September 28, 2011

How can India's selectors be trusted?

How do we begin to evaluate their judgement in taking punts on players if we are forever confronted with the elementary errors they persist in making?

John Buchanan's success with Australia is often credited to his being at the right place at the right time. He seems to have lost that sense of time and place ever since he finished with that world-beating side. When he came up with his idea of revolving captains in Twenty20 cricket, he couldn't have chosen a place more unsuitable for the experiment than Kolkata, given their unconditional love for Sourav Ganguly. Working with New Zealand now, Buchanan has put forth the concept of an administrative selection manager, a man who will maintain a record of players' statistics, fitness, availability and suchlike. Sorry Buck, wrong place again: if any national team needs such an administrative selection manager it is India, not New Zealand.

Consider last week's selection of the Rest of India squad for the Irani Cup. The BCCI release included a "B Suval" as one of the men to play the Ranji champions, Rajasthan. It left those who like to think they know domestic cricket scratching their heads. Forty-three minutes later, the next BCCI release revealed B Suval was actually the Delhi left-arm quick Pawan Suyal, who took 22 first-class wickets at 23.81 in the season gone by. However, 24 hours earlier, a Champions League Twenty20 release had said that Suyal was one of many injured Mumbai Indians players (which spate of injuries had resulted in the team being allowed the use of five overseas players). Suyal himself said he expected to be match-fit only in December.

The BCCI's email correcting the spelling of Suyal's name also mentioned that Jharkhand batsman Ishank Jaggi, originally included in the squad, was now excluded because of an injury. Jaggi's state association said he was fit and had been practising with the state team in their pre-Ranji camp. The selectors thought he was unfit because the NCA physio had reported to them that he needed surgery. The Jharkhand Cricket Association told the Indian Express that the said physio failed to get Jaggi an appointment with the surgeon, Andrew Wallace, and that the BCCI-appointed doctor, Anant Joshi, later advised that Jaggi no longer needed surgery. Jaggi wasn't given a fitness test before the selection and the non-selection.

Had this been a first, it could actually have been funny - in a dark way, of course, coming as it does on the heels of a tour marred by injury. Kris Srikkanth and friends, though, come with a rich history of similar fiascos, which suggests they have serious trouble with basic mathematics, and lack both the courtesy of making telephone calls to check on talent, as well as proactiveness when somebody gets injured during a big series. Since most of them have earned an extension to their terms recently, their shortcomings are worth reiterating.

In February 2010, India began the defence of their No. 1 ranking with a Test against South Africa in Nagpur. Rahul Dravid was injured, VVS Laxman half-fit, recovering from a thumb injury. The 15-man squad for that Test included four fast bowlers, three spinners, two wicketkeepers and just six specialist batsmen, one of whom was the half-fit Laxman. Thankfully the Board President's XI was playing in the same city, and Rohit Sharma was belatedly asked to stay back. However, it wouldn't have been fair if the selectors had got away that easy. On the morning of the match Rohit injured himself, and Wriddhiman Saha debuted without a specific role in the side: not a batsman, not a bowler, not a wicketkeeper.

After that disastrous Test, Srikkanth, who as a rule doesn't discuss selection matters with the press, made an appearance on CNN-IBN, the TV channel for whom he used to serve as a cricket expert, and said, "As the chairman of the selection panel, I am willing to own up responsibility. It's a lesson learnt, and from now on we will not select players who are not 100% fit... The whole thing would not have blown up had Rohit played." The channel omitted to ask him why only six batsmen were picked in the squad, especially when one of them was not fully fit.

An example of more insincere "owning up" will be hard to find. The selectors had not learned a lesson from having picked a half-fit Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan for the 2009 World Twenty20, nor did the Nagpur goof-up stop them from sending a 16-man ODI squad to Zimbabwe, which included four specialist batsmen and a pair each of allrounders and wicketkeepers - Yusuf Pathan and Ravindra Jadeja, and Naman Ojha and Dinesh Karthik - of whom only one each fits in an ideal ODI line-up.

It is no sin to pick half-fit players; doing so can be regarded as taking a punt, acting on a selectorial hunch. The real sin is picking unbalanced sides, which Srikkanth has never owned up to doing. Given that his panel has got an extension, and that the selectors are barred from talking to the press, it is unlikely he has ever been held accountable.

It was a punt that sent Zaheer and Sehwag on the recent England tour. However, even though they learned Sehwag wouldn't be available for the first two Tests, the selectors sent only two openers, one an untested rookie, to the most testing place for openers. There was no cover for injury or the potential failure of the newcomer. Consequently Rahul Dravid had to open in the second Test.

No longer is the post of selector an honorary one. They aren't now the unpaid and generous former cricketers who "do this for the good of the game". This committee is paid, and paid well

When Zaheer broke down on the first day of the series, Andrew Flintoff tweeted, "If Zaheer doesn't come back on there goes the number 1 spot!" Sitting in Dubai, Flintoff knew just how much Zaheer's absence could hurt India. You can't blame the selectors for Zaheer's breakdown, but you would have expected them to immediately get on the phone with the team physio, and to keep calling him every day for fitness updates; and to have arranged to send a replacement over at the earliest if Zaheer was found not able to play again.

As it turned out Zaheer didn't return in the Test series, but the selectors picked him for the limited-overs leg of the tour. Only to be told the following day that Zaheer's injury was so serious that he would be out of action for 16 weeks. Consequently the replacement bowler, RP Singh, had to cut short his vacation in Miami and go through an embarrassing return to Test cricket - a return that will be counted against him in future selections. Now unless the team management was fiercely secretive about Zaheer's fitness, the selectors had no excuse for finding out the extent of the injury virtually through a media release.

If Saha and RP Singh are unwitting villains, Srikkanth's own son, Anirudha, hasn't had the best of deals either. Just before the England tour, India sent a team to Australia for the Emerging Players Tournament, which ceased being a one-day event this year. The format change was not only communicated to but also formally approved by the participating teams, but the selectors picked Anirudha, who though a decent one-day and Twenty20 batsman, struggles to find a place in the Tamil Nadu first-class side. Had the selectors done their homework, Srikkanth would have been spared the charges of nepotism that followed. And at least Anirudha wouldn't have been unnecessarily drawn into it all.

Not long ago, none of these basic blunders was out of place in Indian cricket. Cricketers have made international trips by virtue of having a name similar to that of a more deserving player. No longer, though, is the post of selector an honorary one. They aren't the unpaid and generous former cricketers who "do this for the good of the game". This committee is paid, and paid well.

The new BCCI secretary and convenor of selectors, Sanjay Jagdale, however, doesn't think that's enough to warrant professionalism. "We have the main players on our database, but we are not aware of injuries to every single first-class cricketer in the country," he told the Indian Express. It doesn't need repeating that the selectors were not aware of the extent of Zaheer's injuries - hardly somebody you would dismiss as one of "every single first-class cricketer in the country" - when he was selected for the ODIs in England.

All of these are just the tangible failures of this committee. The other set of criticisms is more subjective. To ask them, among other things, how Jaydev Unadkat was given a Test debut before Praveen Kumar, or why they keep turning to Dravid at the first sight of trouble in ODIs, or why they play musical chairs with Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha, or why they never thought of Murali Kartik if neither back-up spinner was worth a decent run, or why their decisions lack foresight, direction and continuity, is to pit your judgement against theirs.

Selection is largely about judgement. It involves making calls about quality, and requires keen, unbiased eyes that can spot talent, and intuition and experience that help spot future stars from the way they hold the bat - or, at times, despite the way they hold the bat. You must account also for tugs of war between the selectors and team management. You would want to trust these former cricketers with those intangible calls, you'd give them elbow room for mistakes. But given their track record for basic negligence, can you?

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo