Ravindra Jadeja drops Alastair Cook off Pankaj SinghThere are no easy catches in the slips, Rahul Dravidonce said. But do not try con-soling Pankaj Singh so. He’d had a sleepless night before his debut, India’s third Test against England at Southampton’s Ageas Bowl. On the morning of the Test, Sourav,Ravindra Jadeja drops Alastair Cook off Pankaj SinghThere are no easy catches in the slips, Rahul Dravidonce said. But do not try con-soling Pankaj Singh so. He’d had a sleepless night before his debut, India’s third Test against England at Southampton’s Ageas Bowl. On the morning of the Test, Sourav Ganguly calmed his nerves while handing him the India cap. “Keep it simple and enjoy your first day in Test cricket,” Sourav told the 6′ 5″ Rajasthan-based pacer.Pankaj’s 13th was a delivery that had long been Alastair Cook’s nemesis, pitching short of length, seaming away and almost, as if dutifully, kissing the edge of Cook’s bat. It flew to left-handed Ravindra Jadeja at third slip, coming to his natural catching side at a comfortable knee-height. Into his hands it went. And instantly out.Jadeja’s drop may not acquire the dramatic recall of wicketkeeper Kiran More’s off Graham Gooch at Lord’s in 1990. Gooch had been on 36 when dropped; he ended his innings on 333. But it was no less inconsequential. Cook, then on 15, had been going through a bad run with the bat, and the reprieve allowed him to prod his way to 95, perhaps marking a durable change in fortunes. And for England, that drop lifted the pressure India had been trying to sustain for the first hour of the Test. India lost their momentum, the Test and a vital lead in the series too.And Pankaj, India’s 282nd Test cap, his big chance.In the series, by the time the fourth Test began, India had missed eight chances behind the wicket. At the second Test at Lord’s, Gary Ballance was batting on 28 when neither keeper M.S. Dhoni nor first slip Shikhar Dhawan went for the catch. Ballance went on to make a century. India eventually won the Test, but a big frailty in their fielding had been exposed.advertisement”Wrong fielder at the wrong place,” Kapil Dev says about Jadeja in the slips. “Have you ever seen Jonty Rhodes in the slips? He may have been the greatest fielder of our generation but ones like him, Jadeja, Yuvraj Singh and even Virat Kohli are hyper, with a lot of body movement. While fielding in the circle or in the outfield, their instinct is to rush and grab at the ball. This technique fails in the slips as you have to let the ball come softly into your hands. I feel sorry for Pankaj. Maybe, if that catch had been taken, he could have picked more wickets. India would have done better. That one moment cost them.”Fact is, India have not been able to plot their field placements after the retirement of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, exemplary slips fielders both, with 210 Test catches (a record) and 135, respectively. The team have tried as many as five in the first slip, a fort so well guarded by Dravid in the past. Almost 10 have been tried in the slip cordon, but the gap is now showing badly.Recall the Auckland Test earlier this year when New Zealand were shaky at 30 for 3 and Murali Vijay dropped Kane Williamson off Mohammad Shami. He scored 113, added 221 with Brendon McCullum for the fourth wicket, and India had another away defeat.There are conspicuous technical faults in the Indian cordon, putting more strain on the already-weak Indian bowling-not grooming specialists and trying out too many fielders, imbalanced stance and body position, wrong hand positions and lack of slip temperament in some cases. In this series, for example, a few slip fielders have been seen resting their hands on the knees (a posture made famous by Ian Botham, but not successfully emulated by others). Most mystifying is the distance-or the lack of it-between the slips. As Sunil Gavaskar noted, they were standing too close to each other and hindering movement. (The original Mr First Slip, Gavaskar once won the Man of Match award in a low-scoring India-Pakistan ODI in Sharjah, 1985, for the four slip catches he took.)In England’s second innings at Southampton, when Dhawan, at first slip, dropped Joe Butler, another debutant, he was standing too deep as the ball fell short by a few inches, not a lone occurrence in that Test. Mohammad Azharuddin, who used to swoop such catches, diving in front rather than wait to see if the edge would carry or not, says: “You have to anticipate and adjust and go for any half-chance that comes along. Nothing lifts a team more than a fielder converting a half-chance.””Soft hands and cool mind,” is Laxman’s mantra. He says: “When Sourav was captain and John Wright coach, they told Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and me to man the slips. We would practise only in the slips and knew our roles well. Sachin was first, me second and Dravid third slip but when finger injury forced Sachin out of the slips, Rahul went to the first, I stayed at second and Virender Sehwag came into the third slip. We had a plan and we would switch on for less than 3-4 seconds every ball. The rest of the time we would chat about other things. That helped sustain longer periods of concentration.”advertisementThat slip cordon was crucial for India’s newfound success abroad in the noughties, with pacers Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan (followed by R.P. Singh, Munaf Patel, S. Sreesanth) and spinners Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh getting the support they needed. They won Port of Spain (2002) and Jamaica (2006), Headingley (2002) and Nottingham (2007), Adelaide (2003) and Perth (2008), Multan and Rawalpindi (2004), Johannesburg (2006) and Durban (2010) and many more. “Couldn’t have been possible if we didn’t have good hands in the slips. They made our seamers more effective,” says Ganguly, India’s most successful captain away.Put it to muscle memory, but experience is essential. The ball flies at such speed to slips after taking a deflection off the bat that to take the right call on which way to reach the ball, the fielder must rely on a mind map of all the trajectories he has dealt with. Ingrained instinct plus instant judgement. Great bowlers have inevitablyfound their success in part because they found the right man to be at first slip. In fact, bowler-slip fielder is a key hyphenation of Test cricket. Think Anil Kumble-Dravid, Shane WarneMark Waugh, Kapil-Gavaskar, Muralitharan-Mahela Jayawardene.It is strange the Indian slip is showing, especially when the demands of modern day cricket have ensured better fielding standards. “Earlier Indians were average fielders but good catchers,” says Kapil. “It’s the other way now. Too many ODIs and T20s have made them very good fielders, but I have the sense they don’t practise too much slip catching as slips are rarely used in ODIs and T20s. Like Azhar used to in our time, today’s slip fielders should take at least 100 catches a day in practice. How else will you get 20 wickets in a Test?”From what he has seen while commentating on the Indian team, Ganguly feels the only way up is to identify three-four slip fielders and back them for a year: “Let them know they will stand in the slips. They must practise doing different simulations. They must watch the ball from every possible angle. If India continue to drop slip catches, the bowling will suffer more.” That’s something for Dhoni to think about as he tries to regroup his side for the remaining play in India’s first fiveTest series in more than a decade.Followthe writer on Twitter @vikrantgupta73To read more, get your copy of India Today here.