It was August of 2012, New Zealand were touring India and found the going tough. So tough, in fact, that they hardly put up a fight in the two Test matches in Hyderabad and Bangalore. Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli were in superb form, Pragyan Ojha and R Ashwin were taking wickets for fun, but what was most impressive of India's performance was how a new-look close-catching cordon was doing.
Kohli in the slips or at backward short leg; Pujara at forward short leg; Ajinkya Rahane at silly point. Three young, loose-limbed fielders doing a very good job. But there was one man at slip who stood out more than his much younger team-mates - Virender Sehwag. In those two Tests, Sehwag was just short of outstanding at slip, filling the void left by Rahul Dravid's retirement. Dravid, of course, was the leading catcher in Test cricket. Sehwag was anticipating, even though seconds before the bowler delivered the ball it appeared he was telling his captain the latest joke he'd received via SMS. As the ball was delivered, he would snap to focus.
His hands were on his bent knees, he was watching the ball and the batsman's actions. And he took pretty much everything that popped or edged its way to slip - five in two Tests, in fact. Most were straightforward, some were sharp and some were blinders, such as the one-handed grab to his right when James Franklin got a faint edge. He wasn't scoring many runs with the bat, but with his sharp work at slip Sehwag was helping a transitioning Indian team. Critics on air and in the print mused on how slick India's close-catching was, with special mention of Sehwag's reflexes. So sharp was his work that it made slip catching look easy.
Cut to February 2013, and Sehwag is a major liability at slip. Not only is he clunky, he just looks lost, disinterested, a misfit. On the opening day of the Chennai Test, Sehwag dropped David Warner to continue a woeful trend of zombie-like efficiency in the cordon. On Friday, standing at first slip wearing sunglasses, Sehwag spilled a straightforward catch at chest height. In and out, the ball went. It was embarrassing. Warner added another 41 runs to his total. This was just the latest in a long line of basic errors, and Sehwag's slip slip-ups are hurting India big time. For a man lucky to keep his place in the XI, his lackadaisical approach in the slips is shocking.
This bad phase stared when England landed in India. Like the team's fortunes dipped, so did Sehwag's catching at slip. In the Mumbai Test, which England famously won by ten wickets to level the series, Sehwag dropped Alastair Cook on 85. Cook shaped to cut Harbhajan Singh and flashed an edge to slip where Sehwag, standing upright instead of crouching low, looked on as the ball hit his left foot.
In the fourth Test in Nagpur, Sehwag spilled as many as four catches. On a lifeless track, taking whatever slim chances came your way was imperative, but Sehwag's lackadaisical approach in the slips let India down. The first was on day three when Bell tried to cut Ojha and got an under edge that bounced and evaded Sehwag's grasp. The second was on day four when, on 77, Bell edged a cut off Piyush Chawla to Sehwag at shoulder height but he was late to react with two hands. The ball burst past his fingers. Bell went on to remain not out on 116.
In between these drops, Sehwag spilled Kevin Pietersen at slip, with the batsman on 2 and England 90 for 2. Pietersen cut hard at Ravindra Jadeja and got an edge that flew to Sehwag at first slip, but he was not low enough and what could have been a simple catch turned out to be much tougher. The ball went low and hit Sehwag's ankle as he clasped at it. The basics had been forgotten.
On air, Dravid let Sehwag off easily but co-commentator Sanjay Manjrekar was riled by Sehwag's attitude in the slips, especially after he was seen smiling after the drop. The humour had no place on the Test field in such circumstances, mused Manjrekar. Soon after, Jonathan Trott, on 54, edged a low catch in front of Sehwag at slip. It was always going to take some catching, but had a sprightlier fielder been stationed at slip there was a possibility of a stunner. With Sehwag, it was impossible.
In a post-match discussion, Sunil Gavaskar was scathing of Sehwag's lapses at slip. "What's unfair? The man was just not bending. What do you expect in Test cricket, against spinners that the catches will come above the knee? The catches will invariably be around the knee or below the knee. By him [Sehwag], standing in a way that he was, he didn't do any favour to the team," said Gavaskar when asked whether it was right to criticise the fielder for missing tough chances.
Today's chance was easy, and did India no favours at all. Worryingly, there doesn't look like any silver lining in sight.
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