India news August 19, 2012

Headache and questions for selectors

Laxman's decision to retire 'with immediate effect' leaves one wondering about the job done by India's national selection panel

VVS Laxman is not a rude fellow at all, in fact quite the opposite. He was called mama (colloquial Hindi for uncle) by most of his team-mates for being quite avuncular.

What his retirement has done though, quite unintentionally, is fling a few eggs on selectorial faces. He announced his retirement on Saturday, just over a week after he had been named in the two Test-series against New Zealand.

A few hours before his formal press announcement, Laxman called chairman of selectors Kris Srikkanth, thanked the selectors for their "confidence" and "faith" in him, but said he was stepping out of the Indian cricket Big Top.

The back story buzzing around was about Laxman's deep hurt over the public criticism that he was holding up a younger man's spot once the team had been announced for the Tests versus New Zealand. It was widely expected on Saturday he was going to state that enough was enough and the New Zealand Tests were to be his last. It was the retirement "with immediate effect" though that knocked everyone sideways. His departure was declared emotional because he decided not to have a public farewell party in his home city.

In the midst of the hubbub, not for a minute, whether he was reading out his statement or answering questions on Saturday, did Laxman look fraught. Whatever had led him to take a completely unexpected decision had fallen away. He denied that critical comments had pushed him to take this sudden leap. When asked to list his major cricketing disappointments, he said on the day he wasn't going to look at his career that way. He thanked his parents for giving him "equanimity" to handle challenges. His retirement was met with howls of 'how' and 'why' rather than a single why not. Isn't that the essence of what retirements are supposed to be about?

Cricketers will always want to play; it is the only job they have, it is the only world they know. It is why the idea of retirement itself is very hard to accept. Laxman had been in training like a beast in recent months. In real terms, he was not 'holding up' the place of some tortured genius. (Real hold-ups took place in the 90s when fast bowlers waited for Kapil Dev to complete his record tally of wickets.) Sourav Ganguly would have guffawed at the idea. In England last year, when on commentary duty, Ganguly spoke of having retired "in anger", due to the prospect of a lurking selectorial axe. That there was a selectorial presence capable of having led Ganguly to the decision to quit, today, sounds completely astonishing.

In the aftermath of 8-0, by contrast, the Krishnamachari Srikkanth-led selection panel have only indulged in head-in-sand stuff. When it came to any astute handling of India's Test transition, these selectors have been completely remiss.

If Laxman was indeed deeply upset by what was being said from the outside about his presence in the team, so much so that he was pushed into immediate retirement, it would mean that those directly connected to the squad had not been doing their duty. His case required selectorial acumen and diplomacy, with an eye on the seasons that lay ahead. That lay in either giving Laxman the security to stay on or talking to him about his future with a countdown clock switched on. Over the last few months, it is obvious, nothing of the sort has happened.

When Laxman weighed his options and chose to walk off, he renounced a final Test in his home town, a chance to face the world's second-lowest ranked Test attack and so fulfil the very real prospect of crossing 9000 Test runs. Such low-hanging fruit could quieten much anger, hurt or emotion. Whatever his prime motivation for retirement, only a highly principled man could refuse to be tempted.

Laxman's retirement startled not just the general public but, revealingly, the selectors themselves. In the last six months, rather than behave like divas, two of India's greatest middle-order batsmen have timed their departures with great maturity. Like they had done in their cricket, India's golden generation - starting with Anil Kumble - in the final years of their cricket has also set the standard for conduct.

The presence of older players in the Test team was never the hurdle to order and progress. The selectors' lack of foresight was

Having done so, both Laxman and Rahul Dravid have given the selectors two free middle-order spots - on a plate. The next lot of selectors must prove that they can identify the right candidates, with an eye on South Africa 2013. Had Laxman been around for the series at home this season, that tour would have been the main point of argument against his place in the squad. The same argument must hold good even for the younger batsmen who follow.

Make no doubt. Many batsmen will jostle to head the queue against New Zealand. The selectors need to identify players with the home series against England and Australia in mind. This is not about putting pressure on inexperienced players or demanding they fill giant boots; like Virat Kohli, all they need to do is make distinct footmarks of their own. Ideally, not found retreating outside leg stump.

Following the World Cup victory, the Srikkanth selection committee was given a year's extension - and under the BCCI's current systems that meant one more year of an annual salary of Rs 45 lakh. In Test terms, however, they failed in their duties. Their glaring omissions with regards to a succession plan or tactical transition have quite furtively been passed on to the new committee as its collective headache.

The presence of older players in the Test team was never the hurdle to order and progress. The selectors' lack of foresight was. Now, with Laxman and Dravid's departure, the new panel must demonstrate greater wisdom and confidence.

The new panel of selectors, which is likely to be headed by Mohinder Amarnath, will pick the teams to play England and Australia at home. Along with filling in two middle-order spots, they will have a few more questions staring them in the face with reference to South Africa 2013: How is Zaheer Khan to be handled between now and then? How long must Ishant Sharma's rope be? What is the best way to have Virender Sehwag get his overseas mojo back? Who deserves to chosen as the lone attacking, wicket-taking spinner for away tours? This time next year, with 18 months to go for the 2015 World Cup, another question is going to pop up: What does Sachin Tendulkar want to achieve from his ODI career?

Unlike the young batsmen who must follow Laxman and Dravid, the standards to be matched by the new selectors are, fortunately and unfortunately, not very high ones.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo