Cricket: The fielders of dreams

Game's third discipline becomes an art form as South Africa sharpen their edge. Stephen Brenkley reports
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The Independent Online
A GENERATION ago the South Africans arrived bearing a cricketer who took fielding to an unprecedented level. It cost England dear. The horizons of the art, it is already evident, are again being extended and this time the high veld is being occupied by the entire squad.

In 1965, it was only Colin Bland who stood apart. His derring-do at cover and mid-wicket turned a Test innings, the match and probably the series. As a stopper of runs and an architect of run-outs he was a pioneer and an inventor. The morning session in the first international match of this summer, at The Oval on Thursday, was enough to be sure that his successors have not wasted his legacy.

The class of 1998 have their eye-catcher in the extraordinary Jonty Rhodes but they look terrifying in every position. They are all predatory enough to make any batsman think twice about taking a run - by which time, of course, it is much too late, as England found to their cost. There were four run-outs in the match and three of them were claimed by the tourists. This was merely an extension of the norm. In one-day internationals they lead the run-out chart, some 15 per cent of their dismissals going that way. The dozens of runs saved in every match by Rhodes, above all, but by others just as diligent if less spectacular, go unrecorded but never unnoticed.

England themselves have outstanding individuals (witness, at The Oval, Nasser Hussain's mid-wicket catch and Darren Maddy's smart throw to the bowler's end to run out Daryll Cullinan) but South Africa have identified specialists for every position, in the circle and out of it, close to the bat and miles from it. In this atmosphere even the old man of the party, the tall, burly, unwieldy Pat Symcox, a smoker of 38, comes across as a natural athlete.

Rhodes, who remains a lethal jack-in-a-box at backward point and short mid-wicket, ready to pop up and shock the living daylights out of batsman and spectator alike at any moment, emphasised the side's all-round fielding strength. "There isn't a weak link. You can't hide anybody in the field now and we really don't have to. We have sweepers in Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald who can glide round the boundary and have absolutely astounding throws, Jacques Kallis who is a great gully and everybody in the team knows instinctively what to do."

Such handsome tributes to his colleagues should not deflect attention from Rhodes's own perpetual contribution. Quite simply, he never stops. He is encouraging and alert and the batsmen always know he is there, breathing down their necks. Which does prevent them taking daft risks, as Hussain showed on Thursday with a push to leg, affirmative call and panicky change of mind.

"I think my low centre of gravity helps," Rhodes said. "Being only 5ft 8in I can get down more easily and somehow get in to stop runs more easily. I'm not actually very quick over 100 yards, but over five yards I'd say I've got something and that's where I've got to make it count.

"I started out as a cover fielder really but the changing nature of the game moved me to backward point. If I have a busy day there then our bowlers are bowling well because that's where they're trying to get the batsman to play with the ball, on or just outside off stump."

Rhodes amenably concedes that he still does not make enough direct hits on the stumps, which was the forte of his great forerunner, Bland. Perhaps it is connected with balance, as he is often throwing from the ground, perhaps with having only one stump to aim at much of the time. It is not for the want of rehearsal. Rhodes works, like all his colleagues, at every facet of fielding, throwing, catching, diving, stopping. His latest drill involves him catching a hard tennis ball hit off a racket 10 yards away. "It's a bit of variation," he said.

There is another difference between Rhodes and Bland apart from one of them having an apposite name - think of the Colossus of Rhodes - and the other possessing one hopelessly inappropriate to a man who was never less than spectacular. Rhodes is perpetually noisy, Bland was not. "Eddie Barlow tells me that you never heard Colin so that you couldn't be sure where he was fielding, if he'd moved from mid-wicket to mid-off or something," Rhodes said. "But it's just because I enjoy it so much."

Bland, 60, can still recall the moment he ran out Ken Barrington for 91 in the First Test at Lord's 33 years ago. Barrington was on the way to putting England in an unassailable position when he nudged the ball to leg, called a single and failed to make his ground as Bland swooped from mid-wicket to mid-on and threw down the stumps. "It was a waiting game," he said from his home in Port Elizabeth last week. "That was the first time in his innings Kenny didn't look around and the first time I didn't move away from the bowler."

Bland paid tribute to the development work as carried out by Rhodes and his colleagues. "I would say that we are the best in the world at it. We've realised how vital it is and with due respect to everybody else have taken that a stage further. And there are improvements we could make yet. Ricky Ponting, the Australian, is phenomenal at hitting the wickets direct as he showed last winter."

Despite the substantial evidence to the contrary, the tourists and especially their coach, Bob Woolmer, insist there is no mystery about their immense fielding prowess. Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? "We simply to try to replicate match situations," Woolmer said. "We don't train hard at fielding every day but we do try to make it different. We have specialists for specialist positions and also aim to have back-ups in every position, so that if injuries or the demands of a particular match crop up we've always got somebody who can slot in. But I'll tell you this, you don't just go out and find a straight replacement for Rhodes."

Catchers of the high veld: Practice drills which make the tourists perfect

TOUCH RUGBY

BY WAY of warm-up for net sessions the whole party - minus Woolmer who is recovering from a foot operation - take part in a rugby match. No tackling, just running. It is jocular, but in closing down space, catching, sharpening reflexes and building up speed over a few yards its merits are obvious. Here, Glamorgan, remembering what used to be in Wales, are frequently to be seen with an oval ball.

CATCH TENNIS

A RECENT departure to enable Rhodes and other inner-circle fielders to hone their reflexes. The rules are simple, the benefits are clear. One man holds a tennis racket and with it hits a ball, harder than the traditional variety, at various angles towards a catcher some 15 yards away. The exercise is intended to develop the diving catch and the diving stop. Rhodes particularly likes the idea because it means he can have 100 or 200 hits, whereas that many with a cricket ball each day would leave him with sore hands. Mind you, it was noticable he was slightly more effective diving to his left. "Sore right thigh from landing so much on it," he explained, though England might not like to make too much of that.

SLIP CORDON

FOR slip fielding there is nothing like actually being there in the middle, waiting and waiting for the edge. Notoriously difficult to practise, even for the South Africans, who follow the traditional pattern, one man throwing a ball at a batsman, who nicks to first and second slip. The ball frequently lacks the pace and angles of the real thing, but that doesn't stop Brian McMillan concentrating furiously and pouching everything near him.

CONE ALONE

PLAYERS move round the field from cone to cone as the ball is hit to them, practising their stopping and throwing in various parts of the field. It is hoped direct hits will come but it is noticeable that they are keen on low throws bouncing in front of the fielder guarding the bowler's stumps.

BOUNDARY BOYS

AS IF to emphasise that there is no mystery beyond trying to reproduce what happens in matches this consists of no more than coach Corrie Van Zyl hitting balls towards the fence. Players stop, pick up, throw. All sides do this, but South Africa give the impression of doing it better.

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