Fielding has historically been relegated to the sidelines in India. While batting and bowling have always been considered of paramount importance, the true value of fielding wasn't recognized until about a decade or so ago.
I was lucky to be among the generation of cricketers for whom fielding was taught to be as important as batting or bowling. The start of the 2000s saw a marked shift in the way India approached its cricket, with fitness and athleticism becoming the buzzwords.
What separates the great fielders from the ordinary ones?
There are several qualities that make a great fielder, not just one. Here is my personal list of those:
By preparation, I mean that the fielder has to anticipate the movement of the ball before it reaches him. The moment the ball hits the bat, you should be able to predict the pace and direction of the ball. You've got to decide right then which way to move - by taking those first few quick steps, you get the momentum to charge at the ball and intercept it quickly.
2. Fitness level:
Your fitness level is tremendously crucial. The fitter you are, the higher your foot speed, and the smoother your hand movements. Higher fitness levels also make diving easier - you know you are flexible enough to avoid getting in trouble even if you fall badly on the ground.
3. Attacking approach
The value of an attacking approach can never be over-emphasized. You have to be constantly on your toes and have to be ready to throw yourself at the ball at the slightest opportunity. That hunger to take risks, to do everything in your power to help your country, is what turns the 50% chances into catches.
You've got to keep your eyes on the ball until it is pouched safely in your hands. Traditional coaches often say that you should keep your hands close to your chest while taking a catch, but I disagree. I believe your hands should be a little away from your body so that a blind spot is not created and you can watch the ball until the very last second.
Further, the ball should always land between your palm and the base of your fingers, in the webbing area. This prevents the ball from popping out, and ensures that you don't spill the catch.
An example of great fielding technique can be seen in the way MS Dhoni takes catches and effects stumpings. When he's standing up, he doesn't even pouch the ball in his gloves; he uses that extra half-second interval to remove the bails in one swift stroke. That kind of skill can't really be coached; you just have to be instinctive enough to do something like that.
You've got to be more aggressive when there's a new batsman at the crease, so that he doesn't get any easy singles which reduce the pressure on him. Moreover, standing within 15 yards, in the gap between point and cover, as opposed to 25 yards, can help you cut off the angle and dry up the runs. These are just two examples of strategic thinking while fielding; there are many other tactics that can be used.
Most importantly though, you have got to be prepared to put in the hours of practice, and to eliminate the fear of getting hurt. Great fielders make their bodies immune to pain, which gives them the ability to pull off those spectacular catches and stops. If you're afraid of hurting yourself, you can never be a great fielder.
(Click on ‘Next’ to see the list of the top 10 fielders in the world)