October 2, 2008

Many questions, no answers

India's selectors had a lot of explaining to do, particularly about the inclusion of Sourav Ganguly, but there was no open, transparent media interaction

Kris Srikkanth was, for once, short of words © AFP

The moment this sorry saga came into sharp focus was when Krishnamachari Srikkanth was caught by the media mob outside the BCCI headquarters after he had overseen his first selection meeting. Srikkanth is among the more loquacious former cricketers and on any other occasion he would have given a stream of soundbytes. In his new avatar, though, he was forced to rein himself in: "I would like to explain but the board has issued instructions that we are not to speak," he began, before adding a couple of non-sequiturs about the squad he had picked.

A pity, because there was quite a bit of explaining for Srikkanth to do. The summoning of Amit Mishra from the cold, for example, or the exclusion of Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma. Most significantly, though, he would have been asked for the logic in retaining Sourav Ganguly, who yet again became the focal point of a pre-series selection committee meeting.

Ganguly's inclusion - following a build-up fairly dramatic even by his own standards - is surprising, and ultimately controversial, because it flies in the face of all indications of the past two months. After a dismal series in Sri Lanka, Ganguly's neck was on the block; when he was excluded from the Rest of India squad for the Irani Cup, and then for the Board President's XI to face the Australians, the writing was fairly clear on the wall.

Now, within four days of a new selection panel taking charge, he's back.

It's that 180-degree change that requires an explanation, though of course the BCCI has never been known for its transparency - or, in terms of player selection, consistency. Remember, this is the second time Ganguly has benefited from a change in selectors: when Dilip Vengsarkar took over as chairman two years ago, Ganguly returned from the exile imposed on him by Greg Chappell.

This sudden about-turn in position can be unsettling - for the player, for his team-mates, his captain and coach, and for the system as a whole. Ganguly now finds himself on the fast track to match fitness via an India A game; his captain, Anil Kumble, and coach, Gary Kirsten, will have to change their game plan for the first Test somewhat. It is likely they would have planned that match without him, perhaps using as their template the Irani Cup where the fielding of Mohammad Kaif and S Badrinath lifted the Rest of India side.

It is also a mixed message on the overall selection policy. Is it targeted towards youth, as the previous panel indicated? In fact, Ganguly's exclusion from the Irani side was meant to be a "signal" to the rest of the senior players, as one selector of the day told Cricinfo: the first step towards dismantling the Fab Five. Wednesday would have been the perfect opportunity for Srikkanth to set out in public the agenda he and his colleagues plan to pursue over the next few months.

It is fair to say that every selection panel should have the freedom to carry out its own policies, but the point is that Srikkanth's panel had to pick a side for arguably the most important Test series of its tenure, four days after taking charge. Couldn't Vengsarkar's panel have picked the squad for this tour and then gone out? Or, a far more subversive thought, is there really a need for selection panels to change along with the administration?

An open, transparent media interaction with Srikkanth could also have helped dispel the growing speculation that Ganguly's inclusion was part of a "deal", an exit package. A Test series is not the place to make "VRS deals". You do not compromise the selection process, and thereby the most important series for India, because you want someone to "retire gracefully".

Finally, it could have enabled some questioning of the wisdom in choosing Ganguly - a player unarguably out of form and in the twilight of his career - over a youngster in the middle order so that three years down the line, when these two sides next meet in Tests, the spine of India's batting would not be completely new to the Australian way.

Couldn't Vengsarkar's panel have picked the squad for this tour and then gone out? Or, a far more subversive thought, is there a need for selection panels to change along with the administration?

That would have been the way ahead, and Ganguly, in the present circumstances, offers the best opportunity to blood a youngster. Of the so-called Fab Four middle-order batsmen, Ganguly's case is the weakest. In the last Test series, against Sri Lanka, VVS Laxman scored the most runs among the four, followed by Rahul Dravid and Ganguly. The three rank in the same order on runs scored in Tests played since January 1.

The difference is accentuated by the add-ons. Ganguly is not a close-in fielder; he has to be hidden on the field and can be an embarrassment in the outfield. Dravid and Laxman are both excellent slip catchers; the first is statistically India's finest slip fielder ever (and closing in on the world record), the second has been in exceptional form of late.

In any case, Laxman is one of the first names pencilled into any side facing Australia, and he also has time on his side; he is more than two years younger than Ganguly. Dravid is several streets ahead of Ganguly in terms of Test batting achievements and also has a better record against Australia, both of which ensure he deserves a longer rope in the middle of a horrendous batting slump.

Playing Ganguly is not a disaster. He does have the weight of experience, he knows how to get up Australian noses, and in the most recent series against them scored two half-centuries and two spiky 40s. His performances at home over the past 12 months haven't been half bad either. And, for those who say he should quit while he's still ahead, he has the unerring, maddening habit of proving his detractors wrong.

Yet he has not threatened, since that epochal double-century in Bangalore last year, to build on the starts; rarely did those half-centuries, except a gem on a Kanpur minefield, look like they were centuries nipped in the bud. He has looked like a player running on his reserves, not one for the future. Was there no one in better form, or with better confidence, greater promise for the future, to walk out at the Chinnaswamy Stadium on October 9?

So many questions, and not for the first time, no one to answer them. The more the board changes, the more it remains the same.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo in India