going. And for me, it is deja vu all over again: it was simple when we talked of this in 2002; it is simple now, so how come the team doesn’t collectively get it? You tell me.
India is on the verge of getting knocked out of the Champions’ Trophy, barring a fairly improbable concatenation of circumstances — and on current form, that is a fair result. The team, minus the explosive threat of Virender Sehwag at the top and Yuvraj in the middle [for all his recent sins, I’ll add Rohit Sharma to the list of players we are missing], plus the calming influence of Zaheer Khan with the new ball, is looking a shadow of itself; it certainly is nowhere close to champion material.
It might seem a cop out to blame all of it on singles — but IMHO, the runs we leak in the field and the runs we don’t make with the bat are contributing immensely to the deterioration of the bowling effort. Harbhajan and Ishant are admittedly shadows of their best selves and clearly have work to do, most of it in the space between their ears.
Bajji for instance needs to remind himself that it is the job of the part-time spinner, not the attacking spearhead, to spear the ball down on indeterminate length; his brief is to bowl the attacking lines, to look for wickets. [While on Bajji, the team needs to get over this ‘seniority’ hang up and start picking players for form, not for how many years he has been part of the side — this business of automatically picking Bajji as the first spinner is past its use-by date. Amit Mishra impresses whenever he gets to bowl; so does Pragyan Ojha. Yet both these bowlers are reduced to sitting on the sidelines during their best years, simply because someone carved on a stone somewhere that if we play one spinner that has to be Bajji, form or no form].
And likewise, Ishant Sharma needs to remind himself that he is a fast bowler, not a medium paced trundler — and therefore, even if he only gets to come on first change and finds a defensive field set for him, his best bet still is to charge in and let it slip as fast as he can. That return to his basic skill set — and not sex — will give him the testosterone high he is clearly lacking just now.
That said, the worst thing that can happen to bowlers is to find runs flowing off defensive pushes to good deliveries, because they then are forced to try different things. A bowler works best when he can find a tight containing line as the stock option; he can then use it to probe the batsman, and use the variation to work him out. The way we are in the field, the stock ball is a free single; this forces the bowler to constantly vary, and in the one day format with its non-existent margin for error, that is a prescription for disaster.
All of this is why I don’t think India’s problem is one of team balance; it is not about four bowlers or five. It is far more basic than that — and basic problems demand a return to basics as the solution.