The field-good factor

People did change, and a change could be a bloom as well as a withering. (Richard Yates)

When I first started playing league cricket in the 1970s you would turn up to the nets in April and enjoy a bat and bowl ready for the first match in May. There was no knowledge or perception of match fitness, indeed the newspaper representing the county I supported would run a pre-season photograph of the pros jogging around a wet county ground outfield in an assortment of ill-fitting tracksuits accompanied by a headline like Ready for action.

In those days there were a number of top players whose girth would merit an automatic disqualification in today’s game. The likes of Colin Cowdrey, David Shepherd, Colin Milburn and Phil Sharpe carrying all those kilos would never have made one of those sliding stops a few metres from the boundary or been one of a double act tag-team catching card trick beyond and inside the rope.

In all the years I played league cricket the level of fielding was generally poor from the slippers to the cover fielders and beyond. It seemed to be a given in league cricket (and indeed in some first class quarters) that average fielding was something you just put up with. Sure, there was an occasional great run-out as the cover fielder gathered the ball cleanly and ran out the striker with a direct hit, but those kinds of incidents were as rare as a camel wandering onto the pitch (I must tell you about that incident in a later blog). My memory of league cricket as a player was seeing regulation catches spilled, shots hit directly to a fielder sailing over the rope seconds later and throws from the boundary taking around twenty minutes to reach the keeper.

So it gives me great pleasure to report that league cricket fielding is so much improved today it is hard to believe the guys are playing the same game as I did.  At each game I am greeted by a posse of A-list Hollywood stars with arms like tree trunks and the kind of strength you see on reality shows where people are dragging trucks across the Sahara. In my day, the pre-match warm-up was a sly Silk Cut in front of the pavilion followed by a couple of catches in the outfield. Today, it’s an SAS pot-pourri of sprints, squats, ballistic throws to the keeper and push-ups for anyone who drops a catch, all coordinated by a sports scientist and director of cricket. In play, I am regularly called on to judge run-outs where the chance of one happening goes from impossible to probable as a fielder dives and throws down the stumps. Balls that are hit like tracer bullets are plucked off the ground with one hand and catches to the deep are rarely spilled. I regularly do a crude calculation of runs saved by fielding in an innings and it can amount to 30-plus.

Clearly clubs are working on their fielding as much as their batting and bowling. And it is good to see that cricket TV coverage (if you can afford it) is giving the right kind of role model message with the magic powers of today’s top players in the field. I will come onto sledging in a future blog – that kind of nonsense is not a good role model for club cricket, and it has made its way into the recreational game. But to see a team of amateurs successfully emulating IPL billionaire fielders is brilliant.

I regularly talk to colleagues about the improved standard of fielding and the consensus opinion is that the way we fielded was so bad that improvement was inevitable. But it is the gap in quality that is so striking. I am convinced that gym membership is playing a big part – the fitness of current players is highly impressive.

So while I take my hat off to modern league cricket fielding there is one area of the art that really annoys me. These days, the most innocuous drive played directly to a fielder at mid-off or cover point is greeted by a cacophony of great fielding Jonesy, Smithy, Big Al when even in my day that kind of regulation fielding was within the capability reach of a bloke the size of a person today featured on Britain’s Fight with Fat.

League cricketers’ meteoric rise to fielding fame is something to be celebrated. As I watch your acrobatic dexterity I recall how I wasted my years standing (literally) in the same spot as you. Your technical ability and fearless approach have made cricket more exciting and raised the level of participation.