How the IPL is changing the art of fielding
- One of the most visible changes is the positioning of a team’s finest fielders; traditionally, they would occupy close-in spaces like the slips, or the universally acknowledged spot for the once-in-a-generation fielder, backward point. Not in T20s.
How sensational is the fielding at the IPL? Just from Monday’s match between Rajasthan Royals and Punjab Kings, there were enough flashes of fielding genius to fill half a season’s worth of highlight reels.
When the slog is on, the men on the field now respond in breathtaking fashion. When Punjab captain KL Rahul went in search of a huge final over (and his hundred), he attempted a massive hoick over mid-wicket; he expected to clear Rahul Tewatia, standing at the boundary, with ease. Tewatia had other plans—he got both hands to the ball, found the momentum taking him beyond the rope, tossed the ball in the air, staggered outside the rope, charged back into the field and completed the catch.
A few overs prior, debutant Chetan Sakariya sent Nicolas Pooran packing by pulling off a blinding catch, flying to his left at short fine leg.
Later, Punjab’s young pacer Arshdeep Singh took a reflex catch off his own bowling that had the team’s fielding coach, Jonty Rhodes, applauding on his feet.
Like it has with batting and bowling, T20 cricket, especially leagues like the IPL where each team has an array of coaches and analysts, has changed the art of fielding in profound ways.
One of the most visible changes is the positioning of a team’s finest fielders; traditionally, they would occupy close-in spaces like the slips, or the universally acknowledged spot for the once-in-a-generation fielder, backward point. Not in T20s.
“Look, backward point is still a specialist position. But with a lot more sixes and boundaries being hit, the boundary fielder has become the real focal point,” said England and Punjab Kings player Chris Jordan, currently one of the most breathtaking fielders in the game. “It's become the point of difference…where you as a fielder can make a real difference. If you can get the best fielders in those positions, you can go a long way in getting dangerous batsmen out or restricting them and frustrating them because they find it hard to get boundaries in their strong areas.”
Accordingly, every team puts in a lot of work on the art of fielding on the boundary. The result? Efforts like the one Tewatia pulled off on Monday night are no longer the exception but the norm.
“We specifically work on defending the boundary, because that has become such an important part of fielding,” said Punjab Kings fielding coach Jonty Rhodes, one of the greatest fielders in the history of the game.
A typical drill, Rhodes said, is to make the players actually walk off the boundary, striding forwards in anticipation of attacking the ball, and then sending them backpedaling as quickly as possible with a high ball arcing over them.
It’s the kind of stuff Md Kaif reveled in during his playing days (1999-2007 for India). He now coaches Delhi Capitals “to be the best fielders they can be”.
“Batsmen are targeting long-on and deep midwicket a lot more, so that’s where the best fielders are,” Kaif said. “Fence fielding has become very important; particularly at the death with so many yorkers being attempted, batsmen are using a lot more bottom hand. Even balls outside off are hit over long on and deep mid-wicket. That’s where the bat swing takes it.”
If close-in fielding was all about anticipation, reflex and agility, boundary fielding demands one more skill before all of that—the ability to get to the ball.
“The hands and eye came in a lot later. 60 percent of fielding is feet movement,” Kaif said.
Perhaps the most dazzling example of boundary fielding in the recent past came from Jordan himself. In the India-England series last month Suryakumar Yadav was dismissed by a “relay” catch—Jordan ran full tilt chasing a big hit that would have cleared long on, plucked the ball out of the air with one hand, and realizing that his momentum was going to carry him over the ropes, threw the ball at Jason Roy, who was standing in just the right position, smiling ear to ear at the audacity of it all, to receive it.
“When Surya (Yadav) hit the ball, I quickly judged how hard it will come off the bat. From there I tried to cut down the angle as much as possible,” Jordan said. “It may sound weird but when I go to a fielding position, I have already assessed six or seven scenarios—visualisation and anticipation. When I first took off, I wasn't sure if I was going to make it, that's why I went full pace…when I got closer, I realised I’ll have a chance. Then it was just about trusting my hands, having the awareness of where the rope was. We have team chemistry where we do a lot of such training. I knew Jason would have positioned himself just in case I needed a helping hand. And he was there to complete the catch.”
While the most athletic of fielders—with fast legs, alert eyes, soft hands—will pull off catches and saves that make the highlights reel, there’s a contrarian view too—that fielding rarely makes a winning difference to a T20 contest. The theory goes that choosing power-hitters, who may not be the most agile, can provide a bigger impact as match-winners.
Chris Gayle is a perfect example; it’s evident the 41-year-old is no longer athletic, but he can still hit the ball long. To make sure Gayle does not become a liability on the field, Rhodes formed a plan.
“What I tried to work with him (last season) is to get him to stand very close to the bat, even though he is fielding in the ring,” Rhodes said. “In previous years, because he was standing in the ring—and let’s face it, he isn’t going to dive—he wasn’t able to save any runs. With him coming in, batsmen did not take the risk because they knew he could run them out.”
The jury may be out if a good fielding side can win T20 matches, but all fielding coaches concur that data and strategy are becoming an intrinsic part of fielding plans.
“Our players are briefed on each individual in the opposition. The same amount of tactical work goes into fielding as batting and bowling,” Malolan Rangarajan, RCB fielding coach, said. “We assign a fielding captain who is in charge of all the fielding match-ups because there is only so much the skipper will be able to do on the field.”
Jordan, whose English team uses data extensively, said, “I moved myself from slips to mid-off in T20 cricket while I still field in the slips in long form and ODI cricket, because we figured mid-off is a hot spot in the powerplay and there is more happening there. That's how data affected my shift in position.”
To train players for these match-ups, fielding drills are designed to simulate game situations.
“The fielding drills have to be competitive. They must be of match pace. Also, I look to cover the background of the stadium,” said Dishant Yagnik, Rajasthan Royals’ fielding coach. “The volume of training goes down by half as the tournament progresses, but the competitiveness remains the same.”
The IPL, Kaif pointed out, is not the place to become a better fielder, but it is a platform that facilitates the best expression of the art.