Catch me if you can

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

When I first started playing League cricket forty seven years ago, pre-season training consisted of a couple of hours of batting and bowling – hardly a proper workout 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 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, each of whom carried an excess of kilos, would never have made one of  today’s sliding stops a few metres from the boundary or indeed have been one of a double act tag-team making a miraculous catch beyond and inside the rope.

In all the years I played League cricket, the level of fielding was generally poor. From the slips to the cover fielders and beyond, it seemed to be a given in League and indeed 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 incidents were as rare as rocking horse manure. My memory of League cricket as a player was seeing regulation catches spilled, shots hit directly to a fielder hitting 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 walk on to inspect the pitch I am greeted by a posse of A-list Hollywood stunt men with arms like tree trunks – the kind of guys you see on reality shows dragging a truck 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-style miscellany 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.

Such is the fielding acumen in the modern game I sometimes think these village blacksmiths are from a distant galaxy on a reccy mission to judge the quality of fielding. In play, I am regularly called on to judge run-outs where Mission Impossible becomes The Happening as a fielder dives, collects and throws down the stumps. Balls that are hit like tracer bullets are plucked off the ground with one hand, a shot bludgeoned directly to a fielder that used to mean a ten-day stay in hospital now merits a cursory dusting down of the trousers and catches to the deep are rarely spilled. I occasionally do a crude calculation of runs saved by brilliant fielding and it’s fair to say that these inter-galactic warriors are saving thirty-plus runs an innings.

I have witnessed hundreds of catches over the years, most can be classed as no big deal, it’s all part of the job. But there is one catch that I think about in the dentist’s chair and in the tundra of Ikea while Mrs Umps is making merry with retractable blinds. And when I’m in the company of cricketing friends I hold forth on this tale because it gets to the essence of sport.

It involves a gentleman I have umpired a few times who falls into the category of very good club cricketer. He bats four or five, fields at first slip and knows the game inside-out. Let’s be generous and describe this player as generously built but he is as agile as any of the guys on the circuit. I like his demeanor when he spills a catch – there is no head in hands, he just assumes his position behind the counter waiting for the next mug to come into the shop. The bowlers know what he is capable of, so when a catch goes down, they do not provide the amateur dramatics of a second rate repertory troupe, so often played out by other bowlers in the League.

The fielding team are under the cosh with a batter sending the ball to all parts of the ground. He’s a young lad with attitude and talent that suggests he will soon be rubbing shoulders with the semi-pros in the Premier League. The opening bowler is brought back to stem the tide and our protagonist contrives to drop a pretty straightforward chance.

Two overs later the same quickie bowls one a tad wider, the batter moves across and drives with power but the ball finds the edge and flies low and very fast. I’m at square leg with a perfect view of the catch – to this day I can see the fielder’s hands pluck the ball out of the small amount of air that was left before gravity prevails. And with the timing and technique of a player at the top of his game he carefully ensures his fingers, and not the ball, are caressing the grass. And to confirm the brilliance of this catch, the batter, who has turned to watch it live, walks off without the usual Umps, did it carry histrionics. It is a glorious moment of sporting prowess.

League cricketers’ meteoric rise to fielding fame is something to be celebrated. As I watch the modern acrobatic dexterity, I recall how I wasted my years standing (literally) in the same spot. Your technical ability and fearless approach have made cricket more exciting and raised the level of participation. To paraphrase Mrs Umps as she settles down to another of her rom-coms, it’s the field-good factor.