October 26, 2012

India's selectors need to take the tough calls now

The team needs fast bowlers, and batsmen who can play fast bowling, and it needs them soon

Like a rock n' roll festival coming to an end, T20 is winding down and it is time to begin to appreciate symphonies; bhangra will give way to the sitar, and we must learn to acknowledge the nuances of the alaap again, its gentle flow towards a rich end-experience. Eight Test matches between now and March will allow connoisseurs of five-day cricket the joy they believe is interrupted by the loud three-hour version.

And India have much thinking to do. The 0-8 may not have generated the kind of debate, and corrective action, we would have liked, but it cannot be brushed away. Established players are looking vulnerable, outstanding players are experiencing dusk, and the new generation will have graduated from the school of shorter cricket. There is much work to be done and the time has come for selectors, now well paid, to project their vision for the future of Indian cricket.

In an ideal world the new selection committee should sit down to pick two teams: one that will play the first two Tests against England, and another that will take the field in July 2014 in England, or even in November 2014 in Australia. For India to regain the No. 1 slot, both those have to be winning teams. And so if the latter teams have to be competitive, it must influence the way they pick the current team, because some investments made in players, like those made by banks in high-profile corporations, have begun to look poor. Munaf Patel and Praveen Kumar are not being sighted any longer, Sreesanth and RP Singh have almost vanished, Amit Mishra and Rahul Sharma are not preferred anymore, No. 6 has been a revolving door, and Abhinav Mukund and M Vijay haven't exactly produced great returns either.

In recent times India have had problems at the top of the order. It would be an interesting exercise, while picking teams, to look at times when India have played well overseas and isolate factors that produced those results. I am fairly certain that such an exercise would throw up the quality of the opening partnership as the lead factor. And so, while India need to win in India, the selectors need to balance that need with getting the best pair ready for 2013 in South Africa and thereafter for New Zealand, England and Australia.

But by picking three openers for the warm-up game against England the selectors have made it clear that they have no pecking order in mind yet. I have never understood picking 14 or 15 players for a tour game. That is not a selection, it is a gathering. Anybody can send out invitations. Picking 12 with two openers is a selection. We don't yet know who the selectors rate after Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag.

And yet we must, for while those two are quality players, they haven't been setting grounds on fire lately. Historically they have been India's best opening pair at home (avg 60 v 53 for Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan) and second-best away (42 v 53 again for Gavaskar and Chauhan). But in the last 20-odd months, while they average 52 at home they average 15 overseas (collectively India average 16 from 24 starts). By 2013 both will be a year older, and while you can see the need to play both in Indian conditions, throwing a rookie into the deep end overseas has hardly ever worked.

In an ideal world the new selection committee should sit down to pick two teams: one that will play the first two Tests against England, and another that will take the field in July 2014 in England

While we don't yet know what Sachin Tendulkar (1001 runs in his last 14 Tests at 40) and the selectors are planning for his future (and both must be involved), India need to plan now for life beyond him. If Virat Kohli moves up to No. 4, which seems a stable bet, it means there are two places in the middle order to be filled. Both Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina are very gifted batsmen but are they going to be the men for those positions? Records would suggest otherwise (since 2010, Yuvraj averages 25 in nine innings, Raina 28 from 27), and so if somebody else will be needed to fill those slots, they need to be got ready today.

Like with Tendulkar, India need to start getting prepared for life without Zaheer Khan. He has been magnificent for India but the role of the lead bowler now needs to belong to someone else. We already know that medium pace is as useful in Australia and South Africa as a sailor who cannot swim. And the fact that India are forced to persist with Ishant Sharma (133 wickets from 45 Tests at 37.87) tells you how grim the situation is. Even spin is throwing up skewed figures. Pragyan Ojha and R Ashwin are magnificent at home (Ojha 63 wickets in 12 matches, Ashwin 40 in five!) but Ojha hasn't played outside the subcontinent and Ashwin has nine wickets at 62 overseas.

I think, too, that the selectors need to start looking at Mahendra Singh Dhoni's workload. Captaincy and wicketkeeping is a tough combination, which is why there have been so few players who have done both well in the history of the game. And to do it day in day out must be draining. And so, with the next World Twenty20 two years away, is this the time to rest Dhoni from international T20 cricket? I know it is only a couple of games here and there, but it will allow him to put his feet up.

If India have to become No. 1 again, they need to start looking at bowlers who can bowl fast and batsmen who are unafraid of bowlers who can bowl fast. The key people in that search are not so much the coach and the captain as the selectors, and the earlier they start taking hard decisions, the better off everyone will be.

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