Cricket: Overcome by fear of the drop

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The Independent Online
IN MID-AFTERNOON England dropped three catches in the space of 22 balls. In any Test match, let alone one of this importance, this is a horrifying statistic and it was not helped when a fiendishly difficult chance was dropped by Alec Stewart, diving in front of slip soon after tea when his opposite number, Hansie Cronje, was on 32. Cronje had been dropped earlier - one of the hat-trick - when he was 20.

Is it just a coincidence that these catches went down in a most unattractive rash, or is it a symptom of a wider malaise and, if so, what? England had stuck to their task well, even if the ball didn't always stick in the fielders' hands, and had every reason to think they might even gain a small first-innings lead.

Jonty Rhodes, who made an important 37 in 39 balls which helped lift the pressure off South Africa at a crucial stage, and Cronje were dropped twice in all. Rhodes always gave the bowlers a chance by the way he went for his strokes and he was likely to get himself out, but he is a dangerous man and, for England's well-being, his end could not come too soon.

Cronje is a different problem and it always needs a craftily placed depth- charge to dispose of him. While he is still around, South Africa know that all is not lost. It goes without saying, that the cricket was tense and vibrant on an overcast day and in conditions which were never easy for batting.

This hat-trick of catches that went down in those 22 balls had one interesting feature in common; they were all dropped by players who are not wholly sure of keeping their place in the side. Mark Ramprakash missed one above his head at square leg when Rhodes pulled at a Darren Gough delivery, having taken a much harder one just before.

Graeme Hick was the culprit at second slip when, one run later, Rhodes played forward to Dominic Cork and found the edge - it was not the hardest of chances. The first of the three, and the most important of all, had been put down at third slip by Nasser Hussain when Cronje drove at Cork. The ball travelled quickly but it was straightforward enough.

Hick's place in the side is in obvious jeopardy unless he does something remarkable in the second innings. Ramprakash, on the other hand, is more secure but he is still not scoring the weight of runs he should, and those that he does are teeming with insecurity.

It may seem wrong to suggest that Hussain, the vice-captain these past two years, does not have a secure place, and that is probably true. Nonetheless, in among his big innings, he makes far too many low scores, and this can only whittle away at a man's confidence.

In the short term, Hussain is more in danger of losing his position at No 3 in the batting order than his place in the side. It would be surprising, all the same, if his lack of consistency is not playing on his mind. All three of these players - whose main job it is to score runs - will be eager to impress, apprehensive of more failures.

All three dropped important catches. Was this also coincidental, or was it that they were guilty of trying too hard? Perhaps they were so eager to impress that it affected their focus on the moment, or did the fear of failure raise its head in the split-second between the ball leaving the bat and going to hand?

The fact that Ramprakash held a staggerer at mid-wicket and Hick a good one earlier on may be thought to explode this theory before it even gets off the ground. But why do good, reliable and brilliant fielders with outstanding pairs of hands drop catches like this when they really matter?