There is this hypothesis that keeps floating in the head of a keen Indian cricket follower — that our bowlers would all finish with a much higher career haul of wickets if most of the catches, leave alone the half-chances, had been taken.
Slippers Shikhar Dhawan (extreme right), Murli Vijay, Ajinkya Rahane watch Virat Kohli (left) drop a sitter at gully during the tour match against Leicestershire at Grace Road on June 28. Pics/Getty Images
Since the back-to-back departures of Rahul David and VVS Laxman in 2012, India have struggled to find the right fielders to man the slip cordon. While the Test team is grappling with many issues at the moment, slip-catching seems to be the biggest scourge.
A statistic thrown up in the on-going series against England showed that almost one in three catches have been grassed by the Indians, an embarrassment at the international level.
It does certain disservice to the cause of taking twenty wickets of the opposition, required to win Test matches. In the humid and overcast conditions of England, and not surprisingly, almost all of the dropped catches have come from behind the wicket. The trend has continued since the series in South Africa and New Zealand last season.
The quality of catching has been almost insidious, fielders who match the best at the international level in the outfield — Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Ravindra Jadeja along with Shikhar Dhawan, have all followed each other in contributing to these dropped numbers, not to speak of MS Dhoni, who has shown a lack of reach and judgment with his positioning.
But Laxman, who along with Dravid, provided a fantastic cover at the cordon for the bowlers for over a decade, refuses to find fault with the personnel, technique or temperament employed with the current Indian team. Says Laxman, "Dhawan and Rahane have taken great catches and Jadeja has got a great pair of hands. Everyone drops catches. Rahul and me even though we took a lot of catches, we also dropped catches."
VVS Laxman takes a fine catch to dismiss Australia's Shaun Marsh off Umesh Yadav at Perth in 2012
He emphasises on consistency in positioning and practice to move forward from status quo, "You cannot keep changing the slip cordon very frequently, it is a specialist position. Slip catching is also about confidence, the more catches that you take in the middle, the more confident you get. That's why practice and standing in matches is very important, the more you do, the better you get."
What's the problem?
What exactly could then be plaguing the current slip cordon? Laxman believes this could be the mental tuning of a close-in fielder, "The most important trait in fielding is, you have to expect each and every ball to come towards you. Number two, it is important to know when to concentrate and when to switch off. If you're fielding for 90 overs, you cannot afford to be switched on every minute for six hours."
What was the practice that he had engaged to keep his concentration levels up? "I used to start concentrating when the bowler was three yards before he was loading to bowl. "I would not even concentrate from the start of the bowler's run-up because my belief was that then your peak concentration is gone by the time the bowler bowls the ball."
He goes on to offer comfort: "I don't see any fault at the way they're standing, or the distance (between them). They're just missing catches, it's just about concentration. It's like getting out when you're playing well, it might be about the right shot selection. It's the same with slip catching — it's not always about technical deficiencies. It's just that you did not concentrate enough at that particular moment."
For the long spells that bowlers bowl abroad, there is nothing more disconcerting than to see a catch being put down. The words of Laxman might offer some balm for the moment, but with the series teetering about for the Indians, how long the confidence of the bowling department and the patience of the Indian cricket fan sustain, might well depend on the mental-tuning coming good behind the wickets.
The number of runs Alastair Cook ended up with in England's first innings at Southampton after Ravindra Jadeja dropped him on 15