August 16, 2012

India's selectors pick populism over vision

The final selections by Srikkanth's committee have sent all the wrong signals to the players and fans

After India's 0-8 rout in England and Australia in 2011, the BCCI took some measures to ensure the team doesn't face such a drubbing again. Among these were scheduling two India A tours every year and revamping the domestic structure to make it more competitive, with the aim to produce players who will do well in all conditions. These efforts may not form the complete blueprint for success, but we must laud the BCCI for taking the first few steps in the right direction.

But while the board has showed it intends to bring change, the national selectors have simply delayed the process of repair India need if they are to be successful against all teams in all conditions.

The beginning of a new season was an opportune moment for the selectors to show their vision and intent. It was also their last selection (four of the five selectors will finish their terms in September), so the moment could not have been more appropriate to perhaps undo the errors of the past. Instead, they chose to bury their heads in the sand.

Where they could have taken a few radical, if possibly unpopular, decisions, they preferred to play it safe. Instead of showing vision by backing youngsters for the India A tour, they chose to please everyone by picking a completely different squad from the one for the A tour of West Indies a couple of months ago. This shows not only a dangerous incoherence in thought process, it also raises questions about the selectors' credibility.

While Yuvraj Singh's comeback for the World Twenty20 grabbed the headlines, it was the other, unemotional, selections that revealed the selectors' lack of vision. Sidharth Monga covered several of these in his column last week. Decisions like Ishant Sharma's inclusion for the New Zealand Tests without him having played a single competitive match after undergoing ankle surgery, Suresh Raina replacing Rohit Sharma in the Test side, and Gautam Gambhir replacing Virat Kohli as vice-captain for the World Twenty20 are jarring enough, but none betrays the lack of clarity as much as Piyush Chawla's return to the Indian team for Tests and the World Twenty20 does, 16 months after playing his last international game, in the 2011 World Cup. In fact, Chawla was a surprise selection for the World Cup as well, and was dropped after taking four wickets in three matches (two of them against Ireland and Netherlands). It isn't often that a member of a World Cup-winning team isn't played again for 16 months. Only a sub-standard performance can lead to such a long absence, and it would then be fair to assume that Chawla must have forced his way back with a series of sterling performances. Not really.

Rahul Sharma, who replaced Chawla in the squad after the World Cup, did very well in the 2011 IPL, and was picked for India on the basis of his performance in the league, despite poor first-class figures - 18 wickets in ten matches till then. But then selection is not always about numbers, or we'd have statisticians for selectors. Every selection committee has the right to look beyond statistics and go by instinct for potential and talent.

It isn't often that a member of a World Cup-winning team isn't played again for 16 months. Only a sub-standard performance can lead to such a long absence, and it would then be fair to assume that Chawla must have forced his way back with a series of sterling performances. Not really

There are only two ways to justify any selection: by merit, backed by seriously good numbers, or by the selectors' instinct for considering potential over performance. Rahul's selection fell into the second category. But while he was picked with the long-term idea of playing Tests, he was dropped after only ten months, not having been given an opportunity in the longer format. So was his being picked an error in judgment, or was dropping him without giving him a chance a mistake? Chawla has now reclaimed his place without producing any earth-shattering numbers - 27 wickets at 40.62 from nine first-class matches. Yes, there were only eight spinners in the top 30 wicket-takers last season, and the best took 28 wickets in eight matches, but then again, if Chawla was going to be picked for the Test series against New Zealand, why wasn't he picked for the A tour to West Indies?

National selections rarely demand out-of-the-box thinking because most players select themselves. You need to simply pick the best team possible to win the assignment, which means there isn't much scope for working towards a vision. Not so with an A squad, where the selectors have opportunities to plan for the future, and gives us a peek into their thought process. If selected fairly, an A squad is a great indicator of the country's bench strength.

Being consistent in selections for the national team is the default mode, but consistency in A team selections can only be achieved through a carefully crafted design. A team is as good as its bench strength, and the bench can only be as strong as it is allowed to be.

In July 2011, Srikkanth Anirudha was picked in a three-day squad for the Emerging Players tournament, even though he wasn't a regular in Tamil Nadu's Ranji team. It goes without saying that one deserving candidate was pushed further back in the queue for no fault of his own.

Only six players from the India A tour to the West Indies have survived for the A tour to New Zealand in September-October. Robin Bist, the highest run scorer in the 2011-12 first-class season, Wriddhiman Saha, who is being groomed take over the gloves from MS Dhoni in Tests, and Parwinder Awana, considered one of the most promising young fast bowlers in the country, have all failed to make it. Saha was the team's vice-captain, while Bist and Awana got only one match each on the tour. What did Saha do wrong? Was one opportunity enough to judge that Bist and Awana aren't good enough? Shikhar Dhawan and Abhinav Mukund both failed to score runs in the West Indies, but Mukund has now been named captain for the New Zealand tour, while Dhawan has been dropped. RP Singh was picked for the West Indies but couldn't make it because he wasn't fit. Now Jaydev Unadkat has been preferred over a fit RP.

And what about Praveen Kumar? If he wasn't considered good enough for the World Twenty20, shouldn't he have been a part of the India A set-up? As a rule, A squads consist of promising players from the first-class circuit who have a realistic chance of graduating to the next level and those who have fallen off the national radar and are trying to make it back. Picking completely different teams every time defeats the purpose of organising such tours.

India are about to begin a very long home season, and this selection could have been used to make a statement of intent. Unfortunately, the out-going selection committee didn't see it as an opportunity; maybe they looked at it as a liability.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here