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In the line of fire

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Fielding_Short_leg_cricketAfrikaans is a wonderfully expressive language that has a way of cutting through unnecessary verbosity to get to the heart of the meaning of words. For example, candy floss is playfully known as spookasem which directly translates to ‘ghost breath’. Binoculars are called verkykers or ‘far lookers’ and a forgetful or absentminded person is labelled a loskop – a ‘loose head’.

Cricket is not untouched by the endearing charm of Afrikaans and is littered with little wonders such as paailtjiewagter with the literal translation of ‘small-pole watcher’. That’s wicketkeeper to you and I. There’s also gangetjie or ‘small hallway’ for gulley and kolfkampie which accurately describes the batting crease as a ‘batting camp’.

But the most descriptive, and perhaps unnerving, cricketing nomenclature in Afrikaans is slagyster posisie, which loosely translates to ‘death trap position’. If you can guess where this unfortunate location on the field is you’ve probably been there before; mere metres away from the batsman, peeping through the visor of your helmet and praying your teammate doesn’t bowl a half tracker that could be pulled directly into your solar plexus. We’re talking, of course, of the precarious position of short leg.

Whether it’s a school Under 14 B fixture or the final session of nail-biting Test match, the prospect of a catcher stationed close enough to the batsman that death is a possibility always gets the heart racing.

 

When the 12th man trundles onto the pitch with a teammate’s helmet under one arm, there is a visceral sense that something dramatic is about to happen. Bums inch closer to the edge of the seat, hairs on the back of the neck stand up and everyone in the ground shares in the anticipation, and trepidation, of what’s to come.

 

From a pure cricketing sense, a short leg, silly point, or any other variant of the extremely close catcher is an aggressive move from the fielding captain. Short balls from fast bowlers and spitting, spinning ones from the tweakers now have to be navigated with a higher degree of control. Any ball that balloons off an errant glove or loops off a bat-pad will now be eagerly snaffled by the close catcher.

Furthermore, there is now a vacancy in the field that was previously plugged. Sure the batsman now has a predatory vulture hovering close by, but look at that gap between point and mid-off!

On a psychological level, the introduction of a close catcher works on all parties concerned.

 

Bowling is a confidence game and every extra catcher fuels a bowler’s ego by sending a clear message: you’re on top, the game is in your control, the batsman’s scared, a wicket is coming.

 

If you’re the poor sod that has to wield the willow in these trying times, it doesn’t get more hostile than this. At the Wanderers or the WACA, express pace is hard enough to deal with without some maniac breathing down your neck and whispering the odd jibe your way. You’ve walked out with the intention of surviving now you have to contend with this unwanted variable just over your shoulder.

If you’re in Mumbai or Dhaka, you know only too well how the ball explodes from the pitch as if the strip was lined with mines. The odds are not in your favour. You may meet the ball with the middle of your bat most of the time, but you’re just a ball away from seeing a close-in fielder pouch a simple catch after one gripped and bounced a little more than usual.

But what if you’ve been asked to suit up as the soldier under the helmet, forced to stand in the trenches and face the prospect of an artillery barrage? Two thoughts occupy the mind.

Firstly, you’re standing there to take a wicket and, with a combination of brilliance and bravery, you can singlehandedly turn a game. I was there when James Taylor hung on to Hashim Amla’s powerful leg-side flick off Stuart Broad’s bowling at the Wanderers.

Broad was having one of those spells that decimate a batting unit. South Africa were already in trouble at 31-3 but with Amla at the wicket there remained a glimmer of hope. When the diminutive Taylor plucked the ball out of the air millimetres above the turf, an audible gasp rippled around the Bull Ring. It wasn’t just that a wicket had fallen or that we’d witnessed a spectacular catch. The moment encapsulated English dominance.

 

Then there’s the more primal instinct - survival. The voice in the lizard part of your brain screams at you to refuse your duties and go stand somewhere safe like third man. “To hell with this,” it shouts. “No wicket is worth losing your life”.

 

There’s a reason you’re protected by a helmet, a box, shin pads and perhaps even a chest guard. On February 20, 1998, Raman Lamba was fielding at forward short leg for Abahani Krira Chakra against Mohammedan Sporting in a Bangladeshi premier league club game where he was struck full on his forehead from a powerful pull shot that had enough force to ricochet back to the ‘keeper who completed the dismissal.

Lamba, who had won four Test caps for India, was shaken but reassured his teammates that he was fine, before losing consciousness. He was rushed to hospital where surgeons attempted to remove a blood clot in his brain. Three days later, Lamba’s family gave their permission to turn off his life support. On the day he was hit, Lamba turned down the opportunity to wear a helmet.

Kapil Dev called Lamba’s death, “A lesson for every cricketer to take precautions to avert such tragedies,” and thankfully, I could not find another example of a fielder suffering the same misfortune while fielding close to the bat.

Despite the rarity of fatalities, the fear factor still persists. A cricket ball travelling at high speed can cause serious damage, whether released from a bowler’s hand or rocketed from the face of a bat.

But in a game that is increasingly favouring batsman over bowlers, captains will do anything in pursuit of a wicket. Unfortunately for one player amongst the ranks, that means standing directly in the firing line at short leg.

 

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Daniel is a freelance sports journalist from Johannesburg who would always rather be watching Test ...

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