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Fielding: Pakistan are 20 years behind South Africa

March 14, 2013

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The gap between Pakistan and South Africa, when it comes to fielding, is put into the starkest of contrasts when the practice sessions of the two sides are seen back-to-back. -Photo by AFP

In Michael Lewis’ book ‘Moneyball’, the author talks about the eye test: The idea that professional sport experts and scouts look for that which reaffirms their preconceived notions, rather than at more accurate indicators like actual stats. In Moneyball, baseball pundits refuse to prioritise in accordance with reality. The same can be said about cricket in Pakistan – Many fans believe that Kamran Akmal is a good top order batsman, Umar Akmal is the least successful of the three young batsmen Pakistan have got in ODIs, Shoaib Malik is an international class all-rounder and Imran Farhat deserves to play international cricket. Yet, one look at the stats proves all of them wrong.

It does not require a brain the equivalent of Bill James, especially in the age of statsguru to figure these things out. The need to remember only the successes of those that we have a bias towards, and the failures of those we have a bias against means that the ‘eye test’ is alive and well in Pakistani cricket too; with both the experts and the fans.

But there are a few things that the eyes just don’t lie about. One of them, and perhaps the most obvious, has been the gulf in class between the two sides when it comes to the third discipline. Pakistan’s gap from South Africa, when it comes to fielding, is put into the starkest of contrasts when the practice sessions of the two sides are seen back-to-back. I’ve been privileged enough on this tour to be present at the nets and the drills that the two sides have held; and the difference between the abilities of two sides could best be described as thus: Pakistan are at least 20 years behind where South Africa are right now.

The easiest answer to this would be to blame the coaches; but that would be grossly unfair on the Pakistani lot. Both coaching camps attempt to maximise the output from the raw material they’ve been given. During the South African sessions, Gary Kirsten has players standing 4 metres apart and bisects them with his shots, so at least one of them has to dive full length to try and get it; meanwhile, Russell Domingo is making sure that the throws from each of the fast bowlers (likely to be the boundary riders) is as flat as it possibly could be; minimizing the loop for each of them.

It’s the constant repetition of those processes which means that the full-length diving catch from a South African during a match is not a fluke, but a skill gained over years of being in optimum physical condition, and working their butts off in such practices. On the other hand, Julien Fountain – on March 13 – spent five minutes trying to explain to the Pakistanis why their technique of even picking a moving ball was wrong; most of them stopped a yard before to pick the ball up, and why by attacking the ball in one swift motion they would be better served, both to pick the ball up and throw it back. The majority of them were struggling to do that even after the first explanation; it needed another lecture from Fountain for it to get across. It wasn’t because of the gap in language, but because the natural – and wrong – method was still the one they subconsciously fell back on. But one also has to wonder that if you are learning this at the age of thirty, how likely is it that you would be able to replicate it during match conditions. Just a few days beforehand Fountain was busy with the most basic of drills, throwing skiers up for the players to catch. One fearless Pakistani opener dropped more than a third of the ones that went his way. It was depressing, but slightly funny that a man who’s been a professional for more than a decade struggles with something like this.

So the questions have to be asked of the system and a society that is in place. Many South African players – such as AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis – have played rugby at school level; their relationship with falls to the floor is vastly different than that of those Pakistanis who’ve grown up playing cricket on mud, tarmac and hard ground. Much as in tennis when you need to volley from a young age to be a natural at the net game, fielding in cricket requires years of work. And that is all before you consider a culture where cricket is a two-discipline game.

Many pundits and experts will blame the coaches in the days to come for the failing of a system and a culture; but that’s the easiest thing to do, after all we don’t want no foreigners running our boys. But nobody will blame the root causes for Pakistan being the exception to the rule in the 21st century. And that really is a crying shame.