November 2, 1999

Faulty team selection may prove to be a handicap

In six tours of Australia, India have played 25 Tests and the overall record makes for pretty dismal reading. Four rubbers have been lost and on two occasions the series has been shared. Out of the 25 Tests, India have won just three and lost as many as 16.

Past record has proved that faulty team selection has played its part in this sorry showing. The team in 1947-48 for example was selected along provincial lines and in fact Anthony De Mello, the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India was quoted proudly as saying that the entire map of India had been represented in the team selection. But then this was immediately after independence and so there must have been other considerations.

Twenty years later, there were some shock omissions. Among those who did not make the tour were Hanumant Singh, S.Venkatraghavan, BK Kunderan, Salim Durrani and ML Jaisimha (though he was sent later as a replacement). For the 1980-81 tour, Surinder Amarnath and Madan Lal were the notable players who missed out. The 1991-92 squad was top heavy in pace bowling and weak in the spin department and lost the five Test series 0-4.

If anything, it would appear that the selectors have not learnt any lessons from the reverses sustained on the previous tour. This time also there are five fast bowlers and only two spinners. Spin has been our traditional strength and the best tweakers have succeeded in any country and under any wicket and weather conditions. In Australia, Prasanna in 1967-68, Bedi and Chandrasekhar in 1977-78, Dilip Doshi and Shivlal Yadav in 1980-81, Yadav in 1985-86 and Ravi Shastri in 1991-92 have either really excelled or at least been among the wickets. With the exception of the peerless Kapil Dev on all his three visits, Indian medium pacers have rarely done well in Australia.

The Indian team picked for the Australian tour is again top heavy in pace bowling and weak in the spin department. Never has an Indian team for Australia contained as many as five pace bowlers (and a sixth in Ganguly who can also use the seam upright) and only two spin bowlers. Australian batsmen are traditionally weak against off spin but one cannot see a bowler like Harbhajan Singh troubling Steve Waugh and company, except perhaps at Sydney. And Anil Kumble's record away from home is not at all an encouraging factor. Which means it will be up to the seam attack to pick up most of the wickets and as I pointed out, Indian medium pacers have hardly ever come off in Australia. Here though one must applaud the selection of Tamil Nadu's Thirunavukarasu Kumaran. Whether he comes off or not, his selection is certainly a bold step.

The one considerable silver lining is that the batting is extremely strong. Never has an Indian batting line up in cricket history seen its top five batsmen in the order - Ramesh, Gandhi, Dravid, Tendulkar and Ganguly - all have a Test career average of 50 plus. The reserve batting - Ajay Jadeja, Vijay Bharadwaj and VVS Laxman - just about passes muster and taking only one wicketkeeper on a three month tour is foolhardy. The pressure on young MSK Prasad is going to be too much and this will in turn affect his overall performance. All in all, it would have been better if the side had a third spinner and a second wicketkeeper at the expense of one of the extra batsmen and a seam bowler.

Under the circumstances, the best the Indians can hope for against a pretty strong Australian outfit - particularly formidable at home - is that the batsmen come off every time to at least ensure a draw for the bowling does not inspire confidence.

The squad: Sachin Tendulkar (captain), Saurav Ganguly (vice captain), Ajay Jadeja, S.Ramesh, VVS Laxman, Devang Gandhi, Vijay Bharadwaj, Rahul Dravid, J.Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, D.Mohanty, A.Agarkar, T.Kumaran, MSK Prasad, A.Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. Coach: Kapil Dev.