I was watching the highlights from the first day of the third Test between England and Pakistan and was suddenly struck by how little thought goes into field placings these days.
No doubt that first paragraph will generate plenty of comments about team meetings, plans to get individual batsmen out et cetera, but I don’t believe this type of thinking takes into account batting in the 21st century.
Test batting has evolved in the new millennium in large part due to the amount of white-ball cricket being played. Batsmen now want to feel ball on bat and also want to score runs. There are precious few players with the concentration and technique required to bat all day and be 70 or 80 not out at stumps. There are no Chetan Chauhans or Geoffrey Boycotts at the top of the order, and only players like Cheteshwar Pujara come close to emulating their deeds.
That’s not a bad thing, but it puts pressure on the fielding captain to think harder about field placements if a batsman is keen to score runs.
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When we consider attacking fields for a fast bowler we automatically think about lots of slips, a gully or two, a close catcher on the leg side and maybe a leg slip. What we also need to consider is how we cut off the flow of runs for a batsman who likes to score freely.
All good batsmen at the start of their innings have one or two ‘get off the mark’ shots. Generally it’s a nudge down to fine leg or into the legside somewhere,, but that’s not what this piece is about.
In the early stages of building an innings an easy source of runs these days is to use the edge of the bat to guide the ball down to third man. Why? Because no captain in the modern game puts a fielder down there, so on the playing surfaces Test players get to use the ball almost always goes for four.
This point is perfectly highlighted in the early stages of the England first innings, where the ball took the outside edge and safely went for four.
This caused lots of frustration for the Pakistan bowlers, yet even when they were down to two slips this run-scoring hole was not plugged. Why?
Fielding and bowling at Test level is all about building pressure in order to take wickets. Putting in a third man should be seen as an attacking rather than a defensive move.
It’s very different having a batsman getting an edge and scoring one run with them at the other end than having the same guy scoring a boundary and still being on strike.
There’s another way to look at it. Four edges with no third man means 16 runs and the batsman’s away, four edges with a third man means four runs and the batsman still has a long way to go just to reach double figures. The bonus to this scenario is psychological. Bowlers aren’t having conniptions because they’ve had a boundary scored off a decent delivery and so can concentrate on the next delivery.
The third man is a very productive area for Indian batsmen, so much so that in white-ball cricket it’s not uncommon for Australia to place a fielder at a very deep fifth slip to cut off the glide for one. Virat Kohli is an example of a batsman who uses this as his go-to area. In years gone by Virender Sehwag was another who favoured that area.
The modern batsman is also not afraid to play the slash over the slips because they know there’s no third man. Just the knowledge there’s a fielder there may cause a batsman to adjust how they play fast bowlers, and that’s a good result because the batsman is reacting, which could lead to a wicket.
There will be times and pitches where there’s no need for this position to be used – for example, at the start of an innings where the slips cordon is packed, flat pitches where few shots are coming off the edge or in conditions where the ball is not swinging. In those instances it’s fair enough to leave this area vacant, but only on these rare occasions.
It’s likely in the upcoming Test summer that runs will be at a premium given the strength of both attacks. Australia should not gift India easy runs because they fail to consider the third man as an attacking option.