August 16, 2012

Anyone thinking of South Africa 2013?

The squad for the New Zealand series is just that, with hardly an eye on what will happen when India tour next

It has been a few days since the Indian squads for the World Twenty20 and the New Zealand Test series were picked, and I must say I have still not got over the selection of the Test side.

I was hoping the selectors would look at this pick as the first in a series of selections aimed towards the Indian tour to South Africa in November 2013. It's only on that tour that India can reclaim their lost aura as a Test team. Nothing that they do at home before that will help improve their image, if they then go on to have yet another disastrous tour overseas.

I believe after 80 years at the international level, with so many forces working in favour of Indian cricket, and also now that they are a former No. 1 Test team, India should look to set themselves the highest standards in world cricket. Which means they need to try hard to win at home but harder to win abroad. It is overseas that India lost their self-esteem as a Test team, and it's only there that they will find it back.

The ten Test matches at home before that South Africa tour provide the selectors the perfect opportunity to build a team that has the best chance to compete well overseas in the winter of 2013. All these opportunities at home should be given only to - particularly in the case of batsmen - players who can make the most of the chances and return the favour with good performances in South Africa.

I do not think, though, that this is how the selectors have thought, looking at the squad for the two Tests against New Zealand. I expect most batsmen who get an opportunity to get runs against New Zealand at home - or even, for that matter, against the likes of England and Australia at home. Test cricket at home for Indians, I have always believed, is grade two Test cricket; Test cricket in South Africa, England and Australia is grade one. The important question is, how many of these batsmen from grade two (who will most likely be in form at the end of the home run) can be expected to do well in grade one?

It's in this regard that India's opening batting combination should have been looked at more seriously. To go with Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag as India's opening pair again in Tests in South Africa would be a gamble. After what happened in England and Australia, India just cannot afford to gamble overseas again with the same hand of cards.

If I were the chief selector, I would have had a chat with Sehwag, conveyed to him my intent to bat him down the order, and had Gambhir open with Ajinkya Rahane in the first Test against New Zealand. Sehwag on many occasions has made it clear that he would like to bat down the order in Tests at some point in his career; I think that time has come.

With the retirement of Rahul Dravid, Indian batting has lost a lot of solidity and experience. To go to South Africa heavy on youth will not be a good idea, and this is where Sachin Tendulkar becomes important, almost indispensable for India.

I am not aware of what kind of a dialogue there has been between Tendulkar and the selectors over the last few months, but I hope they have conveyed to him that India need him badly for the Test matches come that winter tour of South Africa, 2013.

Another call that the selectors had to make was regarding VVS Laxman. I think his average of 22.75 against England and 19.37 against Australia, with a good home series against West Indies in between, tells us something about Laxman. It was an issue the selectors needed to address.

Opportunities in the Tests at home should be given only to - particularly in the case of batsmen - players who can make the most of the chances and return the favour with good performances in South Africa

I still cringe thinking of how India missed a great chance to test Rohit Sharma or Rahane in the final Test, in Adelaide, early this year, when they had nothing at stake, with the series already lost. But they stuck to the same losing formula to get another losing result. Who knows what might have happened if they had done otherwise? Picking one of the youngsters was an exciting option, with some promise of long-term benefit, which India refused to take, going on to lose their eighth consecutive overseas Test.

Come winter 2013, Laxman will be 39. His fitness in Australia (the last time we saw him in action) and his performances there told us something. In comparison, I thought Tendulkar looked a lot fitter and more likely to get runs than Laxman in those conditions. If I had to back one of the two veterans going forward, it would be Tendulkar: he looks a lot fitter than Laxman does, despite the large difference in the number of years they have each played international cricket for. At home, fitness does not matter so much but in grade one Test cricket, as we have seen, it does, a lot.

Laxman will no doubt score runs at home with the kind of experience he has and some skills still intact, but in South Africa, more than a year older, he will once again be a gamble. Also, every opportunity given to him at this stage of his career, considering his recent form, is an opportunity denied to a young talent who might yield long-term returns.

The team selected does not hint at long-term vision, nor has the chairman said anything to suggest it. The selectors have done the convenient thing and simply picked a team for the two Tests against New Zealand, leaving cricketing fate to take its own course.

As chairman of selectors Krishnamachari Srikkanth picked some good squads during his tenure, although the selections of playing XIs was often hard to understand. I wonder how much of a say he had in those, but his last pick will perhaps determine the legacy he leaves behind as an India selector: a man who had a tendency to make popular selections.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here

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