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Let's shoot some cricketball

Pakistan's fielding coach says Test cricketers can learn a lot from their distant cousins in Major League Baseball.
Last modified: 23 May 2013 01:59
Julien Fountain has brought his baseball background to bear on Pakistan's fielding ahead of the Champions Trophy

If you're a cricket fan and have an American friend, watch them carefully next time you force them to sit down in front of the game you love.

Look at their eyes. Somewhere behind the flat glaze of boredom, there's a fierce desire that a transformation may take place. That the bat changes shape, the wicket becomes a plate, and that the cover drive they have no way of appreciating becomes a home run over right field.

They're not alone. Another man has this vision, but it's not born out of boredom. Pakistan fielding coach Julien Fountain sees this as a way to make cricket better.

And not a rule change in sight.

"It would make awesome sense to have cricketers learn to play baseball," says Fountain – a man so passionate about the art of fielding that what was meant to be a five-minute conversation turned into an interview that lasted as long as one-thirtieth of a Test match (and that, my American friends, is rather a long time).

"There's a lot more tactical fielding knowledge in baseball.

"In cricket, you have two options where to throw, and you don't even have to run for every ball that's hit.

"In baseball, once it's hit the batter has to run and the ball is in play. A fielder has several throwing options, several different runners, several scoring outcomes on the play – he has to know all that and perhaps change his mind in the blink of an eye."

But why transfer it to cricket, which isn't going to have more runners or bases to aim at any time soon (don't get any ideas now, IPL)?

The reason is simple. Wickets, and winning matches.

"I like my players to be proactive, not reactive," says Fountain, who is travelling with Pakistan to train them for the ICC Champions Trophy in his native England in June.

"Cricketers should be thinking of two or three different options. In baseball, when they throw the ball there's always a reason. In cricket a lot of times they throw the ball, there's nothing going to happen.

"I try to make them make an event happen. To increase the crucial things they can be involved in. If one in 10 balls gives the fielder a chance to change the game, let's make it two out of 10. I'm trying to make this the statistic."

And boy, does Fountain know statistics. And they're all his own.

The 43-year-old has numbers on cricket fielding that make a baseball scoreboard read like a particularly easy passage from Spot the Dog. Did I mention he used to play baseball for Great Britain's Olympic team?

"Fielding data in cricket historically has been absolutely terrible," says Fountain.

"When I look at how many stats are available on batting and bowling, fielding is the poor relation. It's just not viewed as very important.

"I record a lot of data using my own software called Direct Hit, and record anywhere from three to 15 pieces of information from every ball, and do comparative data with the opposition."

Here my notes get a little dense, but just to give you a snippet: "In one column, I record the ball going to the player, what position they are in, the skill they use, whether they picked it up cleanly..the type of throw, the accuracy of the throw, the outcome...if it's a catch, the skill they use, the difficulty of the catch...if it's a run-saving opportunity, how many saved, how many cost..."

We'll leave it there. But as well as helping Pakistan on the pitch, it does mean Fountain has ammunition for those who may not see them as the slickest fielding side.

"Statistically speaking, we're no better or worse than any of the teams we play against," he says.

"In the one-day series in South Africa, we dropped five catches. They dropped eight. We saved 99 runs, they only saved 89 runs.

"Commentators are paid to entertain. If they're stuck for a topic they might say how terrible the fielding is, but they have opinions not facts.

"Look at Younus Khan. He's a quality fielder but he probably made the mistake that cost us the last one-dayer. But who would you trust in the field? Younus."

So has he ever heard of a batsman or bowler being dropped in favour of a specialist fielder?

"No! I long for the day when selectors say, 'You've been dropped because your fielding isn't good enough,'" says Fountain, with just a touch of relish.

"That would make my job so much easier."

While Fountain took my own interest in fielding to heights that I never imagined, a 3,000-word blog may be a hard sell at the moment. But while there's an expert in the house, how about a bit of cross-sport rivalry?

Why do baseball fielders have to catch with gloves, when cricketers use their bare hands?

"Baseball has always used gloves – it's a different sport. What it means is that it removes some of the uncertainty in making catches. But it's not a magic wand. The ball doesn't catch itself.

"Very often when a cricketer picks up a baseball glove they just throw their arm out – and they're surprised they don't catch it.

"In a way it would make life easier for baseball players not to use gloves. The art of taking the ball out of the glove and transferring it to the hand is tricky. Being bare-handed would speed the process up."

Who has the better arm – boundary fielders in cricket or outfielders in baseball?

"Without a shadow of a doubt a major league outfielder will outperform a cricketer just purely because of the distance they throw. It's what they do. They are paid millions of dollars to catch and throw – that's it.

"The distances in baseball are much greater. A big cricket field can be 75 metres, maybe 90. From the fence to the home plate in baseball is 140 metres. There are regularly going to be 100-metre plays. But it's not to say cricket outfielders aren't powerful."

It looks like Pakistan's fielders are in safe hands. Let's see some triple-plays this summer, boys. 

For more on Julien Fountain's career and methods go to catcheswinmatches.com.

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