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Using data to boost fielding

Julien Fountain claims that during his tenure the standard of Pakistan’s fielding rose

Using data to boost fielding

Not too many professional coaches in cricket opt for fielding as their specialisation; there are very few and Julien Fountain is one of them. ‘The News on Sunday’ interviewed the former fielding coach of Pakistan recently in which the “The Baseball Guy” spoke about his stint with the Green-shirts and his journey from being a baseball coach to become a fielding coach.

Here are some excerpts:

The News on Sunday: Please tell us about your journey from “The Baseball Guy” to the “Professor of Fielding”.

Julien Fountain: I played school and club cricket in Somerset which led to my representing them at youth level through to under 19. At 18, I decided to switch to baseball because I had watched it on TV and felt that maybe my skills were better suited to that environment. I went on to represent Great Britain as part of their Olympic squad from 1988 to 1992, and again in 2002. When I left university in 1995, I returned to Taunton and by chance there was a coaching course going on, and the Great Britain baseball coach had been asked to do some coaching. He knew I lived there, so used me to demo for him. That was in 1996, and the rest, as they say, is history!

TNS: How important is the fielding department for a team?

JF: Just as important as batting and bowling! Fielding is kind of an anomaly, because it is one third of a player’s skill requirement. There are virtually no statistics on which to base your assessment of a professional cricketer. The only way to make fielding a priority is to record each and every fielding event and how it affects the game. Then you will see each player’s contribution both good and bad, then you can judge who is a good fielder or not. That is what I do with every professional team I coach, so that players are aware of their daily performance and what goals are achieved. That is why I designed some specific fielding analysis software to achieve this neutral data collection aspect of the game.

TNS: Is fielding all about diving and catching?

JF: It is about ground fielding, catching, throwing, diving, sliding, athleticism, fitness, agility, bravery, communication, aggression, tactics, determination, stamina, accuracy and enjoyment.

TNS: Is it true that different skills are required for different fielding positions?

JF: Clearly you need a slightly different skill set to be a slip fielder from that needed to be an infielder or an outfielder. I think in cricket, we have to create a standard skill set, with a few guys who are capable of exhibiting specialist skills and attributes. If you check out who is an excellent slip fielder and compare that with where they bat, you will find that they tend to be top order batsmen. Why is that? Because an opening batsman has to judge a fast moving ball, that can deviate late, sharply and quickly.

TNS: What do you think is the most difficult fielding position?

JF: All positions require the same amount of concentration and athleticism and skill. Fielding close to the bat, slips, etc. is quite demanding in terms of length of time between possible chances to touch the ball, which brings its own problems.

TNS: How do you judge a good fielder? And in the current Pakistan team who you rate as the best fielder?

JF: Judging a good fielder is almost always down to a coach’s opinion of that person generally. If a player drops a catch, people remember that and it can cloud opinion. I’ve heard some coaches talk absolute rubbish about a player’s fielding ability because they are not basing it on statistics of facts, just their opinion on any given day. Take away the guesswork and use analysis software to log fielding. We do it for batting and bowling, so why not fielding? My software does just that and I am sure it is correct. During my time the guys who achieved regular high statistics tended to be Umar Akmal, Ahmed Shehzad, Misbah-ul-Haq, Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez. One guy to watch is definitely Shan Masood, as he exhibits all the characteristics of a supreme fielder.

TNS: How was your experience of working with the Pakistan team?

JF: Excellent! The guys, for the most part, really tried hard to achieve results. It was always the former players who continued to bang on about Pakistan not being a good fielding team. I can categorically say that during some of our ODI series against South Africa we actually matched or beat them — not always, but on one tour we did out-field them statistically.

TNS: Which player was easiest to deal with in terms of responding to your guidance, and who was the most difficult one?

JF: Each player is different and has different motivations. Some guys who were struggling to get into the team regularly will move heaven and earth to impress you with their keen attitude; as soon as they have a regular place, the excuses come out.

The guys who work hard each day without excuses and have my respect are Misbah and Younis. Even Saeed Ajmal would ask for extra practice, almost every day, after we had finished the main one. That is the mark of a true professional.

TNS: What do you think is the problem with Pakistan’s fielding currently?

JF: Pakistan has its own set of issues with regard to practice facilities, but people adapt. Just because a team dives a lot does not necessarily mean that it is the better side. Pakistan has learned to do it slightly differently; that’s all. That being said, a more athletic, dynamic Pakistan team will inevitably be better than an overweight, slow one!

TNS: What difference do you think you made during your tenure as fielding coach of Pakistan?

JF: I can categorically say that the standard was raised, and the team fielded as well if not better than some of the so-called fielding teams such as Australia and South Africa. I have data to back that up completely. Of course, we had our bad days, but so does every other team.

TNS: How did you manage fielding statistics? Was it judged by giving points to players?

JF: Not points as such, I log (just as an analyst does) using a computer, every single ball, of every single ODI & T20 for both Pakistan and the opposition. That way I was able to compare the actual events that took place. And, yes, I always gave my fielding statistical report to the selectors for their consideration after each tour before they chose the next one.

TNS: Did you find it difficult to work with Pakistani cricketers due to the language barrier?

JF: Yes, sometimes it was tricky to explain the finer points of a skill, using a translator, but generally a picture paints a thousand words so demos were important. Most of the team could manage at least a little English; they just needed encouraging using it.

TNS: Would you like to work with Pakistan again?

JF: Possibly!

Faizan Lakhani

Faizan Lakhani
The author is sports correspondent at Geo News. He can be found on Twitter @faizanlakhani

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