For years after Team India played its first Test in 1932, our fielding was something of a joke. It reflected the general lack of fitness and athleticism, and the great bowlers of that time often complained that they’d need to create 2 or 3 chances for 1 catch to be taken. That started to change under the captaincy of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi – a brilliant fielder himself, despite having lost one eye in a car accident – and Sunil Gavaskar became the first Indian outfielder to take 100 catches at Edgbaston in 1986. Since then, five others have reached that landmark, with Rahul Dravid going on to set a world record. Virat Kohli was the latest to get there, and he could eventually replace VVS Laxman in second place on India’s all-time list.
1) Rahul Dravid – 209 catches in 163 Tests
No one has taken more catches in Test cricket than Rahul Dravid. If you were playing fantasy cricket in the 2000s, Dravid would have been a sensible pick. Not only was he a consistent run scorer, but he averaged well over a catch a Test. He never took more than 3 catches in an innings, but for a generation, he was Mr. Reliable close to the bat. A near-constant in the slip cordon for much of his career, Dravid was especially good when standing close to the bat for the spinners on Indian pitches. Anil Kumble typically bowled at lively pace, and Harbhajan Singh could extract disconcerting bounce, but Dravid showed stunning reflexes to take catches off their bowling. Along with the wicketkeeper, Dravid was also routinely part of the think-tank the bowlers consulted as they sought to work out the batters. He had his best series against Australia in 2004, when he took 13 catches in 4 Tests.
2) VVS Laxman – 135 catches in 134 Tests
Laxman wasn’t considered one of the athletes on the team during the years he played for India. But in the slip cordon, Laxman was the safest of catchers and remarkably agile. He seldom got into bad positions, and more often than not, the two large hands would close around the ball once it came to him. On turning Indian pitches, Laxman was an outstanding catcher close in. When India went overseas, with the slip cordon much further back, he held on to some equally stunning catches. His best series was also against Australia in 2004, when he took 7 catches in 4 games.
3) Sachin Tendulkar – 115 catches in 200 Tests
Unlike most of the others on this, Tendulkar didn’t spend most of his time in the slip cordon. In fact, one of the first memories of him as an India player is of a stunning running catch at long-on in England in 1990. But wherever he fielded, Tendulkar’s catching was usually as reliable and sound as his batting. He could be an impish presence close to the bat, geeing up his teammates, and he seldom dropped anything that came his way. His judgement of catches in the outfield was especially special and showcased the ball sense that made him the outstanding player of his generation.
4) Mohammad Azharuddin – 105 catches in 99 Tests
If the concept had been around at the time, one of the fantasy cricket tips of the mid-1980s would have been to select Mohammad Azharuddin – for his batting, his electric ground-fielding and spectacular catches. It was under his captaincy in the 1990s that India first unveiled a template for home success – acutely spin-friendly pitches that would expose visiting batters’ limitations against the turning ball. But making such surfaces was only part of the equation. You still needed fielders to take catches off spinners. Few did that better than Azhar, who would move with the grace of a cat to take catches low down in the slip cordon. Some of the grabs were exceptional, and the high standards he set inspired the next generation of Dravid and Laxman.
5) Sunil Gavaskar – 108 catches in 125 Tests
Gavaskar started off often fielding in front of the bat to the legendary spin quartet. But as he became an established member of the team, he was mostly to be found in the slip cordon. He famously broke his leg at The Oval in 1982 after Ian Botham smashed one straight at him while he was standing at silly point, but his best work as a fielder was in the slips, against pace and spin alike. Keeping to some of the spinners was far from easy – Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, with his arm withered by childhood polio, bowled at almost medium pace – but Gavaskar held on to far more difficult chances than he dropped. Once Kapil Dev emerged, he showed that he was just as safe taking catches off pace bowlers.
6) Virat Kohli – 100 catches in 99 Tests
Slip catching is a tough skill to master, and there were some cruel words said when Virat Kohli moved to the cordon not too long after the retirements of Dravid and Laxman. He may have been a superb fielder in the infield, but Kohli shelled quite a few catches in his early games in the slips, often trying to grab at the ball before it got to him. But once he settled down and established a rapport with those standing next to him, the improvement was rapid. Under his captaincy, India built a pace arsenal that is the envy of most, and there were plenty of nicks for the slips to hold on to. Kohli didn’t miss too many, and he was equally adept in home Tests too, when Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja repeatedly found the outside edge of visiting bats. In Cape Town, in January 2022, he became only the 6th Indian to take 100 catches (not as a wicketkeeper) in Test cricket.
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