September 30, 2008

Who after Ganguly?

It's all very well to talk of succession, but the new selectors have their work cut out to find replacements

That there isn't an unanimous choice for the No. 6 spot goes to show that the talk of a voluntary retirement scheme for the senior players is premature still © AFP

The peculiarities - and that's a charitable word - of the Indian system have ensured the Indian squad for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, which can rightfully claim to be the pinnacle of Test cricket this decade, will be picked by a fresh bunch of selectors. It's futile to even begin explaining why the choosing of the selectors should not have been linked to the BCCI elections. This seems a reprise of the lead-up to the 2007 World Cup, when the selection committee last changed, and Indian fans would rather not revisit the horrors of the Caribbean.

It is evident that to the BCCI the word "professional" equates to the payment of a salary. Thus the appointment of paid selectors fulfils the obligation to have professional selectors, no matter that the process of picking them remains just as arbitrary as it was before. If the BCCI were to embrace professionalism in the true sense, it would have followed a process. There is a standard process in companies for hiring employees who are vital to the future of a business, as the selectors are in this instance: invite applications, screen them and interview the shortlisted candidates.

Why pay the selectors merely Rs 25 lakh (approximately US$54,000) per annum? Why not a crore (approx $215,000), as Dilip Vengsarkar, the out-going chairman of selectors, has asked? That's what the members of the IPL's governing council earned for attending a couple of meetings. The national coach is paid more than a crore a year. And even the coach of the National Cricket Academy has a salary larger than what's proposed for the men charged with deciding the fate of India's elite cricketers. If the Indian board expects national selectors to take up full-time positions, it can certainly afford to make it worth their while. After all, who would want to be a selector, a job littered with more thorns than flowers, if you can make 20 times as much money doing commentary?

It is quite possible the members of the new selection committee have the vision, wisdom, integrity and strength of character required for the job. They will need all of those, for the challenge before them is immense. The scale of their immediate task, to pick a team to take on Australia, pales before what they need to accomplish over a year or so. The process of transition has already begun with India's one-day team, but it will be left to Kris Srikkanth and his colleagues to take the process forward. It will not be painless, and certainly not without rancour. But since it falls upon them to manage the future, they can't afford to be hasty.

The media has been full of speculation in the last couple of days about the future of India's ageing masters. That their departure, much more imminent now than a season ago, will carve a giant hole has been a concern for a while. But a bigger concern is that no obvious replacements are in sight. When Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid made their debuts together in 1996, they did so emphatically: there was no looking back. But not since Yuvraj Singh, whose failure to establish himself as a Test batsman has been one of Indian cricket's major disappointments, has there been a batsman who can be called a natural successor to the batting greats.

Let alone find replacements for Dravid and VVS Laxman, the selectors, if they choose the carry forward the process set in motion by their predecessors, will face a dilemma over filling Ganguly's place. Unlike when Ganguly was first dropped in 2006, there is no obvious replacement. In that sense, Indian Test cricket has gone backward.

For a brief period in Australia earlier this year, Rohit Sharma looked the part, but his form has since fallen away and his problems with shot selection have grown more acute. Test cricket demands all-round skills - a tight technique, the ability to see off difficult periods, the aptitude to construct an innings, and most of the all, the heart to come back the next day and build all over again. One of the consequences of acquiring fame by playing the shorter versions is that the rigours of preparing for Test cricket can suddenly seem onerous.

Aakash Chopra has done everything possible in the last season to win back his place in the team © Cricinfo Ltd

Both Rohit and Suresh Raina have shown that they can play a range of strokes and innovate when the situation demands, but their CVs fall short when it comes to the longer version. Rohit averages 37 in first-class cricket, with a lone century in 29 innings, while Raina averages nearly 48, with six centuries in 67 innings. The evidence is promising, but not yet compelling. There was good reason neither made it to the Rest of India team for the Irani Cup.

The two who did make it didn't do much to further their cases. Mohammad Kaif has been unable to establish himself in international cricket despite having been around for eight years. He can rue his misfortune: that his career has coincided with the greatest Indian middle order, but an honest self-appraisal will reveal that he has failed to make the most of the opportunities he has got. Though he has batted well in the last 12 months, the two failures in the Irani Cup would not have helped.

S Badrinath ticks most of the boxes. He has done the hard yards in domestic cricket; is a big-innings player; averages over 55 in first-class cricket, with 15 centuries; has a sound technique, and as glimpsed briefly in one innings in the one-day series in Sri Lanka, perhaps the temperament. However, Ishant Sharma made him hurry on a slow pitch in the Irani game, and while it will be unfair to judge him on one match, it will be fair to say that Badrinath, too, failed to grab his chance.

Given the team will be picked before the Board President's XI match against the Australians, in which both Kaif and Badrinath will take part, the selectors will have to back their instincts. And if they were to think laterally and pick the best batsmen available, regardless of batting positions, they could even put one more name in the hat.

Aakash Chopra has done everything possible in the last season to win back his place in the team. He has stacked up the runs, and got them big (1339 runs at 60.86, with five centuries). It always seemed a bit abrupt when he was dropped after three failures, and he was a little unfortunate not to be picked for the last tour to Australia. He has started the season well, and in the Irani Cup batted confidently and positively till a good ball from Munaf Patal accounted for him. If a call were to be made on who the six batsmen most likely to succeed against Australia are, Chopra can't be far away.

But the fact that there isn't an unanimous choice for the No. 6 spot goes to show that talk of a voluntary retirement scheme for the senior players is premature at best. And just before a huge series, plain outlandish.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo