Among cricket’s unfathomable characteristics for those trying to understand the game from scratch are fielding positions and their names. Even once these are mastered, there is another, higher, plane to comprehend — that of their strategic use at different stages of the match. Over cricket’s history, positions, their use and importance, have evolved, continuously and gradually.
In pictures and photographs that depict the game up until the mid-19th century, fielders are shown to be static, dressed in elaborate headgear, sometimes top hats, which gave the impression that running after a cricket ball was a rare occurrence. Bowlers delivered the ball underarm, bats were of a curved design and those holding the bat had no leg protection. This set-up must have conditioned the direction in which the ball could be hit, along with its speed, both being determinants of where fielders were placed.
Anyone who has bowled in cricket will know the vital role played by the wicketkeeper. It is highly frustrating for a bowler to beat the bat, only to find that the wicketkeeper has been unable to catch or stop the ball. Until the late 18th century, it was customary for the bowler to assume wicketkeeping duties at the end from which he had just completed an over. The lack of a specialist wicketkeeper created the need for a fielder to be positioned behind the keeper on the boundary, known as long-stop. The position has now become obsolete as specialist wicketkeepers have assumed a critical role, especially once gloves and pads became available.
Standing in an arc to the immediate right or left of the keeper, depending on whether the batter is right or left-handed, are the slips. Their job is to catch or stop balls which glance off the edge of the bat. In most cases, these are the result of mistakes by the batter, so called slips in the language of the 18th and 19th centuries. Since the development of fast overarm bowling, it is common to witness four slips at the beginning of an innings and, also, at other times when an attacking field formation is required.
All positions can be divided into areas relative to the stance of the striker of the ball. If an imaginary line is drawn between the middle stumps, the offside of the wicket is the one in which the striker does not stand, whereas the on or leg side is where the striker stands when preparing to receive the ball. Another imaginary line drawn outwards from either side of the wicket to the boundaries, enables positions to be determined as backward or forward of the line. Backward positions are designated according to the extent to which they are square or fine of the wicket: Forward positions according to proximity to the striker — close, mid or deep — and straightness.
All of this has generated a complex-looking number of about 40 potential fielding positions. These can be used in conjunction, according to such variables as the circumstances of the match, type of bowler, perceived strengths and weaknesses of the striker, state of the pitch, weather conditions, and age of ball. In an attacking phase of the match, there are other close catching positions available to supplement this approach.
In addition to four slips, a gully can be positioned at the edge of the arc of slips, a forward and or backward short leg placed almost under the nose of the striker, and leg slips in catching positions. An extreme example of this occurred in 1947 when the West Australian captain Keith Carmody placed all nine fielders around the bat in an umbrella formation.
A classic and controversial use of fielding strategy, used in combination with a potent fast-bowling attack, occurred in 1932-33 in Australia. There, in an effort to dilute the batting prowess of Donald Bradman, some of England’s bowlers directed their deliveries at the bodies of the Australians. This forced them to play shots on the leg side, where no restrictions on the number of fielders existed at that time. The ill-feeling created by these tactics led to the introduction of a law that restricts to two the number of fielders behind square.
Limited overs cricket, in which the winning team is the one scoring the most runs, has placed much higher importance on fielding than Test cricket. The athleticism now witnessed in short format cricket can be extraordinary. The sliding stop on the boundary edge designed to pull the ball back before it crosses the boundary, first seen in the 1970s, is now a common part of a fielder’s repertoire, even at Test level.
It has also found its way down to club level, largely among younger players, to the bewilderment of their elders. They probably do not care much for fielding anymore, as hand-eye coordination deteriorates and the ball seems to hurt more when stopped by ageing hands and legs. Gone are the days when they tried to emulate the great fielders of their generation, mainly those who fielded around 25 meters from the bat on either off or on side.
These positions on the off side of the wicket allowed those with anticipation, speed of foot, ability to pick up the fast-moving ball up and throw at the stumps all in one flash, to bestride the field of play. One such player was the South African Colin Bland. Although his career was rooted in the 1960s, he is still rated by many as the greatest fielder of all time. This view centers on his ability to throw the ball to hit the wicket while running at full pace, often in the opposite direction and sometimes in midair.
Evidence of the game’s evolution can be encapsulated by discernible improvements in fielding skills, coupled with the expansion and use of potential positions to accord with strategic plans. Modern professionals spend hours honing their ground fielding and catching skills, so that these plans can be realized. Eccentric-sounding fielding positions serve to enrich the drama under which these plans play out.