India look to solve catching jinx
When you have a home season of 13 Tests, you have a good chance of stacking up memorable numbers. Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and R Ashwin have done so in their fields, and despite the Pune defeat India have an even chance of ending up on the right side of the ledger as a team. There is one number, though, that India will not like to remember. They have dropped at least 23 catches in 10 Tests. Until Pune, they didn't cost India dearly - although they might well have won Rajkot had they taken their catches - but in Pune the five missed opportunities snatched away any chance they had of coming back into the Test after conceding a 155-run first-innings lead.
These drops have been of all varieties: by slips and gullies standing back, by wicketkeeper Parthiv Patel, by a break in concentration in the outfield, but most disturbingly in Pune by fielders standing close in for spinners. It's the last category that is hurting India the most. Support for spinners is what all Indian fielders pride themselves in. At India's training three days before the Bangalore Test, there was clear evidence they were taking the misses in the last Test seriously.
Plenty of time was spent taking close-in catches. Pujara used a miniature bat to keep edging the ball for slips to catch it. He then moved into the fielding position himself with fielding coach R Sridhar taking up edging duties. Ajinkya Rahane joined the drills after his stint in the nets. M Vijay, repeat offender both when standing back for quicks and close for spinners, also took catches.
Vijay was later asked if this was routine or if there was extra emphasis on close-in catching in the lead-up to the Bangalore Test. "Definitely," Vijay said. "We have got to, we have got to… We had a chat about it, and we're working on a few areas where we could have done much better in the last Test match. We're looking forward to this game, and hopefully we can pull off those catches."
With growing awareness of fitness and modern cricket, India are up there with any side when it comes to ground fielding, but catching has been an issue since the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. India's slide in England after taking 1-0 lead in 2014 began with a dropped catch. Their bowlers bailed the fielders out by creating more chances in England's return series in India, but India's catching has been ordinary for too long now.
During the Chennai Test in the England series, fielding coach Sridhar had blamed frequent injuries and thus an unstable cordon for the lapses. "It is a work in progress," he said back then. "There have been a few injuries for players in the series. We have changed personnel in the close cordon. We are working on it. It is not an excuse but we are working on it. We are trying to manage the workload, injury part as far as fingers are concerned. We are sure to get better from here."
Except that it got worse, especially against spinners. The season is now getting to a point where it is becoming physically challenging and India can't afford to manage workloads now that they are behind in the series. Sridhar had then said that if the squad was all fit, his ideal slip cordon for fast bowlers would be Vijay at first slip, Karun Nair at second, Virat Kohli at third, and Rahane at gully. For spinners, Rahane has been the undisputed first slip.
Nair is not likely to play every Test and Vijay has made a few mistakes that can affect his confidence. Ashwin has shown great hands and reactions when standing back at slip, but it is understandable India don't want to risk a finger injury for their top bowler. Same might be the case with Jayant Yadav. KL Rahul, who does slips for Karnataka but dropped a catch in his second Test in Sydney, is now out of favour there. He also dropped a relatively easy catch at midwicket in Chennai.
As with dropping catches, taking one can be infectious. India will be hoping they start off well with their catching and can then get on a roll. That is what they are preparing in the nets for. Starting has not been an issue in the field alone. While Virat Kohli has generally walked to a relatively old ball at No. 4, the opening partnership for India hasn't been great, especially between Vijay and Rahul. In the 13 times they have opened together, Vijay and Rahul have put together a fifty stand only once. On an average India are 20 for 1 when these two open.
Vijay promised improvement on that front too. "I don't think of it that way," he said when asked why was it that he had big partnerships with Pujara this season but not with Rahul. "Maybe a big partnership is around the corner between me and Rahul. Hopefully, it can happen this match."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo