March 6, 2010

Selection stalls Canada's progress

They're among the most talented and promising of the Associate teams, but the lack of a coherent selection policy is hurting them plenty

In late January a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Canadian team embarked for Sri Lanka to play some warm-up matches ahead of the World Twenty20 Qualifiers in the UAE, which were to be followed by two ODIs and a four-day Intercontinental Cup match against Afghanistan. One month, 13 matches, 11 losses and 22 players later, Canadian cricket finds itself stuck in the mud yet again, directionless and unsure of itself.

As the man in charge of the High Performance Program at Cricket Canada, the team's poor display has hit Ravin Moorthy particularly hard. "There's no doubt that this has set us back. We need to now have a review and an honest assessment of what went wrong. The scope of the failure, the way we lost to Kenya and UAE was unacceptable. And after scoring 566 in the first innings against Afghanistan, there's no excuse for losing the Intercontinental Cup match. There will need to be changes and everything is on the table".

This is as forthright an appraisal as has ever come out of Cricket Canada, an organisation that typically appears gleefully oblivious of what is really happening in its midst. With the World Cup a year away it is unlikely that the coach or captain will be changed, but team selection will undoubtedly come under the microscope.

In 2008 the ICC expressed concern to Cricket Canada over the fact that 30-odd players had represented Canada that year. Cricket Canada went on to take steps to address the issue, by identifying a core group of players, offering them central contracts and appointing as captain the wicketkeeper and frontline batsman Ashish Bagai. But those positive steps now seem for nought, with 22 players having taken the field for Canada in the 13 matches played between January 23 and February 23 of this year. The unsettled batting order from match to match screamed of chaotic, off-the-cuff decision-making. Hiral Patel went from opening the batting to coming in at No. 11 in a matter of days. Other top-order batsmen like Ramesh David and Usman Limbada also found themselves pencilled in at Nos. 10 and 11.

Besides the sheer number of players turning out for the side, a further sign of regression is the resurfacing of the old debate of whether players not based in Canada, specifically John Davison, Ian Billcliff and Geoff Barnett, should be drafted into the side for higher-profile tournaments without having to be part of the team on a day-to-day basis. There is no doubt that on paper Canada is a better team when the trio are present, but their collective failure in the Twenty20 Qualifiers is enough for many critics to forget how essential their efforts were in allowing Canada to qualify for the 2011 World Cup. Moving forward, Cricket Canada must finally settle the issue of whether it wants to put its best available 11 players on the field regardless of where they come from, with any consequent issues of prickly team chemistry being the responsibility of the captain and coach to sort out. For Moorthy there is a grey area. "We have to see the value of what we get out of our [overseas] players," he says, meaning in effect that if Barnett for all his professional experience is only performing marginally better than someone like Hiral Patel, then the latter will get the nod.

Moving forward, Cricket Canada must finally settle the issue of whether it wants to put its best available 11 players on the field regardless of where they come from, with any consequent issues of prickly team chemistry being the responsibility of the captain and coach to sort out

The question remains of how such a policy will be framed or enacted. Given there is an interim president at the helm, and a CEO who has been reduced to being a paper pusher, Cricket Canada lacks anyone with the moral authority to set forth a vision or a renewed selection policy - essential for an organisation that appears unsure how to evaluate its player pool or have transparency in its operations.

The selection of 15-year-old Nitish Kumar is a case in point. As a precocious talent with a compelling personal story of hardship, he has been on the radar of cricket watchers in Canada for a number of years. But the manner in which Kumar has been thrown into international cricket is both unseemly and imprudent. It is not inconceivable, given his tender age and abundant talent, that Kumar will be part of the Canadian team for the next 25 years. But at present his selection ahead of more deserving players is troubling. Kumar's stats compare unfavourably even with his Under-19 colleagues, Hiral Patel, Usman Limbada and Darius D'Souza, all of whom have scored more runs with better averages and higher strike rates in both the Under-19 World Cup qualifiers, held in Canada last year, and at the Under-19 World Cup itself. Kumar's first-innings 74 against Afghanistan in the Intercontinental Cup is proof of his talent, but cannot justify his selection in light of his Under-19 record and his only other first-class match.

Though Canadian cricket is in the doldrums, Moorthy still considers the side one of the top Associate teams. "On current form Afghanistan are probably the best Associate team and you could make a case for Ireland, but we have something that other countries don't have and that's a steady stream of young talent." Forging a genuine team out of that talent, however, remains a work in progress.

Faraz Sarwat is a cricket writer for the Toronto Star and the author of The Cricket World Cup: History, Highlights, Facts and Figures