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Cricket news - England add edge with stronger fielding benchmark

Stokes's catch left some terming it the catch of the century

More than 24 hours after it took place, people are still waxing lyrical about Ben Stokes's wonder-catch against South Africa.

The opening game of the 2019 World Cup needed a highlight reel moment to get going after a damp, dank opening ceremony on Wednesday. With a few steps and a superman-like leap backwards while extending his top/wrong hand, England's dynamic allrounder had produced it. Nevermind his 89 and two wickets to finish the game. It's the catch that was always going to trend.

Some say it was the catch of the century. But others believe it was a complete misjudgement. Including the man himself.

"I was actually in the wrong position," ceded Stokes post-match in the ICC mixed zone. "It would have been a rego (regulation) catch if I was in the right place." There is, however, a good reason why he was not in "the right place".

Much like this ODI side's batting, their fielding ethos is "attack first, defend second". Driven by the lead fielding coach Carl Hopkinson, the premise is that by "attacking" the ball, England can prevent ones, or ones turning into two, and choke teams in the field. And yes, it was this mentality that almost saw Stokes misjudge Andile Phehlukwayo's heave to the square leg fence. But it also allowed him to spring a march on Dwayne Pretorious when he swooped out in the deep to pick up and throw in one motion and catch the South African short of his ground for the fifth wicket.

Without question, this was England's cleanest fielding display in ODIs. And they have the statistics to prove it.

According to cricket data analysts CricViz, a company founded by the team's own number cruncher Nathan Leamon, the host's fielding saved themselves 35 runs. The margin of victory was 104 in the end, but the set total of 311 was one England thought was a touch under par. As it happens, South Africa had a decent time of it too, saving 30 with their efforts.

"It all gets logged and the analyst told us it was our best ever fielding performance," said a pumped Jason Roy, himself a one-man wall at backward point throughout the match - an especially valuable position at the Oval where square runs come easy. "The best ever recorded in the four year period, it was plus 60 runs (between both sides) which is pretty impressive."

The measuring of runs through fielding is still subjective, but work continues at pace behind the scenes to develop more robust models to improve the accuracy of information collated. Throughout the World Cup, Cricviz's "Fielding Impact", presented as runs saved, will be used during broadcasts, while New York-based company ChryonHego will be tracking fielders and providing latest data on their movements. The hope is this tournament can advance the measurement and understanding of fielding.

As it stands, the CricViz system works on a basic principle: if a fielder on the boundary lets a ball through their legs, turning two runs into four, the run value attached is "-2". Similarly, if a player is slow to attack a ball in the ring and concedes a single, that is "-1". For Roy's goalkeeper-style stops at backward point, the possible runs conceded (four) and the actual runs taken (let's say the batsmen scramble a single), would be valued at +3.

Similarly, the difficulty of catches are ranked on a scale of five percent probability of success to 95, with the run values associated to them in line with the average value of a wicket in the format being played, which is 12 in ODI cricket. Stokes's catch was a five percent-er so in pulling it off, his contribution was +11.40 (95 percent of 12 runs). This, admittedly, is a grey area considering, had Stokes hung back, it would have been a much easier catch. It is not perfect, but it is better than it was.

Any from the numbers, Roy was particularly buoyed by Thursday's team display after what he feels have not been a clean few months out on the turf. "As a collective it was very good. We pride ourselves on our fielding and we have been disappointed quite a lot with our fielding over the last year. We've been incredible with the bat and ball but our fielding has sometimes let us down."

To the credit of this side, and the coaches involved, poor handling in games is very often followed by gruelling practice sessions to right those wrongs. And part of pushing up the standards has been to instil some competitiveness into the dressing room when it comes to fielding.

Adil Rashid is perhaps the best example of where this side is at: while comfortably the weakest fielder, he pulled off a startling run out and a caught-and-bowled in the same match at Headingley during the recent series with Pakistan. There is a desire from each player to want the ball to come to them. Roy, in business for timed cut shots and mis-timed drives, has that more than most, especially when the bowling is sharp.

"It is nice when you are there to Jof (Jofra Archer) because he hits that back of a length and guys are looking to use his pace through that area so you know you are going to be in the game. It is good fun and you know your hands are going to be battered after the game.

"Absolutely there's a buzz because you know that the next delivery could entail a wicket and if you've saved a one and that guy's on strike and then there's a wicket, you feel like you've played a part in it."

In Roy's opinion, it's his version of being an allrounder.

"It is definitely a way of being in the game because I'm not a bowler, I'm just out there to field, so if I don't do so well with the bat then I can add to my performance. I got a fifty (54) and I would have liked to go on. But if I've saved 20 runs in the field then that is like a 70-run contribution."

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