February 12, 2010

The curious cases of Raina and Saha

One is yet to prove his first-class credentials, the other did not get a chance to prove his skills behind the stumps in Nagpur

For a better part of its tenure, this Indian selection committee, like good umpires and obedient children, has neither been seen nor heard. That is a good thing. The desire to rush to the media is a sign of insecurity. This committee, like its predecessor, has rarely done anything outrageous. Except for dropping Rahul Dravid after a successful recall, it has done a good job. Hence my concern over two rather bizarre selections this week.

That does not include the selection of VVS Laxman. In fact I believe it was right to pick him for Nagpur if there was a decent chance of him turning up fit on the morning of the game. They provided cover for him by asking Rohit Sharma to stay back, and while you might argue with the choice of Sharma, you cannot with the idea. You cannot budget for someone hobbling out 15 minutes before a game because he was playing football. That happens but some good might still come out of it. The team might stop playing football and touch rugby and such allied nonsense before a game.

But I was very confused with the selection, and the dropping, of Wriddhiman Saha. He was an unusual choice, to be honest, but one that I suspect was dictated by a degree of disappointment with Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel as wicketkeepers. It was clear that Saha was picked as a back-up keeper, since he is not yet in the league of Karthik or Patel as a batsman. Not having seen Saha keep this year, I thought it was only fair to go with the selectors' assessment, though I was quite happy that the trend of picking batsmen-keepers was being reversed. Over five days, the better keeper plays; over a day or three hours, the batting skills might acquire greater weight.

But in Nagpur we didn't see Saha keep. He batted with some pluck in one of the two innings, but that was irrelevant if the original intent was to pick the best back-up keeper. Now in the week between the dropping of Karthik and his eventual re-selection, he made 333 runs in a Duleep Trophy final but I am not sure anyone knew more about him as a keeper than they did when he was actually left out. So we need to ask the question: has Karthik been picked as a reserve keeper or as a reserve batsman who can keep if needed? And if it's the former, what has changed in a week? Confused? You have a right to be.

In domestic cricket, players are told to knock the selectors' door down with sheer numbers. Raina's was, at best, a feeble knock. He should eat his cake very quickly for fear that it was delivered to the wrong address

But Saha's loss was Suresh Raina's gain. As a one-day batsman, he earns his place in the side on the weight of performance. But in any game longer than a day, those performances start to get thinner. In domestic cricket, players are told to knock the selectors' door down with sheer numbers. Raina's was, at best, a feeble knock. He should eat his cake very quickly for fear that it was delivered to the wrong address!

In seven first-class innings this season he has scored 292 runs at 41.71, with no century. In a year of heavy run-getting, those are ordinary numbers and he has been comfortably out-batted by many peers. Virat Kohli averages 86 from seven innings with 138 runs more; Cheteshwar Pujara has 741 from 10 innings at 82.33; and Manish Pandey has 882 from 16 innings at 59 with four centuries. And these are stats of only middle-order players. Abhinav Mukund, Ajinkya Rahane and Patel have pretty impressive numbers as well. Experience might have been a factor. Raina has played a lot of international cricket and there is something to be said about feeling comfortable in that environment. In which case Kohli, who has shown great maturity at the crease, should have got the nod. And while Raina is one of India's cleanest strikers and a good finisher in a limited-overs game, his relationship with the short-pitched ball is marked by discomfort. If the bowler is at the top of his run, Raina will not look forward to a bouncer from him. Indeed, part of the reason India had to go back to Dravid for the Champions Trophy was that the new generation, the Rainas and the Rohits, found the short ball a little too hot to handle. It is also a length the South African bowlers don't mind.

But Raina and Saha are only sub-plots. Neither can solve the graver problem: one of taking 20 wickets. It is far more important than an appeal to the ICC over the Feroz Shah Kotla.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer