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DateLine Sunday, 10 February 2008

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Close catching - the need of the hour

CRICKET: Sports is something that most people turn to and it is something of an accepted norm that the king of all sports is cricket. It combines all the virtues that the reluctant athlete requires, and it embraces the sporting duffer as easily and completely as the super here. Cricket can be gentle or violently physical, it can be long-lasting or ever quickly at times, but if you go about it the right way, it will never be unprofitable ordeal.

It is also almost entirely unavoidable, so, unless you wish your life to be one long catalogue of failure, you need to know how to succeed at cricket. You need to have cricket unzipped so that you can read its entrails and win.

Many people will come up with the suggestion that batting is the most important part of the game, but that is a debateable point and there is also a section that says fielding is the most important aspect of the game.

Anticipation plays a major part in becoming an efficient fielder where twos can be turned into singles time and time again with a shrewd reading of the batsman's stroke. Much has been written of wonderfully anticipated catches close to the wicket. But in this area, forethought is a dangerous and unreliable companion to anyone who wants to become a consistent performer in this area.

Take this as an example... As the bowler starts his run up the fielder crouches, knees flexed, hands held loosely in front of him about two feet off the ground, palms reaching towards the batsman. With the height on the balls of his feet he's on balance ready to set off in any direction high or low, left or right.

Advantages of crouch

As the ball is about to be played, and in this case edged, the fielder should be motionless, still crouched, head still, waiting for his eyes to instruct his hands and body and completely free to let his reflexes do the work. Why crouched? Because it's easier to stand up suddenly than to bend down from an upright position. Such a close catcher has a marvellous chance of catching that edge.

Now suppose anticipation gets into the act! Our fielder having seen the intended stroke before impact, believes the ball is going to be deflected away to his left and so starts to move in this direction. But no human being can judge just how an edge the batsman will get.

Take the backward short leg position as our example. A wafer-thin brush of the inside edge of the bat will send the ball to the right of our fielder who, remember, is all set to go to his left. Even if he hasn't actually moved an inch but merely assumed in his mind that the ball will be deflected to his left, he has no chance whatsoever of catching that particular ball.

His muscles are now programmed to go left, and a reversal of instruction as his eyes tell him otherwise will leave him momentarily paralysed. The ball is only in catching range for half a second at most so another chance has gone begging.

Anticipation results in more catches being missed close to the wicket than it gobbles up. You have only a half-chance of being right, so why not, as in batting and bowling, leave it to your eyes to decide?

The coin trick

To be a first-class close-in fielder, you should be able to catch the ball clearly and surely with either hand. All of us favour one side, so in practice make a point at working on your weaker blank. Of course there's no substitute for endless repetition practising. It is rather like that necessary chose that faces musicians, scale practice.

A little trick that is usually used-before going out will probably be of some use in sharpening your reflexes. The quicker your reactions the easier you will make that vital catch. Take two ten cent pieces and lay them on the flat of your hand with your arm extended in front of you at shoulder height. One coin should be near the tips of your fingers, the other towards the base of your palm. With a slight upward flick or your rigid arm, not just the hand, push the coins into the air. Then quickly turn your handover, palm now facing towards the ground and grab them one by one as they drop downwards. You should be able to reclaim both before they reach waist height.

Two coins shouldn't pose much of a problem. Now try three with the extra coin near the roots of the fingers. When you can catch four with either hand (the extra one should be placed on your wrist) with the rules described then you will have sharpened your speed and coordination of hand and eye to rival the greatest close fielders the game has known.

Most close catchers prefer to field on one side of the wicket. Try the slips and then the short leg positions for yourself. You can experiment during a practice match. Once you've found the place where you feel happiest, try to become something of a specialist there.

Dress and equipment

For the cricketer, the dress and equipment take quite a precedent. To be more precise, one can define cricket shoes and dress, but cricket boots are really pieces of equipment, offensive weapons rather than armour for the knights of the cricket field.

Once you reached your eleventh birthday or your feet hit size three, whichever was the sooner, boots took over from shoes in the junior cricket bag, never to be superseded. Boots encashed the feet of Jack Hobbs during everyone of his 61,237 runs, and even the delicate footwork of a Frank Woolley or a Donald Bradman was accentuated by the heavy white framework of their cricket boots.

Nowadays, boot technology has moved on. Cricketers can wear boots (with optional screw-in studs and/or drag plate and toe cap) or shoes, many of which are made in Germany or Taiwan or other such bastions of cricket culture.

Runs needed

Coming to the game itself, batsmanship is something which has no value except within the context of the match. There is no point in looking good in the nets if you are to fail out in the middle. There is no merit in possessing a cover drive reminiscent of Hammond at his peak if, when executed, it always directs the ball straight to extra-cover's right hand. What we want is runs.

It is no contradiction to say that style brings runs. Style is relaxation, and relaxation is domination of the bowling. No innings start with the first ball. It starts sometime before that hours of dedication, posing in front of the hall mirror. It starts in the mind of the batsman as he prepares himself for the bowlers he must face. It starts very often with a mandate to the little cubicle at the back of the pavilion.

On arrival at the wicket, the first thing to do is to take guard.

Taking guard shows the style of the man who has arrived at the crease and can influence the way the fielding side approaches the task of getting him out. Is he easy meet or will containment be the best they can hope for? The obvious guard to take is middle and leg, because most people do so.

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