Slip catching all in the imagination, says Ball

After England's dose of butterfingers an expert in the field reveals how he does it
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The Independent Online

As one chance dribbled to the floor and then another, followed by another - and that was only the first innings - the old line was hard to resist. Dropping is a catching business.

England shelled nine chances during the First Test at Lord's, all of them either at wicketkeeper, slip or gully, and helped to ignite the valiant Sri Lankan resistance. Explanatory theories, including the St John's Wood light, the fashion for sunglasses and the practice of deliberately dropping catches in training to hone the skill of getting the rebound, have been promulgated.

"There's a case for looking very closely at slip fielding and working on it extremely seriously," Martyn Ball said last week. Ball has never played Test cricket - he went on one England tour to India - but if places were available for specialist slip catchers he might have won 100 caps. In 190 first-class matches he has taken 221 catches, most of them at slip.

"If you look at any first-class cricket, you are looking to take three or four catches a game in the slip cordon. This is a key area of the game and if you can go from a 75 per cent catching ratio to 90 per cent then you are going to gain quite a bit."

Ball, like all specialists, has worked out what works for him. He still practises every day and when he spots a good "nicks man" for training he does not let him go. The practice edges must also be conducive to the state of the bounce on the pitch in play.

The first part of his career with Gloucestershire was spent at first slip where the accepted method is to watch the bowler run in and the ball all the way. In the past four years he has moved to second slip, where the convention is to watch the bat.

Ball has varied this. He imagines a picture frame with the batsmen in the left-hand corner. This enables him to pick up the ball about two thirds of the way in its trajectory and, he thinks, gives him a vital extra bit of reaction time.

To judge a pitch's pace he envisages a box into which the ball is likely to be edged. At his home ground of Bristol, Ball will stand with his feet well apart and the box stretches from the waist to the ankle. When he is playing at The Oval ("or at Perth I should think but I've never played there") he will narrow his base to stand higher and the box will be run from the knees to the shoulders.

Although much was understandably made of England's inability to take what came their way at Lord's, they have had previous bouts of the disease. Their epic victory against Australia last summer was achieved despite dropping 25 catches.

When Andrew Strauss put down two catches at Lord's it was surmised that he was not that consistent in any case. True, Strauss has indeed dropped 10 catches in his Test career, seven of them at slip and gully. But of those who have played more than 10 Tests, he and Marcus Trescothick are 14th and 17th respectively in England's all-time catches-per-match chart (WG Grace is top).

Similarly, in the match in which he became the quickest England keeper to 100 Test catches, Geraint Jones put down another two. All this suggests that the present England attacks - that is the first-choice one and the second choice one that played at Lord's - are simply creating more chances.

"Familiarity counts for a lot in the slips. Familiarity with being there, familiarity with who is alongside you. Paul Collingwood dropped a couple and he is an excellent catcher but he's not a regular slip," Ball said.

"Then there is the tiredness factor. As with batting you have to work out a way to switch on and off, to switch on for three seconds and then switch off for 35.

"Having people that you know can be crucial. I was alongside Jack Russell as keeper for years. We knew how far we could get away from each other and what we should catch and what we should cover. An unconfident slip cordon will tend to be too close together and once you drop one the doubts come in.

"Experience teaches you not to worry too much. Not to laugh at the bowler when you drop one of course but be safe in the knowledge that you'll get the next one. The great batters who fail twice in a row know that history says they'll get a hundred next time.

"It should be the same with slippers, but you are going to have bad days. Once, I dropped Graeme Hick twice at Worcester. The crowd gave me stick. I then caught one and gave the crowd some back. Two balls later, I dropped another."

Ball is also a hands-on- knees man. He believes that if the slip has his hands ready in catching position it makes it more difficult to adjust the angle appropriately when the ball comes. In a game where fine margins have come to count for so much, it is an area and a skill yelling out to be explored more.