Why catching remains paramount in winning cricket matches

“Catches win matches” is one of cricket’s oldest and tritest adages.

In my club match last weekend, one of the opposition’s players was winning the game, having survived two dropped catches. He had just completed his century, there was one wicket left to fall, nine runs needed to win and 11 deliveries remaining. He attempted to hit a six, the ball going in the direction of a lone fielder on the boundary edge. The ball was in the air a long time before the fielder safely clutched it to end the match. Had he dropped the ball, who knows what the final result would have been? Of course, the chances are that the match would have been over much sooner had either of the two earlier offered chances been taken.

There are much more famous examples of catches winning matches or dropped catches losing matches. In the final match and the final day of the 2005 England versus Australia series at the Oval in London, the home team needing a draw to regain the Ashes, were only 99 runs ahead, three wickets down, with over six hours left to play. At that point, Kevin Pietersen, on 13, edged a ball to the late Shane Warne at first slip, who dropped what, for him, was a straightforward catch. Despite Warne’s herculean bowling effort in taking 12 wickets in the match, he ended up on the losing side, as Pietersen scored 158 in a pulsating, counter-attacking innings.

A very expensive dropped catch occurred at Edgbaston, Birmingham on June 3, 1994. In a county match between Warwickshire and Durham, the Durham wicketkeeper dropped Brian Lara on 16. He went on to score 501, the highest ever individual score in first class cricket, which included an astonishing 390 runs in a single day.

In November 2014, at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, Indian batman Rohit Sharma was dropped on four by a Sri Lankan fielder on the boundary. Sharma went on to score 294, which remains the highest ever ODI individual score. Sri Lanka, requiring 405 for victory, were bowled out for 251.

The first two examples are from the longest formats of the game, four- and five-day cricket. In these, in order to win the match, it is normally necessary for the winning team to have to dismiss the opposition in both of its innings, taking all 20 wickets. This contrasts with the shorter, limited-over formats, in which the winning side is the one which scores the most runs, irrespective of the number of wickets lost. This changes the games’ dynamics.

Modern day analysts argue that one of the key changes relates to the value and importance of fielding, especially catching. Estimates have been made by them of the average value of a wicket in the various formats. In Test cricket, there is a consensus around 36 runs, whilst for T20 cricket it is much lower at eight runs. In both cases, the average value will be higher at beginning of the innings. On this basis, it is clear that the value of taking wickets is much higher in Tests.

Some 60 percent of dismissals in Test cricket are caught. Seventy percent of these catches are taken by close fielders — wicketkeeper, slips, gully, short legs. The best catchers take 80 percent of chances offered to them. Hence, great value is placed on their ability to consistently catch out the opposition, especially those batting high up the order. In Test cricket, the relative value of catching to ground fielding is high, since wicket-taking is paramount.

In T20 cricket, 60 percent of dismissals are caught, similar to Test cricket. However, less than 20 percent of those are taken by close catchers, half of them by the wicketkeeper. This is hardly surprising given that the aim of the game seems to be for batters to hit as many balls as possible over the boundary. As a result, catches on the boundary account for a higher proportion. The importance of athletic fielding also assumes a higher value, as stopping runs being scored, especially boundaries, is a vital component of these matches.

One-day or 50-over cricket displays characteristics of the other two formats. Analysts calculate that its average value per wicket is 30 runs, near to that for Test cricket. However, fielding restrictions, designed to establish a balance between bat and ball, shape it differently. In the first 10 overs of each innings, only two fielders are allowed to be outside of a 27.5-meter circle. This has the effect of making it difficult to score singles but offers the opportunity to score boundaries. In overs 11 to 40, a maximum of four fielders are allowed to be outside the circle and, in the final 10 overs, a maximum of five.

These distinct phases in each innings have led to the need for different types of players in each phase. Boundary hitters have emerged in the powerplay and final stage whilst, in the middle stages, those skillful in rotating the strike and building a solid base for big hitters in the final overs are favored. Given the value of a wicket and the importance of scoring rate in 50-over cricket, the calculation and taking of risk by batters is crucial, placing higher importance on fielders taking catches when offered than in T20s, as per the example of Sharma.

The old adage about catches winning matches has been challenged. However, whilst it is true that catches do not automatically lead to victory or vice versa, there are psychological considerations. From a club player’s perspective, the analysts’ clinical assessment of the importance of catches and their relative lack of importance, at least in T20 cricket, misses a vital element.

Dropping a straightforward catch often has a negative effect on morale. Heads go down, blame is attributed, rarely directly, mutterings abound, out of earshot of the transgressor. No one means to drop a catch but, at basic club level, where drop percentages are high, there is the distinct belief that catches still win matches.

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