It was early December 1986 at around 5pm at the No. 2 ground in Biggenden, the town where I grew up from the age of eight and where I played the majority of my not particularly distinguished cricket career.
I was 14 years old and fielding on the midwicket boundary. We were playing Mundubbera, a similar sized town, 75 minutes further inland. They were nine down for 203, needing six to win, and on strike was a 12-year-old Martin Love, who today is Queensland’s highest run-scorer in Sheffield Shield. Unfortunately got to play only five Tests in 2002 and 2003, such was the depth of the batting talent in this country during the 1990s and early 2000s. Of those 203 runs on this afternoon, Love had scored about 140 of them.
The scene was set, I could not have scripted it any better. I had a real sixth sense that he was going to hit me a catch and that I would be the hero for my team, the one who took the matchwinning catch of this very talented batsman, who we all knew, even then, was going to go quite far in the game.
I wasn’t wrong: the very next ball he hoiked a simple catch to me – not skied, but flat, and not hit hard. With a sense of euphoria I put my hands up in the correct position to take the matchwinning catch.
To this day, I still have no idea how the ball managed to go through my hands and onto the boundary for four. I was devastated. Utterly despondent.
Within a couple of balls Love had passed our score and, as was the custom in junior cricket in that time and place, batted on until the No. 11 was dismissed, fortunately not long after. One of our team’s ‘fast bowlers’ and my good friend, Peter Young, came jogging straight over to me and, obviously sensing my agony, said compassionately: “Don’t worry about it Bernie. We lost the match when we already dropped him half a dozen times before (my diabolical miss)”.
However, I was inconsolable, even though he had not been exaggerating regarding the number of genuinely simple chances we had grassed off Love’s bat that day.
The funny thing is we had caught everything else that came our way from Mundubbera’s other batsmen as well as when we had played Gayndah, halfway between Biggenden and Mundubbera, a couple of weeks earlier.
So why on Earth is it that at any level of cricket it always seems to be the opposition’s best batsman who get given lives? Growing up in the 1980s, watching Australia’s fortunes on television, we seemed to drop the likes of Viv Richards and David Gower virtually every innings. And when you drop players of that quality, second chances usually don’t come along until well after they have burnt you. So why them?
There are three reasons (and people reading may even be able to come up with more). The three reasons I will discuss can be categorised as psychological, physical and mathematical probability.
The first is about belief. Returning to that day in my home town nearly 34 years ago, I remember the coach, Bob Gibbs, father of teammate Neil, driving three or four of us up the road to the local takeaway shop during the lunch interval. On the way back he said: “Put someone in close on the offside who can catch and you should get him (Martin Love). He often hits a catch there early in his innings”.
We did put someone in close where the coach said, Love did hit catches but we put him down time and time again while catching everyone else.
Perhaps in such situations fielders, while hoping upon hope that the opposition’s star batsman will hit a catch, deep down don’t really believe he will and are therefore not ready when the opportunity does come. Others perhaps hope the catch will be hit to someone else so that he doesn’t have to be the one to spill the chance and have it on his head that he cost his team the game. Again, when the catch comes, the fielder is simply not ready to seize the day despite going through all the correct motions ball after ball. That’s psychological.
What about the physical aspect? The only thing to really be said here is that a decade or so ago I read somewhere that there’s something to be said for hitting the ball hard. The person who wrote what I was reading had done a study of which batsmen had been proportionately dropped the most in international cricket. The leading contenders on the shortlist were players such as Viv Richards, Virender Sehwag and Matthew Hayden. Makes sense, so enough said on that.
What about mathematical probability? Let’s make the following stabs in the dark:
The average Test innings lasts 100 overs and dismissals are a spread of six catches, two bowled and two LBWs. Sure, occasionally there is a stumping, and even less occasionally a run-out, but the main one I am looking to highlight is that for every 600 balls bowled in Test cricket six batsmen are dismissed caught, a hard and fast rule rather than an absolute truth per se. This equates to a catch every 100 balls.
Further, three of every four opportunities for a catch in Test cricket are pocketed, on average, by fielding teams. At the level of cricket I played and now umpire it is probably no more than two in four. Therefore there is perhaps on average a dropped catch once every 300 balls bowled in Test cricket. Obviously, by and large, players at the level I played at hit easier catches than Test batsmen do, while catches taken and dropped are of a considerably higher standard the higher the level of the game.
Let’s now look at this from the perspective fortunes of two batsmen at opposite ends of the greatness scale – for example, Viv Richards and Glenn McGrath. Richards averaged 50 at a strike rate of 67, so this means he faced on average 75 balls per innings in Test cricket. This would mean that in all mathematical probability he would get dropped once every four innings. McGrath averaged seven and faced on average only about 15 balls per innings, so mathematical probability would have him getting dropped only once every 20 Test innings.
Given that Richards also completely fulfils the psychological and physical aspects already outlined as well as mathematical probability, could this explain why he got dropped so damned often or at least seemed to at the time? Could one in four probability conceivably transform itself into two in three given those additional quite credible causes?
Kevin Pietersen two or three times during that epic Oval innings in 2005. Joe Root on naught with England already 3-43 at Cardiff in the first Test in 2015. Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar also benefitted from their fair share of let-offs, as have the majority of genuinely great batsmen down the ages.
A fielding side would hardly be on edge when eagerly awaiting a catch from Glenn McGrath’s bat in a Test match. Nonetheless, with humans being fallible, batsmen playing poor shots, bowlers bowling bad balls, umpires making errors, it’s to be expected that some catches will be spilt from time to time. Nothing can ever completely remedy that.
However, don’t be the team that gives McGrath that once-in-a-lifetime – or even twice in the same innings – life because he will also make you pay in his own way. You’ll become the one and only team that he ever scores a half-century against, even in a first-class match, let alone a Test match.