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India's fielding shifts into top gear

India's sharp fielding in the opening two Tests against South Africa points to a renewed approach behind the scenes

India's spin bowling, the crumbling Mohali pitch and the lacklustre batting efforts of the two teams were the primary talking points out of the first Test against South Africa, but it was India's sharp fielding that was the story behind the headlines. And it's a story that has continued since the series shifted to Bengaluru. 

On the opening day of the second Test, the Indian fielders played a large part in helping their bowlers run through the South African batting in a matter of only 59 overs. And it’s a trend the Indian coaching corps hope will continue. 

For many years, fielding hadn't been India's biggest strength. Up to the early 2000s, there were players in the side who played their part as batsmen or bowlers but needed to be 'hidden' in the field, and they were often found out.

It's only in recent times that fielding has been taken up as seriously as the other two facets of the game, says current Indian fielding coach R Sridhar.

"Over the period of time, the biggest change I have seen is the mindset of the young Indian fielders and the current lot who are playing at the international level," Sridhar said. 

"Earlier, fielding was not treated as a primary skill. It is something that you do when you are not batting or bowling. But today, the young cricketers, thanks to the excellent facilities and also the advent of different formats of the game, they are treating it well. 

"They know they can make a contribution to the team – win or lose – by just being a good fielder. They are giving equal importance (to fielding) as much as they do to batting or bowling. That’s the biggest shift in mindset in the junior and senior level. That itself is a big win."

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What has also helped is that outfields in India have improved in leaps and bounds. With money being pumped in at domestic and international level to ensure the outfields are smooth and easy to field on, players are happy to accept fielding as a main vocation without the fear of injuries.

This all-round change in attitude, Sridhar reckons, has not only improved the standards of fielding in the country, but also made his job much easier.

"The fields in our country are so good nowadays that you don’t get an outfield which is not good, especially at the international level," Sridhar said. 

"The fields are absolutely lush, green, I think the BCCI has done a great job, not only at the international level, but also at the junior level you get some really good fields for young kids to dive around, slide and throw themselves around. That is something which is being developed from the grassroots levels now."

What has really helped India in this series so far has been their close-in catching. 

Barring a couple of chances that Wriddhiman Saha has squandered behind the stumps, the catching in the slips and short-leg has been impeccable, and the spinners have been helped immensely as a result.

Ajinkya Rahane has followed on from his record-breaking eight catches in the first Test of the recent series against Sri Lanka to pouch five more over the three innings this series. 

He has made some sharp chances look simple, a hallmark of a very good slip fielder, and comparisons with Rahul Dravid and Mark Waugh are already doing the rounds.

Rahane's secret is simple – practice so hard and consistently that it gets ingrained into muscle memory.

"He's evolving into an excellent slip fielder. He's got the temperament and demeanour to be a good slip fielder," Sridhar said of Rahane. 

"He works really hard at it. He takes hundreds of catches and he is very specific about where he wants them, what he wants to do, at what height he wants them, what he's likely to get in the match. Also he has got excellent understanding of the angles, the pace, the depth of the ball which is likely to come."

Cheteshwar Pujara is another who has stood out. Over the years, Pujara has suffered multiple injuries to his knees, which can render fielding at short-leg a tough job. But on the opening day of the Bengaluru Test, Pujara gobbled up a couple of sharp chances at that very position. 

The key one was that of Faf du Plessis, who took a couple of steps down the pitch to Ravichandran Ashwin and edged it to Pujara, who needed to move with the shot in order to be at the right place at the right time.

Sridhar credits Pujara's much-improved fitness for his turnaround.

"Pujara is much more agile with his feet and he moves well. If you recollect the catch he took of Faf here, as Faf steps out, you can see Pujara skipping, moving sideways along with Faf that enabled him to take that catch," he said. 

"He's been working on his fitness, to strengthen the area around his knee so that he can become more nimble with his footwork. 

"At the same time, standing in the same position over a period of time gives the fielder the perception. He may not get a catch the whole day, but at least it helps him develop perception which is so vital to be a close-in fielder, along with the reflexes and the hand-eye co-ordination. 

"The experience of standing in that position works a lot and Pujara has been getting that experience standing close-in, and he has been improving by leaps and bounds in that department."

The next milestone for these young Indian players will be to add consistency to their fielding efforts. It will be the reduction of off days in the field that will not only make their bowlers look more lethal, but also win them more games.