For those watching cricket for the first time during the ICC World Twenty20 over the past two weeks, one of the first things that stands out is that with the exception of the wicketkeeper, the fielders in cricket are not allowed to wear gloves to field or catch the ball. Because the cricket ball is similar in size, weight and shape to a baseball and comes just as quickly off the bat when it is struck by a cricket batsman, viewers might get the impression that cricketers are a bit loony and risking injury in this way.
While cricketers are definitely an odd bunch in many regards, fielding without gloves is actually one of the less dangerous aspects of cricket. After all, this is a sport where it's well within the rules for the bowler to hurl a ball off the pitch aimed at the body, or the head, of the batsman at more than 90 mph.
Ground fielding in cricket nowadays borrows many of the athletic techniques used in baseball. Viewers will see cricketers doing baseball slides along the edge of the boundary to prevent the ball from going over the rope. Throwing at the stumps requires surgical precision in order to run out a batsman attempting to switch ends. Yet, something like a fielder giving chase and slapping the ball back inside the boundary rope is very similar to a gunner on a special teams unit in football running for the goal line and slapping the ball back toward the 5-yard line to prevent a touchback.
Catching a cricket ball in the air also requires a technique that is actually more akin to catching a football than a baseball. People automatically associate cricket with baseball in many regards, mainly because each sport uses a bat to hit a round ball. From watching some of the cricketers in this tournament, though, you'll see their athleticism transfers well beyond comparisons to baseball.
Some of the catches made, particularly those taken near the boundary in this tournament, more closely resemble similar plays in football, when a player gets into position for a catch. It's worth remembering that baseball players really only use one hand, the one with the webbed glove, to catch a line drive or a fly ball, whereas cricketers use both hands, bringing them together to latch onto the leather cricket ball like a football player would for the pigskin.
In a Super Eights match against England on Thursday, Kieron Pollard of the West Indies was fielding along the boundary when Jonny Bairstow hit a ball powerfully in his direction straight down the ground. Pollard ran 15-20 yards to his left, reached up with both hands and latched onto the ball while balancing his body on the run to stay inside the boundary. He looked like a wide receiver stretching out above his head to bring in a pass while making sure to stay balanced and come down with both feet in bounds. In the same game, Pollard's teammate Andre Russell pulled off an absurdly athletic maneuver to catch the ball over his head as he was going over the boundary before flinging it back inside the field of play to prevent six runs for England. It looked an awful lot like the way a football player would catch a ball while falling out of bounds.
In India's clash Sunday against Pakistan, Indian player Suresh Raina was fielding in the deep and took two good catches while stationed along the boundary. The first one was skied out to him and he settled under it almost like a kick returner would. The second catch, to dismiss Umar Akmal, looked like a catch a receiver would make on a comeback route, sliding underneath the ball on his knees to get underneath the ball both with his hands and his body to prevent it from hitting the ground.
Then there are the efforts made with a fielder diving forward, such as one Monday by England's Eoin Morgan against Sri Lanka. Mahela Jayawardene connected hard with the ball, sending it low toward Morgan, who was running in from deep. Morgan dove forward, doing his best impression of a cornerback or a safety diving in front of a receiver to scoop the ball in his hands just inches from the ground.
Football players may wear thin gloves whose main purpose is to help them grip the ball better, but in reality, football players are more or less catching the ball with their hands, not a webbed glove like a baseball player would. In that sense, the cricketer truly catches the ball a lot more like a football player does.
Catching barehanded in cricket is not any more dangerous than catching a football. But, as in football, there is some degree of difficulty involved. Anyone who has seen the fielding woes of Afghanistan or Pakistan in the World Twenty20 would know that catching is not something to be taken for granted. Yet watching some of the more dynamic athletes in the T20 such as Russell, Pollard, Raina and Morgan makes one appreciate just how transferable the skills from sports like football are to cricket, and vice versa.