Analysis: Test Cricket Slip Fielding – The Numbers

In his first analysis blog for CricIndex Lakshmi Narayanan looks at Slip Fielding in Test Match Cricket.

In previous posts I’ve focussed on Indian slip fielding and delved into the catches taken/dropped by pace and spin.

Cricket Slip Catching

A few notes about that previous article. I am aware of the fantastic article on Cricket Monthly by Charles Davis – it is comprehensive as any piece on close-in fielding in Tests can be.  My article though focuses only on slip fielding in particular – slips are one of the few specialist areas in fielding for which Test teams develop players. Second point – a vital part of the catches taken-dropped ratio in my previous post was to look at the opportunities presented to the fielders which would have lent credence to a higher ratio of catches caught-dropped by a particular player. This article will focus on opportunities presented to slip fielders and then looking at catches to dropped percentage, a measure I believe might do justice to a higher percentage of catches caught/dropped for a player. The third key note about this post – I decided to do it for all teams in Tests since it might be a bit interesting to see which teams really do fare well in the cordon and if teams do have fixed specialist players for specialist positions.

The methodology remained the same – I scrolled through ball-by-ball commentaries of every innings in Tests from 2012 until now for each team on ESPNCricinfo and thus created a master list of all catches caught/dropped/missed in slips for all teams. From then on, it was simpler to sift through the data and identify percentages for each team and each fielder. Another note – the ball-by-ball commentaries were incomplete in a few instances – missing commentary due to technical glitches/not mentioning the player name/not mentioning the position. In those cases, assumptions were made to either arrive at the positions based on the fielder or the fielder names based on the position from historical data. An assumption from my previous post holds good here too – BBB commentary is subjective; different commentators on the website would have interpreted the chances in the slips differently. A safe assumption that a majority of slip catches have been classified and described accurately or nearly accurately should hold good.

In this post, we will look at the best slip cordons for pace and spin, as well as identify best fielders for each position in the cordon – for both spin and pace – and while we are at it, why not look at the best slip fielders currently? For the sake of simplicity and in an effort to keep this post shorter, I have focused on first, second, third slip and the gully for pace bowling, and just the first slip for spin. On an unrelated note, when isn’t this picture not funny when you look at Root’s expression?

Jacques Kallis

We will start with a few basic numbers – 233 tests have been played from Jan 1st, 2012 until now (up until the first Test between West Indies and Pakistan) – and the number of tests played by each team is quite disproportionate. Except Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, all teams have played 45+ tests, with England and Australia having played 68 and 63 tests respectively. We could start by looking at the number of opportunities created by each team and arrive at a proportionate number for each team depending on the numbers of tests played over the 5+ years period. In this regard, England rank high – creating roughly 5.1 opportunities per game, while New Zealand and South Africa have created close to 4.58 per Test.

Total opportunities for pace and spin:

Now to deep-dive into the numbers – which teams have a really good catching rate at the cordon? Are a few teams still struggling to find the right combination of men in the cordon for pace/spin? Let us look at the overall numbers first – I have arranged the numbers in order of opportunities:

Given the numbers and the relatively high number of opportunities, New Zealand seems to be the best slip fielding team, marginally ahead of South Africa and Australia. Only Bangladesh, India and West Indies feature in the lower 60s – West Indies lost one of its best slip catchers (Darren Bravo) owing to a war of words, Bangladesh has struggled to find a regular who can be dependable in slips and India’s slip cordon for pace keeps shuffling too often to identify anyone dependable.

Let us dissect the chances a bit more – how do slip cordons fare when you consider pace bowling? Or military medium or even someone with the pace of a Rajat Bhatia?

England’s slip catching to pace is similar to its overall showing for pace and spin; New Zealand are the best of the teams with opportunities being taken 80% of the time. Australia and South Africa lag slightly behind even though they have created equal or close to equal number of opportunities. For a team creating at least 100 opportunities with pace bowling, India’s catch rate is the least with only 55% of catches being taken. Even with slightly lower number of opportunities, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Pakistan hover in 65-70% range. This can further be dissected by each position in the cordon but let us look at slip catching for spin.

Slip catching to spin seems to be largely an almost equal showing by the teams with more than 60 opportunities barring West Indies. Pakistan features high in slip fielding to spin, owing to the mostly-sure hands of Younis Khan. Rahane for India, Steven Smith for Australia and Mathews for Sri Lanka have fared very well in this area, leading to a higher catching percentage for spin bowling for their respective teams.

All the representations until now have assumed catches caught as regulation ones while drops have not been classified into easy chances or tough ones. For the sake of this section alone, let us look at the proportion of easy catches/great catches/regulation drops/tough chances.

New Zealand, South Africa and Australia have caught a number of really good catches, more than others, as is evident from these charts. Even though the number of chances created by Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are lesser, close to 15% of all their opportunities have been tough chances.

Year-by-year analysis of slip fielding for pace and spin bowling:

A year-by-year improvement for slip fielding to pace and spin would give a better idea of how team performances in the cordon have improved or dipped. A dip to 0 might either represent zero number of opportunities or zero chances being converted to catches, from very few opportunities.

Very few teams seem to have sustained the quality of slip fielding to pace as New Zealand have had over the past five years, with a catching rate constantly above 75%. South Africa have also been consistent, barring 2015 when the percentage  went below 70 before resurfacing again to keep closer to 75.

Australia’s and New Zealand’s performance are the lines that grow assuredly in this chart – in particular, owing to Steven Smith and Ross Taylor’s outstanding slip catching but more on them later. South Africa dipped briefly before Amla took over first slip duties and brought consistency to the catching. From the lows of 2014, India’s rise has been due to the emergence of Rahane as one of the best slip fielders to spin currently. 2015 was a landmark year for him in slips, and that translated directly to India’s performance in this chart. Following Mahela’s retirement, Sri Lanka briefly struggled before Mathews made a mark in this position. To understand the importance of role of specialist slip fielders in teams, I have charted out performance of teams by position and top fielders for each position – a minimum number of 10 opportunities was used to look at the top fielders for first/second/third slips to pace and first slip to spin, and 5 opportunities for fielders in the gully region for pace to be represented in the charts. Let us look at slip fielding to pace first and move onto spin.

South Africa leads this chart, with 82% of chances being converted to catches primarily because of stellar catching by Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla who have caught 54 of 66 total chances. New Zealand ranks high at 79% since the primary slip fielder has been Ross Taylor on most occasions and having caught 40 catches from 50 opportunities. Australia has had decent success in this position but with the retirement of Michael Clarke and Shane Watson (28 out of 34 chances combined), it has struggled to find a consistent first slip fielder. England languishes in the low 70s – Strauss and Cook have held on to that fort constantly but have caught only 63 out of 88 chances. Although both are good slip fielders, Cook has dropped more catches over the past two years than before. Sri Lanka and West Indies feature in the low 70s as well – Sri Lanka face a similar problem to Australia, merely in terms of finding one slip fielder who can catch well. West Indies had Darren Bravo who caught 12 out of 16 chances but going by the current scenario, it does not seem likely that he will be back in the team. India’s predicament is no surprise with Murali Vijay having caught only 55% of the time. Pakistan has tried numerous fielders in the absence of Mohammad Hafeez (who is an average first slip fielder himself with 5 catches out of 8 chances), but none have stuck. It would be fair to say that the hunt is on for teams other than South Africa, New Zealand and maybe England if Cook doesn’t improve his catching. Let us take a few more paces to move on to second slip now.

Second slip catching standards seem almost the same as compared to first slip – among teams with at least 50 opportunities, Australia is on top with 78%. Steven Smith has been exemplary in this position, having caught 28 out of 34 chances. South Africa and New Zealand lag behind in the 70-75% range. Kallis was quite a handful, having caught 17 out of the 20 chances and following him, de Villiers, du Plessis, Alviro Petersen and Dean Elgar have caught 43 out of the 57 opportunities presented. New Zealand have had fair success although it is a tale of two parts with similar results – Martin Guptill took 21 out of 29 chances in the second slip but in between his absences or after, Mark Craig, Peter Fulton, Ross Taylor, Tim Southee and Jimmy Neesham have taken 25 from 29 chances. Currently, they seem to be trying Jeet Raval who took 6 out of 7 chances and then dropped 4 consecutively – the experiment may not last much longer if he drops more. England feature in the 60s again – Swann and Bell had caught 30 out of 47 chances before Swann’s exit and Ian Bell’s sacking gave rise to a number of fielders tried out but with marginal success. West Indies has a higher conversion rate, albeit with fewer chances – Darren Sammy, Kraigg Brathwaite and for a brief while, Darren Bravo caught 19 of the 23 opportunities. Pakistan has had one slip fielder for second slip – Younis Khan who has caught 19 from 25 chances. Sri Lanka is still trying to find an able slip fielder following the retirement of Mahela Jayawardene.

South Africa and New Zealand have been extremely consistent in the third slip – Faf du Plessis. JP Duminy, Dean Elgar and Alviro Petersen have taken 22 catches out of 23 opportunities. New Zealand have done exceedingly well too, with Dean Brownlie, Jimmy Neesham, Corey Anderson and Tim Southee (9/11) having taken 26 out of 29 chances. England have struggled to find a good slip fielder for this spot – Joe Root caught 10 out of 15 chances from 2013-2015 before he moved to second slip, and the ones after/during 2015 (James Anderson, Gary Ballance, Chris Jordan, Ben Stokes and James Vince) have caught only 5 of the 9 chances that came their way. Australia has tried Mitch Marsh, Steven Smith, David Warner, and in one instance, even Nathan Lyon, to tighten up their third slip catching but apart from  Usman Khawaja (4 out of 5 chances), the catching has largely been below average. India has an even 50% in this spot, the players tried out being Shikhar Dhawan, Ravindra Jadeja, KL Rahul, and Virat Kohli – all four whose catching has been inconsistent. Pakistan seems to have found a reliable close-in fielder in Azhar Ali who has taken 5 out of 6 chances at third slip. Which leaves one more position – the gully region.

Gully, like third slip, has had fewer opportunities than the first or second slips. New Zealand’s high catching rate, at 92%, can be directly attributed to Kane Williamson’s fantastic catching in this spot – he has caught 27 out of 29 chances here. Australia has a high percentage too, with Lyon, the Marsh brothers and David Warner having taken 16 catches combined from 22 opportunities. England features high in this list for a change – partly due to Joe Root who took all 8 out of 8 catches from 2013-14. Others in the England team have been quite successful – James Anderson, Jos Buttler, Alex Hales and Ben Stokes have taken 8 out of the 10 chances from 2014-16. With the growing realization of Ben Stokes’ outstanding catching abilities including ones that demand quick reflex times, he will feature in important positions in the cordon, even if not in the gully region. India’s performance has not been spectacular but Rahane has offered slight relief having taken 7 out of 10 chances. Surprisingly, South Africa have one of the lowest percentages among teams with relatively high number of opportunities – JP Duminy has taken 6 out of 10 chances although other players tried have not had a great record.

Slip fielding by position – spin bowling:

Now that we have looked at slip fielding to pace, let us look at first slip to spin. It throws up more fielders and a few more constants.

 

First slip catching to spin has shown varying qualities across teams. Pakistan, for instance, has been lucky to have the inimitable Younis Khan, who has taken 26 catches out of 34 opportunities (at the time of writing this post, he caught 2 or 3 more in the second test against West Indies). Australia has Steven Smith who, like Kane Williamson at gully to pace, has taken 25 out of 27 chances at first slip to spin. India’s story is much familiar – Rahane has taken 34 out of 43 opportunities. West Indies have had a good showing of 75%, although the men that have helped it happen – Darren Sammy who took an unbelievable 13 out of 13 chances and Darren Bravo who took 6 out of 8 chances – are both out of contention for their sides. Jermaine Blackwood has been tried but has taken only 8 out of his 13 opportunities. South Africa have had Dean Elgar and Kallis before; combined, they took 9 out of 11 chances before Amla took over the role and has an impressive 11 catches from 13 chances.  Sri Lanka has had average success – Mathews has 27 out of 37 chances after Mahela had taken 13 catches out of 22 opportunities. Arguably, Mahela’s slip catching form dropped considerably towards the end of his career. Bangladesh have used Mahmudullah, Nasir Hossain, Shakib Al Hasan, and Soumya Sarkar who have taken 19 out of 24 opportunities thus lending to a high 81% at first slip. A note about England’s Chris Jordan who has an astonishing 8 out of 8 chances – his non-selection by the team has led England to pitch Stokes in that position. Anderson, Cook, Ben Stokes, Root and Adam Lyth have a combined 14 out of 20 opportunities – which seems to be just about average for the overall figure of 72%.

Top slip fielders – by pace and spin:

Now that we have seen by position, it would do well to look at top fielders for pace and spin over the past five years. A few names feature prominently in this list. Understandably, the list is long for pace owing to the greater number of positions. To add some credence to a higher catching rate, I limited the number of opportunities for pace and spin to 20 each.

A few slip catchers for pace stand out when you look at this chart – Ross Taylor, Graeme Smith, Kallis and Michael Clarke feature in the high 80s range. Their slip catching record had been such that until the end of their careers, they were not, or in the case of Ross Taylor still hasn’t been, displaced from their positions. Kane Williamson has been a fabulous catcher in the cordon for New Zealand and might end up as one of their best catchers in history. For players with a relatively higher number of opportunities, we have quite a few notable fielders with catching percentages in the 70s. Steven Smith – who has grown as a catcher just as he has with his batting, Joe Root – who has spilled a few but still remains one of the better catchers in his team, Alastair Cook – a slip fielder who has slightly waned over the past couple of years, Younis Khan – who has been very consistent throughout his career, Martin Guptill who has even 75% with his catching, Darren Bravo with 74%, and Dean Elgar at 72% –  who has been very good at third slip. Among current players, only Amla features in the 60s. Shikhar Dhawan and Dimuth Karunatne have the lowest catching record to pace for the period considered – at 55% and 57% respectively.

Out of slip catchers to spin, Darren Sammy stands out with a 100% conversion rate. Of the current set of players, Steven Smith is way ahead of the pack at 92% – the next best is 77% by Rahane. Younis Khan again makes a case for being one of the safest slip catchers to spin with a rate of 77%, while Mathews has just above 70%. It is indeed surprising to note that all the other fielders have catching percentages of less than 65%, excepting Sehwag. Ross Taylor has largely done well for his team at slip, although a below-average performance in an away series in 2013 resulted in sub-65 catching rate.

To cap this all, I charted out the top slip fielders to pace and spin with a minimum number of 45 opportunities combined.

The clear leader here is Steven Smith – with almost an equal number of opportunities as Cook or Ross Taylor, Steven Smith has an outstanding catching rate of 80%. The next best is 78% by Younis Khan and with his retirement after the current test series against West Indies, Pakistan would do well if they find an equal replacement to the man. Joe Root and Ajinkya Rahane are slowly but steadily catching up in the race to be the best slip fielders in men’s cricket currently. Michael Clarke was a fairly good slip fielder as well, as is evident from the 75% catching rate. Cook would do well to improve his rate from 70% currently to more than 75% while James Anderson has the lowest among them all at 58%. The chart above pits them all almost equally, with the exception of Steven Smith, Alastair Cook and James Anderson. Let us look at one final chart in this post – how many of the catches taken by these fielders were very good ones, and how many of them were tough chances?

With this chart, we can see that Michael Clarke and Ross Taylor are separated by very little – Clarke has a number of really good catches, a shade higher than Ross Taylor while the latter has had more tough chances than Clarke. Younis Khan’s chart shows a better picture – although he dropped almost 21% of his catches, at least 8% of them were tough ones. And while Joe Root and Rahane have equal catching rates, Root has taken a higher proportion of great catches, which should place him slightly higher than Rahane. Cook has been just about average – he has dropped 25% of his catches overall, even excluding the tough chances. James Anderson has had it a bit tough – even though he has caught only 59% of all catches, with 6% being very good ones, he has had to deal with 18% of tough chances, which overall doesn’t make him to be as bad a slip fielder as was shown in the previous chart. The pick of the lot is, without a doubt, Steven Smith – he has caught 80% of all his chances, with close to 15% of them being great takes. He has dropped only 16% of normal chances – which is among the lowest when compared with the other slip fielders in this chart. He is the best slip fielder in men’s cricket currently but you knew that already, didn’t you?

Notes:

  • This blog contains statistics and analyses up to the first Test between West Indies and Pakistan which concluded on April 25, 2017.
  • All data and charts courtesy ESPNCricinfo, Analysis

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