August 17, 2012

India's bowling cupboard is empty, not thinly stocked

Worse, no one seems to want to do something about it

India's recent team selections have been a lot like the Indian finance minister's recent budget speeches. Much was expected, much was possible, a new road map could have been put in place (as the business channels would have put it) but you got the feeling that, like Pranab Mukherjee, Krishnamachari Srikkanth was saying goodbye too. This was a handover selection, one characterised by leaving the big decisions to someone else. It happens in public life all the time, though, doesn't it?

Not taking a stance can be harmful. Teams, like economies, cannot plod along at a barely acceptable rate of growth. If India want to be No. 1 again (and I am assuming that that objective isn't gathering dust somewhere) then you need to take bold steps. Part of that is making a place in the Indian team aspirational, not something that you turn up after a break and find waiting for you.

That is why, for all of Ishant Sharma's innate ability, he should have been made to prove that he is ready to play; he ought to have done the hard yards, run through a Ranji Trophy team, and then forced the selectors to look at him. He hasn't played a game for months, has had surgery, and as everyone knows, you don't prove your match fitness by turning up for a couple of practice games. Worse still, how were the selectors convinced that he earns a place even at full fitness? His last year-odd has produced 21 wickets from 11 games at an average of 68 in largely helpful conditions. In terms of experience, with 45 Tests he is now only next to Kapil Dev, Zaheer Khan and Javagal Srinath, and has played more Tests than some of India's greats. The message going out to a young man who is desperately short of fulfilling his undoubted promise is that the team is just waiting for him to be fit and that they really can't do without him. Ishant himself would have been far better served fighting his way back. It's a poor selection. And we haven't even come to Piyush Chawla yet.

Chawla had a decent IPL at best, and stumbled when the pressure rose. You would need an advocate of great skill to win his case to be in the T20 side; and, to be honest, he would struggle to find someone to take on the job in the case of Test cricket. As Aakash Chopra - a sane voice India should use more - points out, Chawla took 27 wickets in first class cricket last year at 40.62 per wicket. It is like setting the bar to one metre to pick a high jump team. I don't even remember seeing his name in an India A team recently.

If this is the best bowling team India can pick, I would like the BCCI to get into an emergency meeting and appoint detectives to search for bowlers. I had thought all along that India's cupboard was thinly stocked. I can now announce that it is officially bare. There are no bowlers in India. We had anticipated this but didn't think the day would come so quickly.

I don't know what is worse, the absence of bowlers in India or the absence of any intent at all in looking for them. I keep coming back to what an organisation's priorities are. The BCCI is a well-evolved, financially savvy body. The IPL, and for that matter most cricket in India, is fairly efficiently organised, and the legal and financial acumen is outstanding. Look how quickly they moved to tackle a huge potential problem with the Deccan Chargers.

But there is a major fire raging around Indian cricket and I do not see anyone rushing to do anything about it. There are just no spinners, and the new-ball bowlers, like seasonal flowers, wither away, never to return. If Indian cricket has thrown up Sreesanth, RP Singh, Munaf Patel, Praveen Kumar, Varun Aaron, Ashish Nehra and Parwinder Awana, it means new-ball bowlers exist; but the mortality rates are too high. Currently the only people worried about that seem to be columnists! Indian cricket needs the alacrity shown on issues like television rights and franchise defaults to apply in areas like nurturing bowling as well. Without that, the No. 1 spot will never return.

There are many other issues. The A team tours, thoughtful in theory, are being marred by roulette-style selections. I do not believe any country can have more than 25 players capable of playing at the highest level; even that is a stretch. The best 15 should be in the national side and the next 15 on A tours, and it stays that way till someone comes to knock the door down. But there is no pattern at the moment, or if there is, it is a deeply complex code that none of us can crack.

By end 2013, India may be without the services of some or all of Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag and MS Dhoni. If three of those remain, India should be happy, but it also means that replacement players must start finding their feet around now. Maybe that is for a new set of selectors to do. Whoever they are, I would love to sneak in and look at their notepads for a things-to-do list. I greatly fear I know what I would find on it.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here