England keep dropping easy catches, and it might have already cost them the Ashes

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England have missed golden opportunities to nail Australia in each of these three Tests, owing to the fallibility of their fielding and its deflating effect.

Trevor Bayliss was appointed as England’s head coach a matter of days before the 2015 Ashes. He did not take his new players to Scotland for golf. He took them to Spain, and not because the pitches in Catalonia are seamer-friendly or those in Andalusia made for spinners.

England has been plagued by dropped catches in the Ashes series. Thursday’s drops included wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow (main) spilling a chance from Steve Smith and Joe Root (inset) putting down a high chance from Alex Carey.Credit: Reuters

In the absence of any Spanish turf pitches, Bayliss gave the England squad two days of tough fielding practice such as New South Welshmen relish, and it did wonders for their catching and morale, which are almost the same thing.

On three green-tops outside London, England respond by catching everything that moves, culminating in Ben Stokes’s catch while Stuart Broad was taking 8-15 at Trent Bridge, and England win 3-2, Ashes regained.

It has not been the same this summer. Instead of throwing a cordon of steel around Australia’s batsmen, England have put up a couple of colanders.

England would have had an image of invincibility if they had made New Zealand follow-on last spring, won that series 2-0, and caught their catches this summer, but they have lost three of their past four Tests and their fielders, and wicketkeeper, are radiating fallibility as they fluff their lines.

It was Jonny Bairstow’s two missed catches and stumping which deflated England and their supporters at Edgbaston. In his two championship games for Yorkshire, and the Ireland Test, he had little time standing up to spin and recovering his post-op flexibility. At his best, Bairstow as keeper does not make more than one major mistake per series. In the second Test at Lord’s, it was Ollie Pope’s drop at fourth slip that took the steam out of England in the opening session.

Bairstow’s dropping of Steve Smith in the first session of the third Test was near-theoretical: even Ben Foakes would not have caught it 10 out of 10. It was Bairstow’s drop down the leg side when Travis Head had made nine which corroded England’s confidence.

The rapid stand of 155 between Head and Mitchell Marsh might come to be seen as the passage of play which defines this match and wraps up this series for the tourists. England had a second chance to nip it in the bud when, straight after lunch, Marsh edged a hard-handed stab at Chris Woakes and down it went at first slip. The culprit? Joe Root, who has more catches in Test cricket for England than any other non-keeper in history.

Skipper Ben Stokes consoles Bairstow after a dropped chance on Thursday.Credit: Getty Images

“There is no such thing as an easy slip catch.” Well, that is a load of old rubbish. It’s like saying “he won’t mind that!” when a batsman edges James Anderson for four past leg stump. There are easy slip catches – when they rebound off the batsman’s pad and lob in the air (as happened when Zak Crawley eventually nabbed Marsh, albeit that was after Marsh had added another 106 runs to his total).

But of slip catches which have flown straight off the edge, this chance offered by Marsh to Root was as simple as can be. Hence Root’s graphic gesture when, having dropped a second chance – the one offered by Alex Carey off Mark Wood which he pushed over the bar – he finally caught one at the third attempt and flung it into the turf.

Root dropping Marsh was the real deflator. Taking Australia’s fifth wicket straight after lunch would have roused the crowd. England, while Wood was firing his rockets, had Australia on the ropes – and let them escape, again!

Speed guns can vary, but Wood bowled faster than any England bowler this correspondent has seen, alongside Wood’s own spell in St Lucia when he had eight slips backpedalling, and Jofra Archer’s at Lord’s when he had Steve Smith in his sights, both in 2019.

In the first two Tests of this series, Edgbaston and Lord’s were too slow for the edged ball to carry to the cordon: for the first fortnight of this series the grabbers waited in vain.

No such accusation against Headingley: it has been an ideal pitch so far, and the faster the pitch, the fewer hiding-places there are for the error-prone fielder.

Yet one circumstance mitigates. Once Steve Waugh had played county cricket for Somerset as well as for Australia, he observed that catching in general is harder in England. It is, he said, a matter of clothes: on a cool grey day, like yesterday in Leeds, spectators tend to wear darker clothes than in the Antipodean sun and therefore form a darker background. England might have a stronger foothold in this series if only Australia had brought more supporters in their yellow costumes.

Watch every ball of the 2023 Ashes series live and exclusive on Channel 9 and 9Now.

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