Why not Harbhajan Singh for India A?
Picking a team is undeniably a tricky job, yet, it is relatively straightforward too. I say 'tricky' because of the ethical and intellectual obligation that is inevitable, and straightforward because a majority of the players select themselves. The actual task of selection, at most times, is never about more than a couple of spots. When Varun Aaron was picked to debut against West Indies or when Jaydev Unadkat was chosen for the tour to South Africa, the selectors, quite obviously, weren't looking at the 'natural selections'. On an average, at least 70% of the mix are automatic choices, they ought to be there. A selector earns his money through what he does with the remaining 20-30% of the team. And that brings me to the rather bewildering selection of the squad to represent India A in the West Indies this summer.
Such selections are an acid test-- they not only reveal the selectors' response to an upcoming talent, but also tell us a fair bit about their overall vision. It's a tightrope walk since selections ought to corroborate statistics, and conversely also look at the conditions they were produced in. To believe that numbers are the gospel truth would be too naïve. And nothing would be more foolish than to ignore them completely. It's imperative to reward the performers of domestic circuit, else we run the risk of devaluing our first-class set-up almost entirely. Such selections must also make public the roadmap the selectors have drafted for the national team, for it's only natural to believe that the players who represent India A will go on to play for India too.
Before we try and make sense of the India A squad, I should laud the BCCI for taking the initiative to organise the tour in the first place. I'd like to believe that it has something to do with India's poor showing in England and Australia. If that is indeed the case, the lessons are finally being learnt. Even though the West Indies isn't the best place to test the fringe players (the prevailing conditions in the Caribbean are quite similar to Indian conditions), it's indeed a step in the right direction, assuming that there'll be many such tours in the near future.
Let's now go over the team sheet to get a better picture of whether the selectors have done justice to such an opportunity.
There are four openers in the side -- Ajinkya Rahane, Abhinav Mukund, Shikhar Dhawan and Jalaj Saxena (thankfully there is no Anirudha Srikkanth, for he was in the team last time a similar squad was picked). It's only fair to assume that Rahane is earmarked as a Test opener and hence it's just to give him more opportunities at the top. It's another matter that he accumulated most of his first-class runs batting at No. 3. If Sehwag, a lower-middle order batsman, can make the grade, why can't a Rahane?
Abhinav, contrary to popular opinion, is an automatic choice for the second opener. He had played Test matches for India not too long ago, albeit with little success, and continues to be one of the highest run-scorers in domestic cricket.
Then comes the curious case of Dhawan. He began the previous domestic season with two centuries in the Irani Cup, but did nothing of note for the remainder of the season. He was picked for Duleep Trophy (on past performances) but didn't leave a mark there either. Is he picked only for the shorter formats of the game on the tour? If that's the case, I wouldn't raise an eyebrow. But if Dhawan is in the selectors' scheme of things for Test cricket, then his selection ought be questioned.
Finally, the odd selection of Saxena. He opens for his state, Madhya Pradesh, in the Ranji Trophy, drops down in the order in Duleep Trophy and, at times, plays only as an offspinner who could bat. To give credit where it's due, he has scored runs and taken wickets in the previous first-class season but if that's the criteria for selection then nobody deserves a spot more than Vineet Saxena, who happened to be the second highest run-scorer in the Ranji Trophy this season. Also, if it was there was a decision made to pick someone from Madhya Pradesh as an incentive for their good showing, TP Sudhindra, the highest wicket-taker, should have been the automatic choice. Is Jalaj Saxena an India prospect?
The middle order
Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Manoj Tiwary and Robin Bist make up the middle order. Pujara is considered to be the most able and likely candidate to fill the void left by Rahul Dravid. He's technically and temperamentally suited for batting at No. 3 in Test cricket and hence his performances will be monitored closely.
The selection of Rohit shows that he's in the running for a place in the Test side. Nothing wrong with that either. Tiwary makes the cut too, as does Bist, the only player from twice Ranji champions Rajasthan.
While I don't have too many issues with the overall batting line-up, I doubt the likes of Bist will get enough opportunities. Also, wasn't this tour an ideal opportunity to test someone like Suryakumar Yadav, who did ever so well during the first-class season? If this is an attempt is to stay away from experimenting, though, I'll buy that argument.
Rahul Sharma, Akshay Darekar, as well as Saxena will contribute in this department. One look at this line-up tells us that any argument of 'not experimenting' would be mere lip service. Rahul Sharma (it looks as though someone really wants him to succeed) will bowl legspin, young Maharashtra bowler Darekar who was last season's leading wicket-taker in the plate division of Ranji will bowl left-arm spin, while Saxena will provide the offspinning option.
Now, if there was so much emphasis on sending the next in line for India spots on the tour in the batting department, why wasn't the same principle followed while picking the spinners? Doesn't Pragyan Ojha deserve another opportunity? Does it also mean the end of Piyush Chawla and Amit Mishra? Also, isn't there no other offspinner left in the country, forcing them to make do with part-timer Jalaj? The last time India A team went to the West Indies, VVS Laxman led the side. Why couldn't Harbhajan Singh be named in this squad?
The fast bowlers
The squad's fast-bowling resources make this selection even more baffling. Ashok Dinda, RP Singh, Shami Ahmed and Bhuvneshwar Kumar make up the list. Instead of talking about the ones who've made it, I'll throw light on the players who haven't.
In my humble opinion, Parwinder Awana was the find of the season with his consistent performances and, more so, his consistent pace. Pankaj Singh has taken close to 100 wickets in the last two first-class seasons but continues to be ignored. If Pankaj isn't in the scheme of things, why pick him for the Central Zone? And what's happening with Abhimanyu Mithun? Mithun was with the Indian team in Australia, so shouldn't he get the nod ahead of RP Singh?
While the selectors have managed to send out a clear signal about their preferences in the batting department, their choices in the bowling department leave me perplexed. It's like the cart is being pulled in four different directions. It shouldn't come as a surprise, therefore, if it doesn't really go anywhere.