Sunday, May 04, 2008

Fielding: The single biggest gift of T20 for Tests

It is still too early to take a call on the impact of T20 on first class batting and bowling standards, except that I personally find more worth and no greater harm in T20s than the neither-here-nor-there ODIs of modern times. I still love the Test matches and I do understand that a misconstrued perception of success in this game amongst young cricketers can bring danger upon Test cricket. But that apprehension is related only to the key skills, batting and bowling.

Other than purposeful batting, the other big positive contribution of limited overs cricket is the improvement of fielding standards all around the world. Fielding had always been an 'also-ran' in first class and Test cricket. It started to change as limited overs cricket started gaining ground. Catching was not the be all and end all of fielding anymore. A run-out per innings was more of an expectation than a bonus for the fielding. A player saving 3 boundaries over the match had brought down the asking rate by .24 points single handedly - no mean feat. Ditto for the swift runner in the batting side who stole 6 singles where there were none.

However the 50 over format still allowed a little space for less athletic people. Uneven balance of skills tend to even out as the period of play gets longer. The longer the format the more value you get for your specific skills. Conversely, the T20 format asks for more players with all-round skills than specialists at a specific skill. You still have the McGraths and Asifs but then you have to be THAT good. It is quite natural that fielding now becomes a permanently ticked 'option' - also called 'compulsory' in the English language. One dayers need most of your fielders to be excellent while some passable ones can always be accomodated for brilliant bowling / batting skills. In the very near future T20s may well demand ALL fielders to be excellent.

The biggest benefactor of this new outlook should be the subcontinent teams, renowned for brilliant batsmen and master bowlers but also infamous for batsmen refusing to steal that extra run and bowlers refusing to give their all on the field. The 'take it easy' policy will now have to disappear into thin air..

...if it already hasn't, that is. Going by Ashish Nehra's unbelievable diving boundary save for Mumbai Indians on the long on boundary in the 16th over of the Delhi innings
today, we are already seeing a new era of commitment in fielding emerging in Indian grounds. The ball looked like a metre away from the rope when he appeared like superman in the frame from nowhere. Due to the uncomfortable angle left to him he had to put his bowling arm at risk to make the save but he still did it.

Nehra played over 5 years of top flight cricket before injury and a question mark on commitment halted his international career. He played almost all his domestic cricket for Delhi. No one has perhaps seen Nehra do anything like that. Especially the familiar Delhi guys - they were so certain of getting a boundary off that shot that they managed a last-minute single in it where 2½ were on offer!

Only a day ago I thought the catch taken by Dale Steyn to dismiss Rohit Sharma in the Royal Challengers - vs - Deccan Chargers match would not have been taken by any Indian bowler. It is barely 24 hours and I am already wondering how many more days before we see an Indian bowler taking a similar catch in a Test match to tilt the balance of the game (such catches almost always seem to make an impact, don't they?).

Correction: Steyn caught Shahid Afridi yesterday, not Rohit Sharma

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