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India yearn for a less slippery cordon

India's slip cordon is a picture of concentration AFP

In the last five years of Test cricket, 407 Test wickets have fallen to catches off fast bowling; 131 of them (or 32%) have been taken by slips and gully. The corresponding number for Test cricket in India is 150 and 38 (25%). That difference in percentage should worry India coming to South Africa. And it doesn't get better if you delve further.

From the start of the South Africa tour of 2013-14 - the first time all India's past slippers were gone - their cordon (slips and gully) has dropped at least 45 and taken 32 of the opportunities their fast bowlers have created in Test cricket. Incredibly, even if through playing five more Tests than South Africa's 39 over this period, India's fast bowlers have created more opportunities for their cordon than South Africa's. Still South Africa have held on to almost as many - 44 - and dropped significantly fewer in a minimum of 23 chances. That despite losing Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith during this period, two of the best slip catchers of all time.

Visiting short legs and silly points to India are not known to do as well as the India fielders, but here difference is notable. Almost everybody apart from the really hopeless close-in fielders has had a go and dropped catches for India in the cordon. M Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja have all hurt the fast bowlers. Karun Nair is not even on this trip. Until last December, if everyone was fit, India fielding coach R Sridhar's ideal slip cordon was Vijay at first, Kohli at second, Nair at third and Rahane at gully.

We have come a long way since then with all of them dropping catches and only Rahane able to lay some sort of a permanent claim to the gully position. Sridhar has often said that with frequent injuries to batsmen - especially the openers - and with India generally chopping and changing - Kohli is yet to field an unchanged XI as Test captain - they have not been able to nail down the ideal personnel for the job.

At some point, though, technique has to be questioned apart from just familiarity, especially when embarking on a tour where the quicks will have to pick up more wickets through the cordon than they have to in India. Sunil Gavaskar and Rahul Dravid have spoken about the catchers getting up too early and their heads, consequently, having to move quickly for low catches and ruining what the eyes see. In that regard they should relax a little because in South Africa they won't encounter too many low catches, but not all of their drops have been low catches.

Dravid also advocated a narrower stance with the weight on the inside of the feet and not flat or on the heels. Weight on the inside with a narrower stance makes it easy to move to the ball if it is not coming straight at you. Even a tall fielder such as VVS Laxman used to prefer bending his knees to get low instead of going wide and risking losing balance.

One of the theories that goes around is these current players are an excitable bunch, which is not the temperament you need in the slips, where you are expected to wait through long periods without an edge and not make a mistake when one arrives. This shouldn't be an issue with Vijay, though, for example. India's fielders are not wanting in the number of catches they take every day, but it could possibly be hard hands at slip to go with wide stances.

Brian McMillan, one of the best the world has seen, says he doesn't remember too many catches he dropped. That self-confidence along with big, soft and fleshy hands and the fitness to bend low for long periods made McMillan the slip catcher he was. When he was young he would face golf balls as a batsman, get in line, drop the bat and catch them. Catching those hard balls in his fingers helped him develop those soft hands and the feel for the hard ball hit hard at him.

Speaking to ESPNcricinfo in 2011, back when real data was available to players but perhaps not to those on the outside, McMillan said that a success rate of anything between 60% and 70% in the slips was acceptable. This Indian team has been going at under 42% with no real improvement over the last few years. South Africa have been catching 66% of theirs.

McMillan spoke to ESPNcricinfo while watching the Newlands Test, a week after India had won the Durban Test to level the series. It was only India's second Test win in South Africa, following up on the one in Johannesburg in 2006-07. In Johannesburg, India held five catches at slips and gully, in Durban three. More importantly, nothing went down except for one at leg gully off the spin of Harbhajan Singh in Durban. The culprit there, Cheteshwar Pujara, used to stand at third slip to the fast bowlers despite that being his first away tour.

Sridhar, who has been with the team for more than three years now, deserves to have questions asked of him. To be fair to him, he is working with fielders who don't seem to be naturals in the slips, and is also working with a team that doesn't let slip fielders develop by chopping and changing too often - Pujara, for instance, is back in the slips after a five-year gap - but the cold numbers are just too bad.

Some of these drops have hurt India particularly badly. It was before Sridhar joined the backroom staff, but it is a moment nobody who follows Indian cricket forgets. India had England under the pump in England after winning the Lord's Test, their under-pressure captain provided an early opportunity on the first morning of the third Test, and Jadeja displayed poor technique in dropping him. The series turned on its head, and India lost 3-1.

Two-and-a-half years later, in the return series in India, Jadeja found himself at slip again, and dropped Alastair Cook once again, early into the Test. This time, though, the spinners kept producing chance after chance, which is why this drop is not remembered as much. In the last five years, catches in the slips and at gully have accounted for close to one in five wickets in South Africa. That is two such wickets per innings. India can't afford to keep asking their bowlers to create more than four opportunities for those two wickets, if they are to take 20 wickets.