The idea that fielding in first class cricket is vastly superior to what it was even a generation ago has attained the status of a truism amongst sporting journalists and the idea is probably shared by the overwhelming majority of cricket followers today. It is not hard to see why as fielders throw themselves about the field and even statuesque fast bowlers are expected to perform the sliding manoeuvre to stop a ball. This ostentatious athleticism overshadows other aspects of fielding and is increasingly the touchstone by which fielding is judged. But more athletic does not mean necessarily mean better because it begs the questions of the accuracy of bowlers and expertise in field-setting . It could be that all this throwing around of bodies counts for little in terms of restricting overall run-getting. It would be interesting to see some serious research on where runs are scored today compared with the 1950s and 1960s. It could be that modern field settings are more conducive to run scoring, for example, the modern common failure to set a Third Man to pace bowlers results in inordinate amounts of boundaries which would otherwise be singles.
In the absence of such statistics I shall give my impressions of the difference between fielding now and in the past based on my watching of first class cricket since the 1950s. Bowlers today I judge to be much less accurate both in length and direction than they were forty or fifty years ago. In particular bowlers used to bowl much straighter. Some idea of this can be g gleaned from recordings of bowlers which give an extended passage of play with particular bowlers. A lack of control over length and direction makes it difficult to set a field to which the bowler can bowl . If fielders in the past were not so generally mobile they did not have to be because the ball came more directly to them because bowlers could bowl to their fields.
Then there is the ability of captains and bowlers to set fields which stifle runs. I have already mentioned the runs leaked in the modern game through an unattended Third Man. To that can be added the much commoner use today of deep-set defensive fielders , even to fast bowlers, for example, the sweeper on the cover boundary. In the past it would be rare to see pace bowlers with such fielders. A pace bowler in the 1950s and 1960s would have a Third Man and a long leg or square leg out and that would be it for deep fielders. Having more deep fielders makes run scoring easier because a bowler can be milked for ones and twos with little risk. Why do modern pace bowlers have more deep fielders? Probably because of their inferior control of line and length, although once something becomes a fielding fashion it tends to be copied by captains and bowlers without regard to the ability of a bowler to bowl to his field.
It is true that the ground fielding away from the wicket is not merely more spectacular today than it once was and the stops which are made are, when considered in isolation, frequently superior to what would have been seen. But the key phrase here is “considered in isolation”. If the bowlers today are less accurate and the fields less efficiently set, the need for many of the spectacular saves may occur only because of the deficiencies of the modern bowler and field setter compared with what obtained in the past.
It is also important to understand that fielders in the past were not all laughably immobile. There are there no fielders in county cricket today as hilariously immobile as the late lamented Bomber Wells , a man who was the nearest thing to a beachball in human form when he plied his offbreaks for Gloucestershire and then Notts in the 1950s and Sixties. But Bomber was amusing to watch simply because he was abnormal. Most fielders in first class cricket in his time were at least competent and many such as Tony Lock and Micky Stewart were outstanding fielders virtually anywhere; many more were top class specialists in important positions such as slip (Cowdrey, Phil Sharpe) or the covers (Neil Harvey, Norman O’Neill , Ken Taylor). It is worth adding that although modern field in on average much more athletic, there are still quite a few mediocre fielders, especially in first class cricket.
The part of fielding which I am sure has deteriorated substantially is close catching. This is probably largely down to the fact that fielders have become generalists rather than specialists. It is not an easy thing to be fielding in radically different positions and attain or maintain the same level of expertise in them all. The importance of having a specialist position was vividly shown when the fine Sussex opening John Langridge took 69 catches fielding at slip in 1955 at the age of 45, one of the most astonishing achievements in cricket.
Surrey built their seven successive Championships on ferociously efficient close catching, with Stewart Surridge, Barrington, Mickey Stewart and Lock all exceeding 50 catches in a season at least once. They did this on uncovered pitches which could be prepared as a county choose – the Oval pitches of the 1950s were a batsman’s nightmare – and with vicious spinners of the ball in Laker and Lock and a master seamer in Alec Bedser whose leg cutters reared nastily. Modern English pitches by comparison are tame and the close catches which come are on average much less spiteful or unpredictable than they were when pitches were uncovered and prepared without fear of points being deducted by pitch inspectors.
Then there are the effect of changes in equipment. Has modern batting been changed by protective equipment in the sense that batsmen play shots differentially today than they did before helmets, bumper bras, arm shields and thigh pads on both legs? The playing of the hook or pull against quick bowlers has become routine today because of helmets. Before helmets arrived it was very much a shot which was only played by those expert at it. Now every Tom, Dick and Harry of a batsman, including tailenders will have a go. That probably means a greater use of deep fielders on the leg side. Modern bats with their much greater power and often greater weight than those used in the past favour the drive over subtler shots such as the late cut. However, I doubt whether that has had much effect on field settings, although the greater power may be partly responsible for the use of more deep fielders in the modern game. Nor can I see that the reverse sweep has caused a fundamental shift in field settings.
There is also the intriguing question of whether the considerable encumbrances donned by modern cricketers makes some shots easier than others simply because batsmen are restricted in their movement by the load of protective armour they carry. Someone with the full monty of helmet, bumper bra, arm shield, double thigh pads as well as gloves and pads, may find it difficult to the more subtle shots. The existence of such protection may also produce a sense of invulnerability which could lead to the favouring of big shots.
Finally, there is the effect of limited overs cricket. The defensive fields which have evolved for limited overs cricket may be partially responsible for the greater use of deeper field settings now. Captains and bowlers use them routinely in limited overs and T20 and it is easy to see the temptation to carry the practice into first class cricket. It has also encouraged batsmen to attack, especially with big hitting which will have changed the general shape of run getting.
The other side of the fielding coin is the effect that batting and fielding changes plus limited overs cricket have had on the bowlers. Limited overs cricket has taught them to vary their bowling massively, something which was not a feature of early times. The limited overs mentality has been to a degree carried in first class cricket which is part of the reason for the decline in accuracy seen in present day bowlers.
Is modern fielding superior? Probably not taken overall and judged not merely by the abilities of individual fieldsmen but the team as a unit with bowling accuracy and field setting thrown into the judgement mix.