A couple of years ago, at an Indian Premier League match in Bangalore, Cheteshwara Pujara was seen fielding in the deep with his shin pads on. That was then joked about and quickly forgotten because it was seen as a youngster's way of saving time. What is good enough for Twenty20 is clearly not good enough for Test cricket, for the shin-clad Pujara at first slip might have dropped the catch of the match at Eden Gardens on Thursday (December 6). It is possible his shin pads made it difficult to get down for the low catch. Alastair Cook was on 17 then, and the catch came hard and low to Pujara, as catches sometimes tend to do in the slips.
After the retirement of Rahul Dravid and V V S Laxman India are yet to find settled fielders in that crucial position. Asked why Virender Sehwag was not at slip, Trevor Penny, India's fielding coach, said, "Pujara has been practising at slip. He dropped a catch, such things happen."
Also practising at slip where he stood briefly on the second day was R Ashwin, the offspinner. "Our plan," said Penny, "is to field everybody everywhere."
It was Greg Chappell, India's former coach, who introduced the concept of batting "everybody everywhere", especially in one-day cricket, but whether this will raise the level of India's fielding - which has been below par - remains to be seen. You only have to imagine Zaheer Khan at slip or a lumbering Ashwin in the covers to see how easily the plan could fall apart.
Touching though the fielding coach's defence of India in the field - and by extension his own job - was, it is no coincidence that cricket is a game of specialists. Number eleven batsmen do not open the batting (not generally, although Wilfred Rhodes did), nor do offspinners decide in mid-career to become tearaway fast bowlers.
"Gone are the days," said Penny, "when fielders went into the slips and never came out." India must thank the lack of a fielding coach in the old days which ensured that Sunil Gavaskar, Ajit Wadekar, and later Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman remained in the slips while Eknath Solkar grabbed half-chances at short leg. A Tiger Pataudi or Brijesh Patel were outstanding in the covers. Kapil Dev too in the outfield, while Mohammad Azharuddin was possibly the best allround fielder India have had. S Venkatraghavan, an outstanding fielder at gully was not half as good in the outfield.
Which is why Penny's defence of Zaheer Khan, who was too static in the outfield, often not bothering to walk in as the bowler approached the crease, must cause worry. "Zaheer has his own methods," he said, "He is a superstar of Indian cricket." You cannot find fault with either statement, but are Zaheer's methods, whatever their ownership, serving India well?
The only thing Penny would concede was that India did not have their best fielders in the right places. Mid-on and mid-off moved too slowly to prevent singles as Alastair Cook and Nick Compton ran at will. "The outfield was fast and we didn't take our chances," admitted the coach.
He has his own methods too.