The game of cricket has evolved greatly over the years. Earlier, fielding was just something that bowlers and batsmen had to do on the field when they weren’t bowling or batting. Today, with the advent of T20 cricket, it is considered an art form. Over the years, fitness levels in cricket have greatly improved, and along with it standards of fielding have elevated.
Only in the last two decades has Indian cricket started treating fielding as a crucial component of the game, one that can often win you matches. This was conceived in the era of Sourav Ganguly’s young team. Today, it is safe to say that Virat Kohli’s side is the finest fielding outfit India has seen. Here are five of India’s greatest fielders across different eras.
Eknath Solkar, or ‘Ekky’ as he was commonly known, had a short international career of only 27 Test matches. He was an effective all-rounder, but it is his exploits as a fielder that warrant a mention. Solkar has been widely acknowledged as one of the best close-in fielders the game as seen. In an era where India’s bowling comprised the famed spin quartet of Bishen Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, B.S. Chandrasekhar and S Venkataraghavan, Solkar played a crucial role snapping up catches at forward short leg. He had the highest catch-per-match ratio for a non-wicketkeeper in the ‘70s. Teammates and opponents who saw Solkar in action, fondly remember him standing inches away from some of the most dangerous batsmen in the world, without protection.
Mohammad Azharuddin wasn’t much of a diver, but you always got the sense of a relaxed cheetah on the prowl when he approached a ball. He always seemed to be in the right position, with the right balance, when an aerial shot came towards him. From point to gully to the slips, Azhar showed the way both as a youngster and a veteran, illustrating the importance of holding onto those rare catches in Test cricket. He rarely dropped the ball. If he misfielded, he almost always compensated by affecting a run-out in the same innings. His throwing, too, was underrated.
Few would disagree that Rahul Dravid is one of the greatest batsmen India has produced. His achievements with the bat tend to overshadow the fact that Dravid is also India’s safest and most reliable slip fielder of all time. Not many are aware that Dravid holds the record for the most number of catches in test cricket. Blessed with monk-like powers of concentration, he almost never dropped a regulation catch irrespective of the speed and trajectory, and very often pulled off some blinders. He wasn’t much of an outfielder, but was the most important catcher on the field in the first ten overs of an ODI and the entirety of a test match. Dravid also kept wickets in 70 one-day internationals, a testament of his versatility. Today, despite the heightened fielding standards, slip catching has proved to be India’s achilles’ heel on more than one occasion, which underlines the value of Dravid’s safe pair of hands in the slip cordon. Sometimes all you need to get right is the basics.
For those who followed Indian cricket in the early 2000s, the sight of a young, lanky bloke running around the field and putting in dives was a common one. Agile, aware and alert all the time, Mohammad Kaif raised the bar of an Indian team comprising not-so-nimble fielders like Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble and VVS Laxman. Kaif was the ‘fielding captain’, a concept introduced by coaches in the mid-noughties in a bid to raise fielding standards of Asian teams and give more responsibility to the craft. Mohammad Kaif batted at number 7 for India for most of his career and never bowled, but his value lay in the runs that he saved for his team on the field.
Ravindra Jadeja may well be the most complete fielder India has ever seen. In a team full of good fielders, Jaddu is the finest and the most lethal. Over time, he has established himself as an all-rounder in the true sense. He bats, bowls, and earns extra runs and wickets through his fielding. He makes some of the most sensational catches look mundane, and more importantly, seems to relish guarding the boundary line during the back end of a tense match. Most batsmen tend to be cautious with their running when the ball goes to him, thanks to a bullet-like throw that has caused even a seasoned wicketkeeper like MS Dhoni to wince on occasions. Jadeja can lift a team with his fielding alone.
Robin Singh, Ajay Jadeja, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli
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