February 29, 2012

The same old selection cop-out

India's selectors could have used the Asia Cup to send a message to some players, or to try out a team for the future. They did neither

The day before the squad for the Asia Cup was going to be picked, India's selectors indicated that their meeting in Mumbai was going to be "pivotal," one of their toughest.

About time, too. It was to be the meeting where serious decisions would be made following India's nightmare tours of England and Australia and, before Virat Kohli's century in Hobart, their below-average performance in the CB Series.

The selectors' hard calls could even have been bolstered by the fact that a low-profile regional event in Bangladesh would have been the ideal "soft launch" for a fresh core of ODI players. The meeting took more than two hours, but far from being pivotal, the results of those confabulations were timid, pitiful even.

By trying to sugarcoat their decisions with sweeping statements, the selectors ceded their power and self-censored their voice. A cursory look at the team beggared belief, and the theatrical explanations given by Kris Srikkanth to the media scrum at BCCI headquarters belonged to the theatre of the absurd.

It is astonishing that more than two hours of meaningful discussion produced this: a team composition that is neither radical reform nor short-term gamble with long-term benefit in mind. The selectors brushed aside MS Dhoni's incendiary speech about slow legs and the 2015 World Cup and gave Indian cricket some more same old, same old.

After a forgettable tour of Australia, players, we are told, have been "rested" because of injury and not dropped. "It is purely on injury grounds both [Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan] have been rested," Srikkanth said. "I can assure you that nobody has been dropped." It is a shame that an unfavourable fitness report made the decisions for the selectors, instead of them making it themselves. It is likely, though, that "rested" would have been the party line no matter what.

Regardless of injuries, the selectors also needed to send out a strong message. Not dropping underperforming players is telling every man on the team that, in some cases, poor performance and brittle fitness levels need not have any consequences. Umesh Yadav will wonder if his progress in Australia is to be bracketed with Sehwag and Suresh Raina's scores, and Zaheer's up-and-down fitness levels. Six months of "rest" from the Indian team are unlikely to dent pride or change habits. Players will coast if selectors let them coast.

So much for tough and pivotal decisions.

The most glaring selection or un-selection, however, is Sachin Tendulkar going to Dhaka. Tendulkar's future in one-day internationals has gone from being the elephant in the room to the whole zoo. The selectors, though, chose to look the other way.

Over the last three years Tendulkar scaled down his involvement in ODIs: after the 2007 World Cup he played 12 matches in 2008, 21 in 2009, two in 2010, and 11 in 2011, of which nine were in the World Cup. This CB Series is his first one-day appearance since that tournament.

Until 2011, Tendulkar seemed to be pacing himself for the World Cup, a mission that was inspirational - in how he found a higher gear again - and moving. If he was choosing when and where he wanted to play until February 2011, it was both understood and accepted.

After the Cup was finally won, however, things have gone woozy. The facts, though, are clear. Tendulkar seems to have set out his plan - he will play ODIs when he thinks he can and wants to. He did not play in four series - away and at home against England and West Indies - but is playing in Australia, and now in Bangladesh. In the contest between seeking lost form and trying to ensure his late-career struggle does not end up Kapil Dev-esque, it is easy to see which side is winning. The time was ripe for the selectors to step in: they are empowered to simplify the maze Tendulkar finds himself in. Instead, they responded as though their hands were tied. A board official even described the Tendulkar situation as "an uncontrollable".

Despite Tendulkar's stature, and in the midst of grumblings about the Hundred and India's failure to "do a Ponting", it must be remembered that he is a reasonable man, not an ogre. He has always been more hungry and proud competitor rather than tantrum-throwing diva. His persona may seem intimidating, his personality is not.

We do not know if Tendulkar has been spoken to by any of the selectors beyond his "availability" for the Asia Cup. For instance, has Srikkanth asked Tendulkar what his long-term plans are for one-day cricket? Whether the Asia Cup is actually the stage he seeks? Can the chairman of selectors not pick up the phone or set up a meeting to ask Tendulkar those questions?

When Ricky Ponting was dropped from Australia's one-day team, their selection chief, John Inverarity, said, "In elite sport, there's no place for sentiment." Indian cricket is often beaten up for being overly sentimental, and rightly so, but India is also a country of non-stop conversationalists. Surely dialogue is not alien to the culture? Srikkanth, for God's sake, was Tendulkar's first captain. That has to count for something.

Tendulkar's selection for the Asia Cup diverted attention from Suresh Raina being given another chance, when his average in Australia this season is 24.50 in ten matches. Or that Dhoni will be travelling to Dhaka as well, when his captaincy has actually lost its moorings after three tough months. Given that four of five selectors were batsmen, let's give them some benefit of doubt here. Which actually makes things worse.

One possible explanation for why Dhoni, who could do with a rest, and Tendulkar, whose greatness won't be affected by a sixth Asia Cup, are in the team to Bangladesh is that the BCCI wants to keep its slate clean in its litigation with Nimbus, which owns the broadcast rights for the tournament. One of Nimbus' arguments is that, despite a contractual obligation, the BCCI does not always send its "best team" to events whose broadcast rights Nimbus owns. If that is the real reason behind some of the selections, no wonder there were half-measures all around.

In the middle of this lack of direction came the surprise appointment of Virat Kohli as vice-captain, instead of Gautam Gambhir. Had the selectors been seen as men of great foresight, it would have been a message to both Kohli and Gambhir as to where they stand with regard to the 2015 World Cup, what one man must to do push ahead and the other must do to recover. There is a good chance, however, that this will be seen as just a trinket tossed at Kohli after his inspirational performance in Hobart and his conduct during and after the game. Kohli, though, looks the kind of fellow who could turn a trinket into a trophy.

After the defeats in England and Australia, it was said the selectors would be the most important people in Indian cricket. They obviously do not think so.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo