The England slips cordon
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Talking Cricket

'A good slipper needs to train as hard as some of the best keepers'

Daryll Cullinan talks about the technique and temperament involved in becoming a world-class operator in the cordon

Interview by Sidharth Monga  |  

I remember talking to Brian McMillan, and he said a 60 to 70% success rate was acceptable for slip fielders. I asked him how his team-mates reacted if he dropped catches, and he said he wouldn't know because he dropped only one or two. Is that true?
I can tell you now that I played cricket with him for eight years both domestically and for South Africa. I saw him drop two catches in that time. One was late in a Test match against England at Newlands, late in the afternoon. The other was at The Oval in about '96. His nickname was Buckets. He had massive hands. I mean I just had the biggest handicap as a slip fielder: these small little hands. He is arguably one of the great slip catchers.

I saw him take catches like this (puts hands together as if clapping in front of his midriff), one-handed… it impressed upon me, with these small hands, I had to be really different and work really hard at becoming a good slip catcher.

He was a natural, and you had to work hard at it. Which is why you will be of more help to others.
I'd like to think so.

Look, when I got into the South African side, we had guys like Allan Donald. That was a real shock for me because he was quick. And our attack was based around pace. And I was never confident. In my first Test, in Melbourne, I dropped four in one day. That really got me thinking, "Hang on, I need to approach this differently." At that time I ran into Ray Jennings and he made me think really hard about it. How did I train? What techniques, what drills did I use? That I needed to, importantly, think like a wicketkeeper. I had to think about concentration routines, you know.

The important thing was coming into slip cordon as the bowler started his run-up, [thinking] with total conviction that that particular ball was coming at me. Because guys go and get nicks at practice and they catch 30-40 in a short space of time. Why? Because they are expecting it. Thinking, "Well, I am catching it well." You have heightened awareness, yor concentration is totally in that moment. But you can stand there for two hours, and then be remembered as the guy who dropped Tendulkar on 20 and he got 180.

The moment you stand in there and you get distracted, and you feel that it may come, how uncanny is it that you get one, you react slow, you put it down. You can't afford that. We had a pace attack. They work so hard. They didn't want you putting down catches.

So let's start with what makes a slip fielder. Let's start with the base. What should the ideal stance be?
Well, if you listen - I love listening to a guy like Ian Chappell talk about slip catching - and I followed the example of Mark Taylor and Mark Waugh. What impressed me was the stance. Thinking like a keeper. Stance. Where is your weight? You don't want to be on your heels. You don't want to be too wide.

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Watch Daryll Cullinan speak to Sidharth Monga

One thing I notice with a lot of slip cordons - not only the Indian cordon, South African too - wide. The moment you are wide, the ability to get your head and track the ball becomes compromised. You don't see a goalkeeper defending a penalty kick with feet wide. You will see him come forward, feet come together, so he has got the agility to go left or right.

The moment you are working laterally, if your feet are too wide, your head is stuck, you are then working across the ball. Judging pace is best when your eyes are behind the ball, so you can pick it up. With heightened awareness, good concentration, good balance, good stance - at the point of delivery and not at the point of the nick - you are set and ready to go.

So if the stance is wider, the top half of your body will not go, and you will be catching only with your hands?
Absolutely. That's the perfect way of putting it. Then you are a 50-50, you are lunging for it. If you take a ball and imagine it moving towards me at slip, it is working towards me and if my head doesn't move, I am working across it. I am palming it. If my top half goes, I can take the ball, fetch it, and help it on its way. So you are catching the line of the ball.

The stance would be as wide as your shoulders?
Probably. Maybe slightly wider. But importantly, that balance. You are not going to find it that easy if you are too wide. So many guys today are far too wide, compromising their ability to move quickly to their left or right.

Weight on the inside of your feet?
Weight on the balls of your feet. All sport you play off the balls of your feet. The moment it is in your heels, you don't really have that ability, if needed, to move slightly forward. You can't move left or right either. That's when it gets the most difficult.

For taller players, getting down is difficult. Are they allowed to get wider in their stance or do they need to bend at the knees?
You want to bend at the knees. Even if you are bending at the back as well, look at my head position, I am over, and now I am almost looking up, so that ability to transfer your weight and make a better position becomes compromised.

But I found, too, that you need to have a feel for where you are playing. Where there was bounce, your hands were slightly more upright. I see guys come to South Africa, and at the point of delivery, their hands are virtually on the ground. Unless you want to reverse-cup everything. But you don't want to find yourself almost hanging [onto the ball].

That's one of the other things. I see so many guys, when I see the bowler start his run-up, their hands are on their knees. I mean I watched [Shikhar] Dhawan for the whole Test match [in Cape Town, where he dropped Keshav Maharaj and cost India dearly], and I watched Virat Kohli as well. Their hands are on their knees. The whole time. Suddenly a nick comes. Now in that moment. Look at my head (the hands go off the knees and the head falls a little).

Cullinan does the honours at first slip, catching Phil Tufnell to end the match and series, in Cape Town in 2000

Cullinan does the honours at first slip, catching Phil Tufnell to end the match and series, in Cape Town in 2000 © PA Photos

I'd say to them, put a bat in your hand, and as the ball is delivered, do that with your head (letting it fall). You have lost ten metres. You are not going to track it.

I don't see a wicketkeeper get in that position. The wicketkeeper - and this is where Mark Waugh and Mark Taylor were examples - I watched them. When the bowler started their run-up, they were in the wicketkeeper's position. Ray Jennings emphasised to me: "Look, what is the difference when it comes to catch time between you and the keeper?" I have got these little stumps [fingers], he has got gloves. I have to catch what he has got to catch.

With Allan Donald, the ball would often leave the edge and be seam-up. That ball has got about almost a pitch length to travel. That can swing and dip. So you need to think and train like a keeper. The basics need to be the same. I'd like to see a slipper, when the bowler is coming in, he is in a wicketkeeper's position. Mark Waugh, Mark Taylor both stood with their hands in this position [like a wicketkeeper]. They weren't here [on the knees], they weren't here [lower and wider but off the knees]. They were well prepared. I don't need to tell you they were fine catchers.

So you try to concentrate as much as the wicketkeeper and try to replicate his stance. What do you watch?
The first slip generally watches the ball. As you go wider, you tend to watch the edge of the bat. I have known second slips who have watched the ball out of the bowler's hand.

What are the training drills?
One thing we used to do with Ray, and all those who were coached by him would know they did a lot of one-handed catching. His view was, if you catch with one hand, you will catch well with two.

One of the important things about that is the bottom hand going to your side [and turning up with the little finger on the top, with the hand more or less perpendicular to the ground]. Have you noticed when Dhawan dropped that catch - sorry to use him as an example - and we have all made those mistakes? His bottom hand was in that position [flat, parallel to the ground]. So how does your top hand work?

Master at work: Mark Waugh takes his 158th catch, at Lord's in 2001, setting a record for the time

Master at work: Mark Waugh takes his 158th catch, at Lord's in 2001, setting a record for the time Paul McGregor / © Getty Images

It was a huge thing to be able to catch and turn [the bottom hand]. So then you have just got the closing to do with the top hand. The bottom hand dictates the quality of the catch to your side. So if your hands get into the wrong position when you are going sideways, and you can't instinctively reverse-cup - which you are asked to do often in South Africa - you then start to work up. Now you are working out of your eyeline, you are working across the ball, your hands are in the wrong position.

I don't see that appreciated enough. Ask any wicketkeeper. It is the bottom hand. Why should a slipper think any different?

We did a tremendous amount of one-handed catching. Often moving to your weaker side, you had to do a lot more. Notice how many guys don't get their hands in the right position. If the bottom hand is flat, I am clutching with my top hand. If my bottom hand is turning, you are just cupping it. And now, if you are too wide, and you are asked to go, your elbow hits the inside of your leg. With the correct width, you can get your elbow outside your leg. You have got room to move. How many guys do you see get stopped because they are too wide and their elbow hits their leg? Now they have to fall. The head is gone, the eyes are moving, you are a 50-50.

Other drills?
Any wicketkeeper can give loads of drills. A lot of one-handed catching. Short catching. One of the important things, though, is a lot of new-ball catching. I don't see that enough.

I insisted upon getting a new ball. And proper throws. Hard throws. You couldn't catch too many. You didn't have the luxury of gloves. (Many fielders take catches at practice with gloves on. Not the wicketkeeping ones, but thinner ones.) For the purpose of getting confident with the new ball, because there could be variance in the airs… that's one thing I don't see.

So I see a lot of guys taking simple catches, thinking it is happening, but it is not actually happening for you. It's like a batter having just throwdowns and thinking you are going to make it work out there. There is a science, and I don't see - and I have gone online - and I don't see from fielding coaches around the world the sort of talk that I would like to hear about slip catching. It is such a specialist position. And we don't know enough about it or how to train properly.

Kohli drops one. Did he have his hands on his knees as the catch came to him?

Kohli drops one. Did he have his hands on his knees as the catch came to him? Paul Ellis / © AFP

I'll tell you what is spoken about a lot. Temperament. People say you can't be too excitable, they say you have to concentrate hard because on some days, the first catch you get might be at 4pm. Is temperament that important?
You have got to want to stand there, for a start. And I don't think it is a coincidence that most of your better slippers have mainly been batters. For me it was like batting. The routines, practice, as if you are facing the ball, same expectancy levels, everything heightened. Every ball is mine, every ball is mine. Nothing different for any ball of the day. It's like batting. Takes a lot out of you. The moment you are not there, how funny is it in cricket, a half-chance comes and you are the guy who gets remembered for putting it down.

Can you train yourself to have soft hands?
There is definitely a way to go about it. I keep coming back to wicketkeepers. The keepers will tell you they don't want to be hard here (at the forearms). Keepers will tell you you have got to be soft at the forearms, so your hands are loose, so you can carry the ball in. You know, you gather, you go and fetch it, and you bring it in. Not sort of grabbing at it. There is a definite thought and technique. Again, get back to: what does a keeper do, how does he think, how does he train, what works for him?

These loose, soft arms, are they possible with these modern gym-sculpted bodies?
I think it certainly is.

But when you are in this position (hands on knees), look at my shoulders. Look where my tension is. My tension is in my arms. My tension is in my shoulder. So the moment you do that, you are so tense in the shoulders and the arms. Your top half has to be good. If if I am on my knees, all my tension is in my arms. Then I am having to suddenly react. Too much happening. Too tight.

How do you decide who takes which catch?
Spacing is a big thing. The old days, they used to tell us as kids: you stand an arm's length apart. There is value in that. But the stagger is important. At second, or when you get to third, you don't want anyone in your peripheral vision. First is a little bit different. There you can see the keeper, you can see the second. The patterns get set by the keeper.

Sometimes you have got to go up in case some drop short. Always the golden rule: don't let it drop short. Rather have to deal with it here [in front of your face]. At least you have got two hands. A lot of guys in South Africa get caught standing too far back. Watch the Wanderers, watch this Test [in Centurion], one or two will drop short, and everyone will say, come on guys, get up there.

"The golden rule: don't let it drop short. Rather have to deal with it in front of your face" © Getty Images

There that stagger plays a big role. As it gets wider, they are getting closer to the bat and they generally tend to shy away. Watch between third and fourth - these are international cricketers - often you find that guys are standing next to each other. Now he is in my peripheral vision, the moment the ball comes, and you suddenly see him, and, "Oh, is it yours or mine?" You never want to be in doubt.

The old rule of each catch to your right doesn't quite work today. So you want to be clear in your peripheral vision. And if you see it, you go for it. Spacing and the stagger are vital.

You are at first slip, a catch is falling short. Do you let the keeper go for it or do you also go for it?
If the keeper sees it, he has the gloves on, he has to go for it. I think you just want a situation where someone has gone for it. You don't want to be "mine or yours", and suddenly it's not there. Often a keeper might be caught off balance or he is unsure. The rule is, if you see it and you are confident about catching it, go for it. If you end up in front of somebody, that's not a problem. At least there has been an effort.

Sometimes people fear a collision and both end up not going for it.
If the stagger is good and you are clear in your peripheral vision, you won't find that. It's the moment where the stagger is an issue, or the spacing is too tight, then you find that.

A lot depends on the pace of the pitch, the bounce. Sometimes you have got to get up closer, so you have got to tighten up. It's quite embarrassing if you don't get the stagger right at the international level.

The rule of thumb is, the first slip should be perhaps one metre behind the keeper. He has got to allow the keeper the chance. The second should be in line with the keeper or slightly ahead. Then you want more or less the same spacing as you go along. The wider it gets, the guys are getting close to the stumps.

How do you psychologically come out of having dropped a catch?
You have got to put it behind you as soon as possible. It takes a bit of mental strength to stand there because nobody has caught everything that has come their way. It can affect your confidence. That's why I see a lot of guys come out of the slip cordon in their careers. You either want to do it or you don't. And you have got to have the ability, the soft hands, the technique.

"I see a lot of guys taking simple catches, thinking it is happening, but it is not. There is a science, and I don't see from fielding coaches around the world the sort of talk that I would like to hear about slip catching" © Getty Images

With that comes the risk of dealing with a drop catch, but everyone kind of does it. We are all human, no one drops a catch on purpose, but it can affect your confidence. Sometimes if you are not batting well, you tend to drop a catch or two. You need the ability to put it behind you and focus on the next one. Often the ball follows you. You take the next one, and away you go. But if you have prepared well and you are a good slipper, and you know what you are doing, and you know what you expect…

Generally, you mentioned Brian saying 60-70%, if that's anything, including half-chances, but I reckon what should be caught should be closer to nine out of 10.

And you need that confidence.
It is a confidence thing.

But it will flow from your preparation and technique.
Absolutely. And an appreciation for the [art]… in my humble opinion. I don't see enough. I think it is an opportunity for cricket [to have] specialist slip cordons. Yes, there are fielding coaches, but in my opinion, I don't see too many fielding coaches appreciate what it actually takes to be a really, really great slip catcher.

So just to sum it up: You don't want your base to be wide. You want your top half loose. You don't want to rest your hands on your knees. You want to move with your head when you are going sideways. And you want your bottom hand to do the work.
Yes. A lot of one-handed catching helps tremendously in that regard. You have got to have those soft hands that fetch the ball. If you want to be a good slipper, I am sorry to tell you, you have got to train as well and catch as many as some of the best wicketkeepers in the world.

Because you are preparing to take as many as them, and you don't have the gloves on
Absolutely. And you have got one chance. He has got that all day to probably catch it. And he has got gloves. You want to be sure about what you do about it. It is not just about a natural. No, no, no. Some really have to work hard at it. I was one of them.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo