Why India need to look at their slip fielding and address the issue more seriously
These are extremely interesting times for Indian cricket. A new Test captain. A support staff, that is still not completely permanent, but at the same time, not totally unaware about the challenges that lie ahead for this young team
Without dispute, it can be said that India probably has the best young batting line-up in world cricket, at the moment. The quality of batting that one witnessed, particularly in the tour of Australia from the likes of Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, KL Rahul towards the end of that tour was sublime.
Prior to that, Cheteshwar Pujara also put in a commendable performance at the Wanderers, that almost paved the way for what would've been a terrific Indian win over South Africa.
If the batting seems to be progressing towards becoming a settled unit, the bowling resembles a completely different look. Lack of experience and substantial sting in the attack has hurt India on more than one occasion in the last 18 months.
Kohli has adopted the five bowler theory in the 2 Tests in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and it has worked quite well, considering we bowled out Sri Lanka twice at Galle and had the upper hand against Bangladesh in the rain-hit Test at Mirpur.
Good fielders, but good slip catchers?
Now the third and final aspect that is left out is the fielding. As you would expect with a team that contains many young legs, there would be agility in the field and this is true with the present unit as well. The likes of Rahane, Kohli etc are outstanding in the outfield and have helped save many important runs on numerous occasions.
But the one issue that has been bothering Indian cricket for some time has been the catching in the slip cordon, especially in Tests. Ever since the retirements of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, the team has found it difficult to find players who could catch on a regular basis in the slips.
And rightly so. It would be extremely harsh to expect someone to become as good as Dravid or Laxman in such a short span of time.
But the concerning aspect for India has been that the lack of constancy in that region. Instead of sticking to a particular pattern, India have shuffled many players- from R Ashwin to Shikhar Dhawan to Cheteshwar Pujara etc over there and that has led to a slight confusion in the minds of the players.
The opening Test at Galle witnessed Ajinkya Rahane take 8 catches. He was seen standing at first slip for the spinners and seemed to be in a good position while taking the chances that came his way.
But the problem doesn't lie with the fielding at slip for spinners as much as it does while fielding over there for fast bowlers, particularly when they have the new ball in hand.
There are 2 examples that explain the need for good Indian fielders in that region with the new ball.
1.Ravindra Jadeja's drop that let Alastair Cook off the hook at Southampton, 2014
England were down in the dumps and Cook, in particular, was in the firing line. But Jadeja's easy drop at third slip provided the England captain a small opening and he went on to score 95 vital runs.
2.KL Rahul's drop of Chris Rogers at Sydney, 2015
A nervous Rahul dropped a sitter at slip that eventually paved the way for Rogers to score 95 and lay the foundation for a massive Australian total.
In the forthcoming Tests, a sizeable portion of which they will play in the subcontinent, India must ensure that they provide a particular pattern of fielders in the slips a healthy run and work on them constantly at the nets, during practice.
Ideally, you don't want someone like an R Ashwin standing there since a blow to his bowling fingers would mean an even bigger blow to the bowling attack. Someone like Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma could be given opportunities to learn and evolve into fine fielders.
Good slip fielders = assurance for bowlers
The other reason why it is essential to have good fielders in the slips is for the bowler's confidence. A swing bowler like Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who will get a more edges than most in helpful conditions, will probably bowl with a lot more assurance if he knows in his mind that there are capable men in the slips who would pouch catches and contribute to the fall of a wicket.
One of the key reasons why the likes of Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan benefited immensely at their prime was because they were assured in the heads that all they had to do was to land the ball in the corridor, take the edge and the cordon would take care of the rest.
That confidence, sadly, is missing right now and it is vital going forward that India work on this aspect and carry forward their rich tradition of producing outstanding fielders at slip.