Third Test, Day One: the Rose Bowl wicket is fresh and moist. India are high on confidence after the Lord's win. It's the 12th over of the innings and the third of debutant Pankaj Singh's spell. A woefully out-of-form Alastair Cook is on strike. Singh pitches the ball on a good length just outside the off stump. Cook prods at it and gets a thick edge. The ball goes to the left of Ravindra Jadeja, stationed at third slip, at a comfortable height. He puts it down. Not only does that indiscretion ruin Singh's maiden Test — the poor chap goes onto produce the worst figures ever by a bowler on debut — but it also allows the England skipper to return to form. Cook, who eventually makes 95, regains his confidence. Thereon, he is a different batsman and captain. Later in the innings, Jos Buttler, then on 23, is dropped at first slip by Shikhar Dhawan. He goes onto make 85. England post a mammoth 569.
It's anybody's guess what would have happened had Jadeja held onto that offering from Cook. Former England spinner Ashley Giles said on record that it was the turning point of the series. Maybe, Cook would've never come out of his horror run with the bat. Maybe, the hosts would not have won the Southampton Test to level the series. Maybe, India would not have been down 1-2 and staring at another overseas humiliation.
A lot has been said and written about the back-to-back losses in Southampton and Manchester. Most analyses have been centered around the visitors' spineless displays with the bat. The team's sloppy fielding — more particularly, catching — seems to have gone rather unnoticed.
The numbers tell the story. In the four Tests so far, India have 11 catches and several easy run-out chances. Most of these catches have gone abegging in the slip and gully regions. Even skipper MS Dhoni has missed a few catches and stumpings.
But the problem area in this series, well and truly, has been the slip catching. Just as India's batting unit is going through a transitional phase, so is the slip cordon. Ever since the likes of Rahul Dravid — who had a record 210 catches to his name — and VVS Laxman bid adieu to the game in 2012, Dhoni has had new men for company in the cordon.
From Virender Sehwag to Virat Kohli, the team management has tried numerous players. In this series, the likes of Ajinkya Rahane, Shikhar Dhawan, Kohli, M Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane have occupied the crucial spots behind the wicket.
R Sridhar, the fielding coach of Kings XI Punjab, who were one of the better fielding units in IPL 7, points to the inexperience in the squad. "In England, the ball deviates rapidly and even dips on you as it comes closer, making it difficult to keep your eyes on the ball," he said. "Secondly, this team has some good fielders with quick reflexes, but that does not mean that they are good slip fielders. Fielding in the slips is all about perception and anticipation. None of these fielders have that perception. You need to train hard, and it can take three to four years to get your technique right."
Mohammad Kaif, one of India's finest fielders, stood in the cordon while captaining Uttar Pradesh in domestic cricket. By his own admission, he dropped a few initially, but then got the hang of it. He says close catching all about patience, concentration and technique. "In Tests, there are periods where it all goes flat. Most of our players end up thinking that nothing will happen, and that's when the ball will come to you," Kaif said. "Once you drop a catch, you come under tremendous pressure. You see the bowler's reaction, the whole team spirit goes down, and then it gets all the more difficult."
Some of these players aren't doing too well with the bat either. Is that one of the reasons why they haven't fared too well behind the wicket? "Yes, that is possible," Sridhar said. "There is a dead time in fielding — the 60-90 seconds in which a player does nothing. All the negative thoughts of not getting runs and not doing well may crop up. Once that happens, you lose focus."
Kaif seconded the view. "It's a game of confidence. You're thinking lots of things while fielding — about your own form, about the dropped catches, and that can dishearten you."
So what can Team India fielding coach Trevor Penney do to turn things around? After all, we can't afford this butter-fingered approach any longer.
Sridhar wants the management to work on the mental aspect of the players. Kaif said there has to be a change in the training methods, which mostly involves giving throwdowns.
"You have to be under pressure even during your training sessions. As a slip fielder, you have to practise with the actual speed of the bowler, only then can you handle a Varun Aaron delivery, bowled at over 140 kph, in the slips," he added.