India's tough selection policies bear fruit
When you saw India jubilant in England after winning the Champions Trophy, you couldn't help but go back to the second day of the Kolkata Test last year, against the same opponents. England ended that day at 216 for 1, a day that summed up everything that was wrong with Indian cricket: lacklustre bowlers, poor catching, fielders who didn't want to be there and probably - as a consequence of these factors - a defensive captain. Cruelly, that day, the team management sent Trevor Penney, the fielding coach, for the press conference.
Penney had no explanation for India's poor fielding. Rather, he didn't have an explanation he could speak publicly about. The team was carrying at least four players whose contributions in their first discipline had long ago begun to pale in comparison with their poor fielding. And then there was R Ashwin, who had lost form, or patience. While Ashwin's issue was personal, and he has addressed it with aplomb, the other rot was systemic. And it won't be unfair to believe that - yet again - amid the debris in Kolkata, India began a turnaround.
Only this time it began in a selection committee meeting. And this panel led by Sandeep Patil has clearly shown that the scorn heaped on Kris Srikkanth and Co was earned and deserved. One by one, they dropped, Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, in that order. Look at the replacements. M Vijay has scored more Test centuries in one series than Sehwag did in two years. Shikhar Dhawan outdid in one Test Gambhir's achievements over the last three years. Debatably Yuvraj's ODI place went to Ravindra Jadeja, and the results are for all to see. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has not let India miss Zaheer yet, although that arrangement could change.
The obvious question that will arise is: if it was that simple, why didn't the team management ring in the changes? They had the reserves in the squad. First, it wasn't that simple. While improvement was guaranteed - it was scarcely possible to do worse than the outgoing players - such a huge improvement has been surprising. More importantly, though, the captain just can't drop seniors in India, or in many other teams.
Call it the team management's weakness, call it a cultural weakness, call it whatever, but the Indian team management had time and again made it clear that if the underperforming players were part of the squad, they would be part of the playing XI too. All four of the players dropped - despite their poor record - were part of the playing XIs before they were dropped altogether. Zaheer and Yuvraj played the Kolkata Test, which is when the selectors met. Gambhir played the last Test of the series, and was only dropped after it. Sehwag played on until the mid-series selection in the next series.
Only once had MS Dhoni tried to disturb the apple cart when he decided during the 2012 CB series in Australia that Sehwag, Gambhir and Sachin Tendulkar could not be part of the same playing XI because that meant giving the opposition a headstart of 20 runs. Clearly it was not well received. Sehwag, who never really opens up in press conferences, chose to selectively give out details from the team meeting. There was bad blood. Dhoni was criticised for looking ahead, and he didn't have any backing from the selectors.
Earlier on that tour, when India lost every Test with the same set of batsmen batting in the same sequence, the touring selectors enquired with the team management if they had given thought to leaving out VVS Laxman who had been faring poorly in particular. They were told squarely that the selectors would have to do that. And the selectors weren't going to touch the seniors. Somebody needed to make the unpopular calls, and Patil's group has begun to do so. It's not as if the previous selectors didn't have reason to make changes; India had lost eight away Tests in a row.
Dhoni's refusal to disturb the status quo had another ugly side. The previous selection committee knew there would be little room for a new player in the XI even if they selected him in the squad. It came to head when - bizarrely - India selected a 15-man squad with just six batsmen for the Nagpur Test against South Africa in 2010. One of those six was uncapped, and had not found his way into the XI previously. It was clear the captain's hand was being forced here.
How it backfired. One of the six fell ill, his last-minute replacement injured himself just before the toss, and Wriddhiman Saha had to make Test debut as a specialist batsman. The chairman of that selection committee is now a paid expert on a TV channel, and questions Dhoni's captaincy even though he did nothing about it when he was in a position to do so. Dhoni's captaincy is an issue for another day.
Crucially, now, the selectors have decided to make the calls that will not be liked. They were criticised for dropping Yuvraj for the Champions Trophy, arguably India's biggest match-winner in ODIs after Tendulkar and before Dhoni. The selectors, though, looked at just the performance: 181 runs in the last 10 ODIs, and not at the peak of his fitness.
Consequently, for the first time possibly since India began rebuilding under Sourav Ganguly and John Wright, they had a squad of 15 that were at their best fitness. Ashwin made up for his slowness with some good slip-catching. Ishant Sharma is never short of effort, and Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar kept themselves inconspicuous in the field, which was a job well done. Thirteen of the 15 had earned their places with performances in either recent international cricket or domestic matches. Rohit Sharma and Ishant were picked because of a lack of alternatives, but they were not what you would call blind prayers. Patil and team can afford themselves a quiet pat on their backs.
India can't afford to get ahead of themselves. They must enjoy this, and they will, but the ultimate test awaits when they begin touring away for Tests, at the end of this year. That will tell you for sure what the real progress has been. However, this combine of team management and selectors has already done better than the previous leadership, in that they have tried to stop that treadmill of defeat. Not trying to do so was the most frustrating part of India's poor show from July 2011 to January 2013.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo