Three comebacks, umpteen questions
Whichever way you look at it, Sourav Ganguly's selection in the Indian squad for Pakistan shows that not a lot has changed in the way Indian cricket is run. If we are to take Kiran More at face value and believe that Ganguly has been picked on cricketing merit, then the selection committee, which dropped him a fortnight ago on cricketing grounds, has come out looking as men lacking in both conviction and consistency. And if one were to read between the lines and understand the compulsions (orders from the top), then what do we make of the new regime?
There was a hint of irony in More's tone when he, then the chairman of a different selection committee, announced Ganguly's inclusion for the first Test against Sri Lanka. Ganguly, he said, had been picked as an allrounder at the expense of Zaheer Khan. Today, he looked a man cornered by the contradictions of his own public postures when he claimed that Ganguly had been considered as a middle-order batsman. Ganguly's record in recent months, he insisted, was still an issue, but he was picked for his experience.
The most significant reason advanced by More while dropping Ganguly after the Delhi Test, where he scored 39 and 40, still remained. Ganguly, he had then postured, could not find a place in the playing XI at the expense of Yuvraj Singh, who had youth, talent and form on his side. And it wasn't proper, More postured, to pick a man of Ganguly's stature and bench him. If anything, Yuvraj has since advanced his case even more strongly with a scintillating 77, that would have, at least temporarily, laid to rest his ghosts against the turning ball. There was a ridiculous suggestion from some quarters that Ganguly be accommodated as an opener, but as evident by their decision to pick three openers, it is obvious that the selectors have not entertained such a move.
Where does it leave us then? Either way, it is apparent that it is a decision influenced by public sentiments, or worse, political compulsions. Ganguly might not be able to see it now, but it does him no justice to be picked, not as an automatic choice, but through a process that's bound to create some delicate situations in Pakistan. It is no secret that neither the coach nor the captain wanted him on board. Pakistan will be tougher opponents now than when India played them last, and to compete, India will have to be focused and at their best. They can't afford to be distracted by the predicament over Ganguly.
It is clear that Ganguly wants to play for India desperately. He cannot be grudged that. If he can keep his hunger and rediscover some of his past form, he might still have something to offer to Indian cricket. But the circumstances in which he has been picked will not make it easy for him.
Some of his team-mates have been amused, that's putting it in the best possible way, with his seeking, and securing, a meeting with Sharad Pawar, the board president. Irrespective of Pawar's assertion that the board had not interfered with the selection process, even Ganguly's most loyal supporters will concede that the selection committee turnaround would not have been entirely voluntary. It would not have been lost on his team-mates. Till he gets a chance to play and manages to dispel his doubters with a convincing performance, he will carry a heavy burden.
A lot has been said in recent days about the treatment handed out to Ganguly. But are we sure this is the way we want to remember Ganguly? A cricketer who was foisted on a team as unwanted baggage. In a way, Ganguly would have gone away a hero had he never been picked again. It's uncertain now how the rest of his career will pan out. If he can manage to resurrect his career, it will count as one of most stunning comebacks against high odds in cricket history.
Meanwhile, there are a couple of other comebacks which will be overshadowed by Ganguly's return. Considered India's spearhead not so long ago, Zaheer has stuttered and stumbled, mostly due to, if team insiders are to be believed, his own approach towards fitness and learning. He has had problems with both John Wright and Greg Chappell, and he has let the team down by turning up cold in crucial matches. Zaheer's decline became even more glaring because it coincided with the spectacular rise of Irfan Pathan, once his junior partner in Baroda, who has not only grown as a player, but as a committed team player. Hopefully, he has spent his time outside the national team well. This could be a make or break tour for him.
But while Zaheer's return was anticipated, Parthiv Patel has made a surprise, but not unwarranted, comeback. His temperament for Test cricket had never been in doubt. Pushed in to open in the Rawalpaindi Test during the last tour to Pakistan, he made a gutsy 69 that laid the foundation for a memorable series win. But he had to be dropped because India could no longer afford his profligacy behind the stumps. But by all accounts, his glovework has improved, and given Dinesh Karthik's indifferent run with the bat, Patel may be the best option for a reserve wicketkeeper.
Mohammed Kaif must consider himself unlucky to miss out. He has been on the precipice of the Test side without ever getting a run. But he didn't help his cause with two failures in the last Test. And barring injury, he would not have made it to the Test team. He is young. His turn will come.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo