Improved fielding helped India’s cause

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If you had given India any chance to win the Champions Trophy when the tournament began a little over three weeks back you deserve an award for prescience and impeccable crystal gazing.
I’ll confess to picking the West Indies, South Africa and England ahead of M.S. Dhoni’s team when the teams assembled in England. India were a new look side, had a poor record playing overseas and not the least, the spot-fixing controversy was raging back home which would have been preying on the minds of the players.
‘Expect the Unexpected’ is an age-old axiom in sport, but there didn’t seem a hope in hell for India to reach even the semi-final. After years of following sport perhaps one should have perhaps been better prepared.
But then that would have taken away the sweetness of surprise! True, the final is yet to be played and England are strong opponents, more so because of the favourable home conditions.
But India’s performances in the tournament have been quite remarkable: in batting, bowling and perhaps most tellingly, in the fielding.
Traditionally, Indians have been laggards in the field lacking the athleticism and catching prowess of Australians, South Africans, West Indians and New Zealanders. In earlier years this was attributed to poor ground conditions at the grassroots level that did not inculcate good fielding discipline in youngsters.
Though this was largely (but not entirely) true in the past it just does not cut ice any longer. At the international level in sport today, these excuses are invalid; more so for cricket in India which is so flush with money and other resources to pursue excellence.
The truth however is that aversion for fielding has been a cultural facet of Indian cricket which is why great Indian fielders can be counted on finger tips. In my 50 years of watching cricket, I can hardly name a dozen before this tour: Pataudi, Borde, Solkar, Abid Ali, Kapil Dev, Azharuddin, Mohammed Kaif and a young Yuvraj Singh.
Pertinently, the current team has at least three who are brilliant and versatile — Ravindra Jadeja, Suresh Raina and Virat Kohli. They are sure catchers anywhere and superb within the 30 yard circle or in the outfield and the impact they’ve had can be gauged by the fact that India have effected five run outs leading into the final.
Supporting these three are eight other highly competent fielders who have given nothing away. Even the fast bowlers have strived to save a single or a boundary.
Indeed, perhaps for the first time ever, there is no need for the Indian captain to ‘hide’ any player in the field.
I have dwelt on fielding in this piece because it has been the most neglected aspect in Indian cricket though it should have been addressed on a priority. As history shows, whenever India has had good fielders, they’ve achieved major triumphs. The 1971 Test wins over West Indies and England, 1983 World Cup victory, 1985 World Championship of Cricket, 2007 T20 World Championship reflect this.
If India do win the Champions Trophy today, fielding will have played a key if silent role. But even if the final is lost, the bar has been raised which can only be of great value in the long run.The cultural change which has come over the side where fielding is concerned is unmistakable.
Young legs and lungs are making a difference, of course, but it is also about attitude.
A great deal of the credit for this should go to skipper Dhoni who has for some years now been harping on the need to find fit players who are not a liability on the field irrespective of their batting or bowling prowess.
Players side-lined now but still hopeful of a comeback would do well to heed this message!

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