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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Catches Win Matches - again

Australia v Pakistan, MCG, Day 5

One over into day 5. Pakistan resumed at 3/170. Five balls later and they were 5/171.

Pakistan had to pull-off a record-breaking run chase of 422 to win. But with 170 already under their belt, the remaining 252 with seven wickets was actually quite achievable, even more so considering there were two world class bats at the crease with another next to come in. That chance went out the window with Mitchell Johnson's 4th and 5th deliveries.

Where I am leading to is a further dig about the Pakistani fielding. No, I am not referring to the dropped catch that gave Shane Watson his maiden century. It was those badly-missed chances in the first session of Day 1 which has cost Pakistan this game.

As a bowler it is heart-breaking to bowl your guts out, give it everything, get the edge only to see eminently catchable chances hit the turf. As a captain, it is incredibly frustrating to see your players spill chances that they should be taking. I imagine coaches would be uttering unrepeatable (at least in this blog) phrases.

At the end of the day, poor fielding has undone some fine Pakistani bowling, particularly the hard work by Mohammad Aamer in getting 5 wickets.

The team management and coaching have to wear some of the responsibility here. It is all very well to talk about the underlying culture of not taking fielding seriously, but it is the management and coaching staff that are in the position to take positive action with the team under their control. If fielding is sub-par, which the Pakistani catching most definitely is, then the players must be forced to work at it harder. Introduce mandatory sessions at the slips cradle at most training sessions - that sharpens those slips reflexes like nothing else. Force the players to have sessions taking catches in close with tennis balls off a tennis racquet - that forces you to soften your hands and to stop snatching at the ball.

Those sort of training tactics will not turn every player into Mark Taylor quality in slips, but it would vastly improve Pakistan's quite lacklustre performance with this fundamental.

As I said on Day 1, catches win matches. And dropped catches have almost certainly cost Pakistan this game.

Controlling a game

Has anyone else noticed the big difference between the Second and Third Tests against the West Indies this summer and the subsequent First Test against Pakistan?

Unlike Billy Bowden with his theatrics while utterly failing to actually exercise any authority with the players, we now have the likes of Rudi Koertzen in charge of things. Koertzen is an old-fashioned, no-nonsense style of umpire.

Good umpires are barely noticeable during a game as they are doing their job properly. More than once in this current Test, Koertzen has quitely defused testosterone-fulled situations by a simple quiet word, telling the players to get on with things. His fellow umpire, Billy Doctrove, seems similarly in control. Contrast that to Bowden's shameful ignoring the on-field shenanigans in Perth. He stood there, stoney-faced, taking absolutely no interest in attempting to defuse the altercation between Brad Haddin and Suilemen Benn. Ian Gould at square leg, must have been cringing.

There is little doubt in my mind that matters would not have escaleted in Perth as they did, if Bowden had done the job he is paid to do and done it properly.

This was far from the first time that Bowden's umpiring has been worth some negative comment. When he has a bad day, he has a shocker. The number of times he calls 5- or 7-ball overs is simply not acceptable from a supposed elite umpire. Doesn't he know how to use his ball counter properly? Why isn't he checking after the fifth ball with square leg that you are expected to do at club levels of the game? And what's the deal with the silly signals? During the last Ashes series, at one point he was giving such a strange signal that nobody off the ground, including the scorers, had a flipping clue what he was on about. Sure, Bowden was mildly amusing and different when he first appeared on the scene but his theatrics have become just so tired, boring and irritating.

Being a character is fine. Consider the likes of Harold 'Dickie' Bird or David Shepherd in England. They were definitely characters, especially with Shep standing on one foot to ward off bad luck when the score reached 111 or multiples thereof. But at the same time they were in clear control and obviously respected by the players. Bird would have been all over the players in Perth, pulling them back into line. Then there was a certain Australian umpire, subsquently imprisoned on sexual charges, who as an umpire would hand out Minties to players. I do not recall him having problems with controlling the game either.

Billy Bowden would do well to have paid close attention to the quiet, no-nonsense approach of
Koertzen and Doctrove in this Test and tried applying the same. Or better still, have the umpiring fraternity leave him on the outer until he has learned to apply himself to actually umpiring and controlling a game rather than stupid theatrics and bad decisions.

Catches Win Matches

Australia v Pakistan, MCG, Day 1

There is an old saying in cricketing circles: 'catches win matches.'

This was never more evident than in the first session of play in the Boxing Day Test. The Pakistani's dropped both Australian openers on lowish scores with Shane Watson and Simon Katich going on to make 93 and 98 respectively.

These dropped catches did more than just cost the fielding team well in excess of 100 runs. Holding either or both had the potential to destabilise the Australian team. It would have brought Ricking Ponting to the crease against a faster, harder, newer ball at a time when he is still recovering from the elbow injury sustained in the last Test against the West Indies merely days before. While Michael Hussey has finally returned to form, his position in the order means that he rarely has to face a newer ball at the start of his innings.

These were major opportunities lost. The game was quite possibly lost in that first two hours of play.

Poor fielding has been a feature of the Pakistani game for years. Quoting the Pakistan coach, Intikhab Alam:

"This is the weakest part of the game we have. This is a grass roots problem in our country, those who play don't take fielding that seriously, this has been a problem for a very, very long time."

In this day and age where cricket is played at a very professional level, it beggars belief that players of a national side can take such a lax approach to fielding. The first catch spilled at slip for example, was simply unacceptable - it should have been almost regulation for that level of the game. For that matter, most club players would have expected that one to stick.

Cricket is more than a national pastime in Pakistan, it assumes near-religious overtones with burning effigies of players deemed to have failed. The Pakistani President is known to have words with cricket authorities about his displeasure over selections, providing a political overtone to proceedings as well.

With that background, why is it so difficult to hone Pakistani players on the full range of required skills? A smart fringe player could significantly enhance his chances of long-term selection by simply becoming a reliable fielder, especially in the slips region.