Ben Stokes sprinting to long-off to field a ball off his own bowling in the second Test was an exhibition of the ‘cricketness’ of the sport. It didn’t make any difference to the score (the batsmen ran four), there was enough time left for England to win, and Stokes himself was the most tired man on the field after making 254 runs and en route to bowling 28 overs in all.
Action that doesn’t lead anywhere is an essential part of sport. A Messi dribbling past a couple of players, a Federer returning a shot he wasn’t expected to get to — blink and you miss it. There is no footnote on the scorecard to mark it, no way of telling if that one act of exuberance led to something more tangible.
In Stokes’s case, Jermaine Blackwood was caught behind three balls later. No connection, but then again…
“Fielding that makes no difference to the score” is one of the metrics analysts use in their attempt to conquer the final frontier in a sport of statistics. Earlier, followers of the game ascribed a figure to the worth of a fielder: “He saves 30 runs every Test,” they said, basing the figure on nothing more than intuition and kindness. Now data diviners use more sophisticated methods to arrive at their figures.
Every action is judged by the result — was a run saved, did it cost a run or was it neither? It also works on dropped catches: who was the batsman, what was the impact of the missed catch?
It is not a perfect system, but then nothing is, neither batting nor bowling averages that fail to take context into consideration. And if you do take context into consideration, then you let subjectivity in through the back door. “Fielding averages” might soon be a part of a player’s record, but the road is bumpy yet.
Of the three main skills involved in the game, fielding is the one that has made the greatest strides in recent years. It happened following the arrival of one-day internationals in the early 1970s, and progressed rapidly with T20. The individual fielder may or may not be in the same class as a Colin Bland or a Jonty Rhodes, but teams as a whole have raised their performance.
Fielding is the only branch of the game in which if one tries hard enough, one can be sure of success. Ranji wrote that in 1897, and that continues to be true today. Not so long ago, a captain would hide a poor fielder at mid-on, or, sometimes as India did, at slip. Such a player was too valuable as either batsman or bowler to be rejected on poor fielding skills alone.
The great Eknath Solkar made two tours towards the end of his career on the strength of his fielding alone.
In the seventies, India were not above a spot of gamesmanship, bringing in 12th man Solkar as slow movers like Parthasarathy Sharma ‘pulled a muscle’ or had a diplomatic stomach upset. In 27 Tests, Solkar picked up 53 catches some of which were not classified as such till he got his hands around them.
Cricket is a funny game, an individual competition within a team sport; batsman versus bowler is at the heart of it.
Here’s Mike Brearley on playing Erapalli Prasanna: “He and I would engage in a kind of eye-play. His look would say, ‘OK, you played that one all right, but where will the next one land?’ And mine would reply, ‘Yes, you fooled me a little, but notice I adjusted well enough.’” He could have been speaking of any batsman playing any bowler.
Fielders, on the other hand, play the supporting role. The goals are collective rather than individual. A Stokes running down to the boundary to field off his own bowling is sending at least a couple of messages to his teammates. The obvious one is: I will compete with every fibre of my body. The more subtle one is: If you want to be a great fielder, you must enjoy it as much as I do.
This last — the sheer enjoyment of it — is a lesson from all great fielders. Colin Bland, perhaps the greatest cover-point of all, would suddenly, in the words of Wisden, produce an explosive pick-up, followed by a bullet throw. “People would think something was happening and it would wake them up, including the fielders,” he said. Great fielders are great entertainers.
On a tour of England, Bland gave an exhibition during a rain break. Picking up balls on the run, he hit the stumps 12 times out of 15. “They spoiled me by giving me three stumps to aim at,” he said. “I always practise with just one.”
Do we judge a fielder by his limitations or by his ability to overcome them? That’s another tough one for the analysts.