January 2, 2000

The Agarkar horror story

S Jagadish

The Indian selectors named the squad for the Carlton United Series last week. One of the omissions was Tamil Nadu's T Kumaran. Kumaran performed well in the two one-day internationals he played against New Zealand and also in the first couple of tour games in Australia. In the very first tour game against Queensland, he took 5 wickets in Queensland's first innings. In the game against the Prime Minister's XI, he took 3 wickets as Symonds and Fitzgerald thrashed the bowling around. At that point on the tour, it seemed very likely that Kumaran would make his test debut at Adelaide as the third seamer along with Srinath and possibly Prasad.

Agarkar made 65 in India's second innings against New South Wales and that tilted the scales in his favour. Agarkar's performances with the ball were nowhere near Kumaran's before the test. The team management however decided that going in with Agarkar would be a better option because he provided them with a less brittle lower order. This, despite Kumaran's decent batting in the one-day games against New Zealand and the first few tour games.

Agarkar went on to play at Adelaide. His bowling in Australia's first innings was pretty shabby. But he did seem to justify his inclusion with a good contribution in the Indian innings along with the other tailenders. It was in India's second innings that his horror story started.

With India in tatters at 93/6 chasing 396 to win, Agarkar guided the first ball he received straight to Steve Waugh. In the next test at Melbourne, Agarkar's bowling was of a very high quality. But you couldnt say the same of his batting. In India's first innings, he was hit on the pads on the full by Brett Lee and was in front of his stumps.

Surely things couldn't get worse. But they did. In the second innings, he fell first ball to Mark Waugh of all people. Srinath had by now remembered to make sure he was padded off the moment Agarkar's name was put up in the lineup. Bob Holland holds the record with 5 consecutive ducks. Mohinder Amarnath had scores of 0,0,1,0,0 & 0 against West Indies in the 1983/84 series at home. But surely four first-ball ducks in three consecutive innings was a feat never accomplished before. Could it be bettered ? Who would ?

Agarkar did it again today at Melbourne. He gave the easiest of catches to Mark Waugh. Mark Waugh was nicknamed Audi after he collected consecutive pairs during Australia's test series in Sri Lanka in 1992. Ajit Agarkar could in fact do one better because he still has one more test innings to go in Australia ! Perhaps Olympic is a good nick for him. Srinath has now saved 3 out of 4 hat-tricks with his batting prowess thanks to Agarkar.

If Agarkar was chosen on the basis of his batting prowess and he is performing badly with the bat, then why was Kumaran sent back and Mohanty retained even though Kumaran's bowling has been far better than anything Mohanty managed ?

The other strange selection has been Sameer Dighe as wicketkeeper. A few days ago, Nayan Mongia was sent back because MSK Prasad had recovered from his injury. Mongia was in fact not selected for the tour originally because the selectors and team management felt that MSK Prasad was a good investment for the future. So why the sudden turn around ? Has MSK Prasad's keeping or batting deteriorated so much between December 26th and 30th that he was no longer good enough for a spot in the side ? If the selectors were investing in youth then why is a 31 year old wicketkeeper replacing a 24 year old ?

It might be worth recalling that Tendulkar insisted on Mumbai's Nilesh Kulkarni replacing Sunil Joshi during the test series against New Zealand. When MSK Prasad injured himself earlier during this tour, the team management had requested specifically for Sameer Dighe to be the replacement. Instead they got Nayan Mongia. This time though they seem to have had their way.

Kumaran's exclusion in favour of Agarkar, Dighe's inclusion in place of MSK Prasad and the way Tendulkar openly indicated during the NZ series that he wanted Kulkarni in the squad instead of Joshi do seem to indicate that Tendulkar is more comfortable with things when he has his Mumbai mates around him. Should the captain and indeed the other members of the team management have their way all the time ?

There have been many cases where the selectors have never heeded the captains advice. Tendulkar has himself been a victim of this when his request for a fast/medium bowler replacing an injured Srinath for the 1997 tour of the West Indies was tossed aside by the selectors. Noel "Who ?" David was sent as the replacement. It is a tight rope for the selectors to walk. We do long for the day when Indian teams will be selected on cricketing ability rather than regional considerations and "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" situations.