January 19, 2017

How about having specialists at short leg?

The importance of the position is at odds with the fact that it is seen as a punishment to be posted there
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Fielding at short leg is seen as a poisoned chalice because of the body blows that often come with the job © Getty Images

"You right to jump under the lid?"

The captain's phrasing may vary from region to region, but any youngster or newcomer to a cricket team knows the question. For the sake of accuracy, it's less a question than a veiled instruction, polished with hollow concern. It rarely matters if you're "not right" to field in close. Very few are. And that's the point: a fielding position of great value and a high degree of difficulty is often bestowed upon the team's lowliest member. With some exceptions, being stationed at short leg is usually an indicator of a player's hypothetical ranking rather than of their reflexes.

Of course, it is too simplistic to equate short leg with the lowliest team member. When a fast bowler is operating, the team's best three catchers will invariably hold positions one, two and three in the slips. If not third slip, then gully. There is a wicketkeeper, and of course a bowler. If one of the quicks is already bowling, then typically two will remain, one normally stationed at fine leg and the other somewhere relatively tranquil too. That takes the tally to seven players, with the remaining four vying to avoid discomfort. One might be a specialist spinner, and thus exempted from short leg's mental tightrope of simultaneously intimidating the opposition and managing the fear of getting hit. That leaves three. Whether by process of elimination or not, if you're short and young, you better get that lid ready.

So the conventional wisdom goes. But is it possible to reframe the status of short leg? Reams of rhetoric are dedicated to its importance, yet seldom do we see a specialist emerge. To wit, nobody likes to be hit by a cricket ball, and this is likely why the position is considered as much a rite of passage as anything else. Yet we marvel at the courage and skill of close-in fielders in years gone by. To name a few, there were Gus Logie and Roger Harper of West Indies, Tony Lock and Tony Greig of England, David Boon of Australia, and of course - widely regarded as the best of all - Eknath Solkar of India. "Ekky's" statistics are the stuff of legend: 53 catches in 27 Test matches is the best ratio of catches per Test among non-wicketkeepers. They are instructive too. Skilful close-in fielders are in the game; they can genuinely shape both matches and reputations.

To be poor at short leg doesn't excuse you; to be good at it condemns you there for longer

It is unsurprising that India produced possibly the game's greatest close-in fielder. The home conditions create a penchant for spin, and if Indian Test cricket were a postcard, its hero image could well be a spinner tweaking with men around the bat. Balls dart, twist, scythe and spoon off the blade, and the bat-pad plays a significant role. As a spin-heavy Australian touring party ventures to Asia next month, it is unclear who will take that important mantle. In recent years, a spate of would-be occupants have come and gone. Joe Burns was the personification of discomfort, his evident bravery overshadowed by his palpable dread. He was "not right" to go under the lid, yet was persisted with in the absence of any other takers. This summer, Nic Maddinson wore the lid. His efforts were commendable even if the results were mixed.

But late into the Boxing Day Test against Pakistan, something interesting happened.

One of Australia's other newcomers, Peter Handscomb, popped into short leg. Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq, comfortably Pakistan's two most dependable batsmen at that time, looked to be constructing a match-saving partnership. With men crowding the bat on both sides, Shafiq skipped down the wicket to work one of Nathan Lyon's overspinners to leg. He leaned on the ball and made strong contact, albeit in Handscomb's direction. The Victorian, whether by instinct or conditioning, moved smartly to his left in anticipation of Shafiq's intended placement. He remained low and balanced, and his exceptional hands absorbed the force of the ball, cushioning it upwards, before he took the ball as he fell to the ground. It was the catch of a skilled operator, and it will be interesting to see whether the "newcomer" retains those duties in India.

As it stands, there's a sense of poisoned chalice about going under the lid. It's a critical role for most teams, though appointments to the position are most often made by process of elimination. Most juniors seek an edge in all aspects of the game, though rarely is this true of close-in fielding. To be poor at it doesn't excuse you; to be good at it condemns you there for longer. It would seem that if you're new, young, and you bat, it helps to be a good slipper.

Sam Perry is a freelance sportswriter and co-author of The Grade Cricketer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • RAVINARAYANAN on January 29, 2017, 10:52 GMT

    India could have boasted best close-in fielders those days like Pataudi, Venkat, Wadekar and of course the " inimitable" Eknath Solkar. Most of his 53 catches ( a world record) were held at forward short leg. Nobody can forget his breathtaking catch from the blade of Alan Knot off Venkat at The Oval in 1971 which ultimately turned out to be a historic series win for India in England under Ajit Wadekar. And then a "dream debut in catching" for Yajuvindra Singh(Indian) who held 7 catches in Bangalore Test and incidentally that is also against England in Feb.1977. Remember all these above catches were held "without wearing helmets". For fielding in close-in positions, especially in shortleg, you shouldn't fear and have quick reflexes. To quote Yajuvindra " Firstly, you shouldn't be scared of being hit. If there is fear, there is no way you can field there. And you should enjoy fielding there- which I used to". It was also sad that Raman Lamba lost his life while fielding short leg.

  • Earl John on January 28, 2017, 23:08 GMT

    For those insisting that the Indian national team need to improve their fielding... You're too late!!! Good fielding habits need to be instilled in young children (from age 7 up) and reinforced as the child grows into a young man and progresses up the grades of cricket. When done correctly the men selected as national representatives will ALREADY be good fielders.

  • Jose on January 22, 2017, 6:35 GMT

    @Nampally is right on the spot!

    India is improving, on almost on all fronts.

    Except, in one of the, often neglected, but vital area of fielding.

    As he said, "India need to develop their close in fielders - Slips + short legs- especially when they go over to England."

    Hope, we do have a decent fielding coach (unlike the effectively missing bowling coach, who can't even arrange for a few radars for our pacers).

    The fielding coach, I presume, is working hard on this potentially Achilles's heel of our team, ASAP!

  • Ashok on January 21, 2017, 16:57 GMT

    Short leg has always been a suicidal position requiring super fast reflexes + athletic ability. I can recall Sidney Barnes broke his ribs when he was at short leg taking Ponsford's blow. Yes, Solkar was easily the best Short stop ever. Sobers would have equally good had he fielded there but being a captain, he preferred alternate position to be in touch with the bowlers. India had the best short leg fielders in Abid Ali, Solkar, Surthi, who really made Chandra's leg break almost unplayable, by their superb catching abilities. I think amongst the rest Tony Lock was equally good. He used to walk in with bowler even at the short leg! The south African Team in 50's had the best close in fielders too. India need to develop their close in fielders - Slips + short legs- especially when they go over to England. Wadekar's team beat England in the Test series mainly on superb close-in fielding by Solkar & Co. Catches win Matches!

  • Jose on January 21, 2017, 14:17 GMT

    Couldn't resist posting this, after hearing a captain, telling a guy, using a phrase from this article (may be accidental).

    During the day, while returning home after an errant, stopped by the local social club. A short match was about to start at their grounds, played by a group of its assorted members, against some invited group.

    The caption was loudly telling a member of his team:

    "Hey, so-snd-so, you are 'young and short' (phrase used by Sam Perry!), you field there", pointing at the forward short leg position!

    Perhaps for impressing his target, he added, "You are going to be my Bavuma, today". May be as a complement, who knows! It was obvious, the Captain belonged to the post Eknath Solkar generation!

    Only after hearing 'Bavuma', I remembered one brilliant catch of his.

  • Jeff on January 21, 2017, 13:21 GMT

    Ironically in club and university cricket its completely the opposite - at club level if the captain wants a shortleg, he does it himself unless there is a 60+ year old immobile veteran in the team, while at university level its usually the honour of the club president (or at second XI level, the social secretary) to go under the lid.

  • 22mihi4300265 on January 21, 2017, 5:59 GMT

    The main issue comes when fielding is not seen as a criteria for selection of a player and this is because a fielder is the only player who can be substituted. Batsman often continue being injured, even bowlers do it many times but no fielders do it. The best solution is to have proper full time substitutes. Let the teams be decieded after the toss is done ( so that each team names a batting or bowling/fielding specialist xi depending on the outcome of the toss) and for a test match let every team be allowed 5 subs and sub bench of 7. Each team must name its 18 (11+7) players before the toss so that home teams will not get domestic players from around the country. For eg, even when Pujara was not in form during the aus seires in 14/15, he would been brought on as a speicialist short leg fielder and then maybe given an innings to bat and if fails would have been replaced in the second innings while batting. This would also require some management tatics.

  • Stephan on January 20, 2017, 23:43 GMT

    @Oscar465 & @Jose_P - thanks for the replies. I'll have to keep an eye on Latham next time I see him fielding in that position.

    @Behind_the_bowlers_arm - this is a bit off topic, but that's a good observation about Renshaw. Quite a serious lapse in judgement from Smith, to put a guy who has already been hit in the head into that position. I wonder if this is something the umpires can also have some control over - perhaps vetoing a captain's decision to put a player in a close in fielding position if they've previously been hit in the head during the match and taken off for a concussion test?

  • Aaron on January 20, 2017, 19:52 GMT

    @SRK666: Sorry to mention him again, but Tom Latham is a wicket-keeper as well, has taken the gloves a bit as cover for NZ. You're right I think, the skills transfer

  • Terry on January 20, 2017, 17:22 GMT

    Handscomb looks a natural there like Boon was. I think its a small mans position. When Wade was off the field ill and Handscomb took the gloves they reverted to the seniority play and put Matthew Renshaw in there. He is a natural first slip and a big guy and got concussed when hit. Given he had been hit when batting so it didn't seem a wise move. Hopefully he isn't asked again.

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