Nicholas Pooran is flying. Airborne, he is across the border, but his eyes are on the ball, his hand has shot up and the ball is now snug in the safety of his closed palm; his body is twisting in the air like a corkscrew. Then, his eyes are on the ground, calculating the tenths of a second in which he will crash back down, and he drives his hand downwards in a semi-circle to flick the ball back across the boundary. He lands. Nicholas Pooran has made an improbable save.
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In the dugout, Jonty Rhodes, the greatest fielder cricket has ever seen (argue with that if you want to), stands up and bows to the man.
In its very essence, an inspired act of athleticism and skill on the field is seen as just that – inspired – not the result of meticulous drills to hone techniques or abilities. There’s no doubt that even the greatest batters in the world relentlessly practice shots in the nets; the best bowlers spend hours developing and maintaining their mastery over the ball.
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What do the great fielders do? How can you drill for a save like Pooran’s without injuring yourself? “I do think it’s difficult to break down that movement…there is the potential for injury,” said Rhodes, who is now the fielding coach of Pooran’s team Kings XI.
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“Nicky dives around, he’s a wicketkeeper, so there’s that ability and that agility. He was literally parallel to the ground going away from the boundary…it was incredible, it’s not something I’m taking any credit for.
“Do I put them under pressure? Yes. Do I train them for situational awareness? Yes. But the skill that he had, the timing that he had, that’s natural ability.”
Jump, catch, flick
Rhodes is being modest. Like all good things, a blinding effort on the field is part natural ability and part careful training.
“We specifically work on defending the boundary, because that has become such an important part of fielding,” Rhodes said in an animated conversation over Zoom, where he seemed to be itching to get off his sofa and show me exactly what he was talking about.
“We are practising at the ICC Oval (in Dubai) where the boundary rope is right next to the wooden picket fences. So first thing I do, I pull the rope in, so there’s at least 5 metres between the rope and the fence so that players don’t feel like they are gonna hurt themselves. We are always doing high-intensity practice and what we are trying to get the guys to do is to catch the ball off balance, flick it back, either to themselves or to a partner, which is what Glenn Maxwell did with Jimmy Neesham some days ago.”
Rhodes is referring to another breathtaking fielding effort by Kings XI. Playing against Mumbai, Maxwell had run full tilt with his back to a ball skied towards the boundary by Rohit Sharma. As he completed the notoriously difficult over-the-shoulder catch, Maxwell realised he was going to step over the boundary. He flicked the ball up, and Neesham, tracking Maxwell, completed the catch.
In this spectacular collaboration, was the IPL in a nutshell: An Australian and a Kiwi combining to take a catch off the bowling of Mohammed Shami. Behind the spectacle, there is plenty of planning and practice.
“The idea is, generally, mid-on and mid-off are close enough to help each other out,” said Rhodes. “In fact, when Pooran made that incredible save, Maxwell had come all the way around from mid-on. If the ball had gone high enough, he could have completed the catch.”
The boundary rope is a critical practice tool for Rhodes, who spent nine seasons as a coach with Mumbai Indians (MI) before shifting to Kings XI. During practice, he makes players develop their peripheral vision and awareness of where the rope is at all times.
“You ask the guys not to just backpedal towards the rope. They have to go backwards the same way they are stepping out when they are batting, but in reverse. Actually, in a match, what you are trying to sight from the corner of your eye is the foam triangle of advertising, that’s how you know where the rope is.”
A typical drill is to make the players actually walk off the boundary, striding forwards in anticipation of attacking the ball, and then send them backpedalling as quickly as possible with a high ball arcing over them.
The other thing Rhodes demands from his fielders is footwork. It’s where good fielding begins. “I always start with analysing how a player moves,” said Rhodes. “Not just straight lines…because good fielders have to move laterally. Or the foot position on the boundary, you need a solid base. You need to focus on your legs if you will use them to jump, or stop yourself using them as brakes. The feet in cricket is something not enough people think about. You can have the best hands in the world, the softest hands in the world, but if you can’t get to the ball, you are not gonna catch it.”
For this, Rhodes stresses on “mobility and agility”. Fitness training for cricket now looks a lot like training for football or hockey – lots of plyometrics, sprinting, and rope-ladder drills.
“You get a lot of young Indian fast bowlers, especially those who are quite tall and gangly but have not yet grown into their bodies, and one thing you need to do with them is to increase the tempo of their foot-speed,” he said. Rhodes, during his playing days, was the epitome of what a multi-disciplinary approach could do to your game. An elite hockey player who represented the South African national team and almost made it to the Olympics, Rhodes channelled his hockey athleticism with great elan into cricket, turning into, in the words of another writer, “a fielding Ninja”.
“It wasn’t just hockey for me,” said Rhodes. “Playing soccer, playing tennis…you’ve got to return a serve on your forehand or your backhand…as a fielder it allowed me to move left or right as if I was returning serve. My fielding was a combination of the sports that I played. Hockey fitness was the ability to run with the ball at the end of the stick in a bent over position (remember that run-out from the 1992 World Cup?)
“In soccer and hockey, I was a centre-forward so I knew when I would come into the scoring zone, the goalkeeper would come out to cut the angle down. I took that idea to the cricket field, and I would defend an area like a goalkeeper would.”
It’s an idea that’s now essential in cricket–attacking the ball. When Rhodes did it, he rendered vast arcs of the field into no-go zones.
“For example, you don’t have to be the fastest over 50 metres,” he said. “You have to be quick on the ground for the first 5 metres, because that’s when the batter thinks that the ball’s in the gap…but if I can run in a bent over position almost at full speed compared to someone who has to be upright…think of someone running the first 10m of a 100m race…to be able to swoop on the ball at speed from a low and strong position…”
From there, you get to throwing the ball at the stumps.
Spin on throws
This is where, Rhodes said, he has a lot of work to do in India. It’s to do with a strong body alignment when throwing the ball. Rhodes said that since most top order batters in India also bowl a little bit of spin, their natural tendency is to pivot away – like they do while bowling – in the follow-up to the throw.
“I can spot who bowls spin every single time just by looking at them throw,” Rhodes said. “Fast bowlers use their front arm to pull themselves over (in the bowling action), that’s where your core allows you to get at least some of your body towards the target. Fast bowlers also don’t fall away while bowling, they maintain the same line.”
Spinners, or batsmen who also bowl a little spin, not only “fall away” while throwing, they also don’t get their arms back and up.
“They throw from the shoulders, which is not good for the shoulders. So, in the first week, and especially with these 5 months of lockdown, we were really slow with regards to changing throwing techniques,” said Rhodes. “When I was with MI, we always had guys going to the physio in the first 10 days of the camp because Jonty was working on their shoulders differently.”