Though fielding is an integral part of cricket, diving and acrobatics were not really seen until the 1980s. But that doesn’t mean that the game of Willow and Red Cherry didn’t see some excellent fielders before.
I have seen video clips of India’s trip to Australia in 1977-78, when protruding bellied Indian cricketers were huffing and puffing after the ball, fighting a losing battle to stop it, as it slowly runs into the fence. Only player conspicuously seen diving was the wicket keeper Syed Kirmani.
In 1979, Dave Whatmore of the Australian side touring India wasn’t exactly a fast chaser of the ball. Yet, non of these were much noticed, as batting and bowling took precedence over the fielding department.
That doesn’t mean cricket lacked wonderful fielders in the 1970s. Eknath Solkar used to effortlessly pluck balls standing on forward shortleg and pluck catches like low hanging fruit. In combination with the bowling of the great spin quartet of the era, he was responsible for some of India’s memorable victories.
Derek Randal of England was a young, energetic fielder whom the BBC commentators often eulogised for his athletic fielding and throwing in the outfields. A lesser known outstanding fielder was Yajuvendra Singh from India, who equalled a world record by taking five catches in an innings and seven in a match on his debut Test match against England in 1977.
However Yajuvendra’s cricket career was shortlived, he ended up only playing four Test matches.
A nondescript player from Mumbai (then Bombay), Ghulam Parker impressed as a brilliant filelder stonewalling the covers during India’s tour to England in the summer of 1982. His international career didn’t last long either. Another fielder of 1980s who impressed with his fielding at cover was West Indian Gus Logie.
In 1983 World Cup marked the arrival of the new in the block, Zimbabwe. The rookie team from Southern Africa started with a win over the fancied Australian side and almost defeating India, the eventual winner of the tournament. But they carved a niche by their impressive fielding, the BBC commentators describing the Zimbabweans as the Gymnasts of the World Cup.
The Zimbabwe team, not a Test-playing nation yet, again impressed in the 1987 version of the Cup, diving and taking brilliant catches, stopping boundaries on dry, brown outfields in India and earning, deservingly so, the accolades and the Award of the best fielding side of the tournament.
1992 was the first World Cup for South Africa after the stepped into the international cricket scene a few months earler. It also marked the arrival of Jonty Rhodes, who saved tons of runs and caused multiple run outs – the picture of his classic airborn running out of Inzamam Ul Haq went viral, still etched in the memories of many.
Since then, the quality of fielding has progressed leaps and bound. Previously, the outfields in England, Australia and New Zealand were conducive towards diving. But post 1990s, the improved outfields conditions on grounds of Indian subcontinent and increasing popularity of limited overs cricket, saw a worldwide rise in quality of fielding.
The hiatus between a good and better fielder has diminished. Considered as vital as batting and bowling, fielding now is an art, gets more creative and innovative as the game evolves over time.