Modern wicketkeepers are often forced to stand close to the stumps even when fast bowlers are at work, to deter marauding batsmen from jumping out of the crease every now and then. They have unknowingly revived an old wicketkeeping practice going back to the early days of international cricket.
John McCarthy Blackham was the first man to keep wickets for Australia, during the 1877 Test match played at Melbourne against England. A few years later, while touring England with the Australian team, he is said to have flabbergasted opponents and spectators by standing up to fast bowlers. He even stumped batsmen facing F.R. Spofforth, said to be the quickest bowler of his time. What made Blackham special was that he stood up to fast bowlers without the insurance of a long stop.
The long stop is a fielding position from a bygone era, essentially a fielder placed far away on the boundary right behind the wicketkeeper. He was like a backup in case the wicketkeeper made a mistake. I have read of some of the earliest cricketers who were specialist long stops. The long stop is no longer part of modern field placements, perhaps because wicketkeepers have become more efficient and athletic. But could we see a revival of the long stop in these times of Twenty20 (T20), when wicketkeepers stand up to quick bowlers, heavy bats ensure that top edges carry all the way to the boundary and some of the better batsmen master the art of scooping the ball behind the keeper’s head?
Backup: Wicketkeepers standing close behind is not a new practice. PTI
It may seem a far-fetched idea but consider the revival of another forgotten field position thanks to the T20 revolution—the cow corner. This is the part of the park somewhere between deep midwicket and long on, an area where the ball went so rarely that the cows could graze there undisturbed. The only batsmen who hit the ball in the cow corner were those who dealt in cow shots, or ugly agricultural swipes that our batting coaches punished with one extra jog around the ground. But we now see captains place some of their most fleet-footed boys in the cow corner to catch the cross-batted swat or the new shot that the Pepsi advertising department has cleverly called the helicopter shot, an ugly but utilitarian feature of T20 batting.
In every sport, strategy changes in tandem with playing conditions as well as the structure of the game. The inexorable rise of T20 cricket is already altering the arts of batting and bowling, though not necessarily for the better. Think of the way batsmen have learnt to slice the ball rather than hit it or how the slow yorker has become one of the most potent weapons in a fast bowler’s armoury.
The effects of newer forms of the game on the art of fielding do not get adequate attention. It is more than the sudden ubiquity of the sliding tackle. The rediscovery of the cow corner or the incipient revival of the long stop are two examples of how old fielding positions could be revived in our times.
The art of field placements also seems to be changing. A captain was traditionally advised to place his best fielder at cover and hide his worst fielder at mid on. These days, the best fielder is often placed at point while there is really no place left to hide the sluggish mover. Consider the two great South African fielders—Colin Bland fielded at cover in the 1960s while Jonty Rhodes usually found himself at point in the 1990s, a position from which he raced in to spectacularly run out Inzamam-ul-Haq in the 1992 World Cup. Mid on is where you put a Dilip Doshi or a Phil Tufnell. It’s no longer that easy.
The sweeper patrolling the off-side boundary has become a feature of Test cricket as well, thus ensuring that a good cover drive is only worth one run. The silly point and the forward short leg are rarely used these days, not only because of the need for defensive field placements but also because the new generation of batting pads ensure that the ball balloons a great distance after hitting them. The old bat-and-pad catches made by fielders within handshaking distance from the batsmen are becoming rarities. I grew up watching Eknath Solkar pick up catches almost at the feet of batsmen. The slips too may disappear soon.
There are 35 official fielding positions in cricket, including the long stop and the cow corner. These days, fielders are usually “scattered in the wilderness like missionaries”, to use legendary radio commentator John Arlott’s memorable description during a match played in another age. But to which specific parts of the wilderness the modern captain sends his missionaries has undergone a sea change in the era of T20 cricket.