On December 21, MSK Prasad, the former India wicketkeeper, will complete three months as chairman of India's senior selection committee. His panel has had a successful bedding-in period, with India winning home series against New Zealand (although that Test squad was picked by the previous committee) and England.
In this wide-ranging interview, Prasad talks about the importance of A tours in selections, having a strong bench, handling the omissions of senior players like Shikhar Dhawan and Gautam Gambhir, and preparing for overseas tours over the next two years.
A number of youngsters have made a mark in the Ranji Trophy this season. Did you expect them to do as well as they have?
This season has thrown up some fantastic talent. The fundamental thing this selection committee is looking at is to develop good bench strength, considering the number of injuries happening right now. If our supremacy in different formats of the game has to last long, we need to have good bench strength.
What are the selectors doing to ensure domestic performances aren't missed?
We have always had two selectors travelling for the international games while the other three [remain here]. Now, during the Ranji Trophy season this year, we decided that only one selector will travel for international games. The other four will be watching domestic cricket.
The BCCI has also been kind enough to accept and support our cause by saying that the match referee could play an important role in the matches we are not watching. They [match referees] are playing the role of the TRDO [Talent Research Development Officer] now. The BCCI gets their reports by the end of the game and forwards those to us.
There was a discussion and we have to come to a conclusion that this is the right way to go. That is why we are not worried that we will miss out on anyone. There is a back-up ready.
"I take the responsibility to talk to the senior cricketers and tell them the reasons why they have been picked or why they have not been picked and what the committee is expecting of them"
Can you recall an instance of the match referee alerting you about an important contribution this season?
There are quite a few instances. Priyank Panchal and Rishabh Pant; one of the knocks Ishan Kishan played - our selectors missed that game, but we got a detailed report about the match from the match referee.
Players like Jayant Yadav and Hardik Pandya seem to have been picked on the back of good performances on India A's recent tour of Australia. Did you make your picks based on the fact that it was a difficult tour and that whoever did well would obviously be good enough, or were your selections guided by how some players came to the fore in crunch situations?
It's a mix of both. That's why you should prefer India A tours to countries like Australia, South Africa, England and to an extent even New Zealand, where the conditions are really tough. That's where you are really tested. Otherwise, when it comes to playing in the subcontinent and against subcontinent countries for an A tour, I don't see much difference between them and our domestic cricket.
The best part about these A tours is, more than half the players in the opposition would have represented their countries already. If you look at our own team, we had guys who had represented the country. South Africa had David Miller and Dane Vilas. Australia had Peter Handscomb, who got a hundred against Pakistan in this Test [in Brisbane], James Pattinson and Kane Richardson. That's the beauty of these tours. I think it adds a lot of value.
Will there be more A tours this season?
The BCCI is working towards having two or three India A tours, not just one per year. If somebody is injured, we have ready-made products with a bit of quality international experience. The issue is the itinerary. You have the domestic season, too, for six months, so where do you slot the A tours? The BCCI is still working out the details.
What is your committee's approach to selection?
When we select somebody, we think four to five times. We give him enough experience in the domestic circuit and get him into the team. I don't know how it was earlier but our selection philosophy is simple. We have to look at a player who performs well in domestic cricket, select him, groom him and see to it that he goes on to become a match-winner, which will eventually help Indian cricket. Our philosophy is not to select a player, get a back-up ready and chop that fellow and get another back-up. This way neither the players nor the team will get confidence.
When we pick them, we should give them sufficient chances. We never know which Marvan Atapattu [who started his Test career with scores of 0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 0 and went on to score more than 5000 runs] is around in Indian cricket. In smaller countries like Sri Lanka, with fewer first-class teams, you still get a chance to make a comeback. But in a country like India, to make a comeback is very tough. You'll suddenly be left in oblivion and you don't know where you stand.
Tell us about the kind of communication you have with some of the younger players, like Rishabh Pant, who are on the verge of selection?
We are very clear in our thought process and communication. We took permission from the board and now we walk onto the pitch and talk to the players. The committee has taken responsibility to go and speak to youngsters like Rishabh Pant and Ishan Kishan. We tell them what we expect of them and ask them not to get carried away by the media hype they are getting. They need to come through the ranks. Suddenly someone asks why is Rishabh Pant not in the Test team yet, and there is a lot of hype around him. The player might have a false opinion: "I deserved a chance and never got it."
We are trying to identify a person's talent, which is suited to a particular format. Rishabh is an attacking cricketer. We should know how to bring him into the team - from the shorter format to the longer format. When we need somebody like Abhinav Mukund or Priyank Panchal, they have to come from the longer format to the shorter format. We feel this is the right way to groom and nurture talent.
How do you approach the selection of players who you think have extraordinary talent but not the weight of runs or wickets behind them?
Anybody who comes through the ranks has a better scope of settling down in the team and eventually developing into a match-winner. But in odd cases, where you find an exceptional talent, it can be considered. But it is always good to come through the ranks, so that the player has better sustainability.
What's the nature of information flow between the selection panel and the coaches of the senior and junior teams - Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid?
This selection committee is quite approachable and adaptable. We take suggestions from Dravid, Kumble, Virat [Kohli] and [MS] Dhoni, but we take the final decision on the players to be picked in the squad. The playing XI, of course, is decided by the team management, along with the selector at the venue.
Does it make things easier that members of the selection committee have played in more or less the same era as Kumble and Dravid?
That's one of the best things that has happened. The five members in the selection committee have all played together along with the team management, so the levels of understanding are very, very good. More or less, we are always on the same page.
"All the members of our committee make extensive notes of the matches we watch. When we sit at the selection meeting, everything is tabulated and each of us has the same data. We discuss at length and leave no stone unturned"
Talk us through some of the slightly left-field selections, like Jayant Yadav for the England Tests.
We have seen quite a bit of Jayant Yadav in Australia because Gagan [Khoda] and me were there. This selection committee has an international spinner [Sarandeep Singh], a middle-order batsman [Jatin Paranjpe], two openers [Khoda and Devang Gandhi] and a wicketkeeper [Prasad]. We cover all the disciplines of the game. When we pick a keeper, maybe I have greater input. When it's a spinner, there may be more inputs from Sarandeep.
Was bringing back Parthiv Patel difficult to explain to the team management?
The team management and the selection committee have a fantastic rapport, so if we raise something, they immediately accept it. If they have a requirement, like an opener or a middle-order batsman, we give them a ready-made solution. This is the understanding. Picking Parthiv is what the selection committee did, but if the requirement comes from the team management, say, if [Wriddhiman] Saha is not fit, they will ask for a keeper. We discuss among ourselves, pick that name and forward it to the BCCI.
The more difficult aspect of your job probably is to tell a senior player that he is not good enough to be a part of the squad. How do you handle a situation like Gautam Gambhir being picked following some good performances in the Duleep Trophy and then being dropped after four innings?
Senior players, like Gautam or Yuvraj [Singh] or Shikhar [Dhawan], have all done exceptionally well and they are the country's legendary cricketers. So, on behalf of the selection committee, I take the responsibility to talk to the senior cricketers and tell them the truth about what exactly is the mindset of the committee, and place the reasons and facts about why they have been picked or why they have not been picked and what the committee is expecting of them, and that if they match up to these standards, they will obviously be looked into.
I spoke to Yuvraj, Shikhar and Gautam. I think I have spent 30 to 40 minutes with all of them. They were extremely happy and receptive and said: "This is the highest honour your committee has given to us. You were very clear in your thought process at a time we were in a dilemma about whether you guys are looking at us or not."
We made it clear that these are the parameters, these are the changes that have come into the game, and to be picked you need to match these standards. They are very clear now about what they need to do to come back into the team.
It's a universally accepted fact that senior players are expected to deliver immediately when they come back into the team. They might not get the same number of opportunities a youngster will be getting. Youngsters get a long rope because they deserve it and they are the future.
Is that something you have told the players as well - that you are not going to be ignored because you are 34 or 35?
We have never ignored an Ashish Nehra or anybody else. The selection committee has no right to say to any player that enough is enough, because every cricketer has a right to play. Nobody has forced them to come into the game and now nobody can ask them to retire. Every cricketer has the right to play. This is their profession and this is what they live for. Retirement is purely the personal choice of the player.
How do you deal with the criticism that this selection committee comprises men with limited international experience?
I am very happy that everybody has come out with that because everyone is concerned about Indian cricket. I agree that we have played less international cricket, but we are working hard day in and day out to select players, groom them and make them match-winners and see that they have very good international careers, which we missed in our life.
There are no egos, no airs among our colleagues. If they are asked to go to any place in the country, they are there the next morning irrespective of wherever they are. They talk to the players and understand their mindset. There is a lot of discussion that keeps going on between us on a daily basis.
Picking Parthiv or Jayant, and giving Karun Nair an extended run, are debatable issues, but we stuck to them. Hence the selection committee should be appreciated for their strong views on grooming and nurturing talent.
What has the experience of being a member of the previous selection committee, led by Sandeep Patil, taught you?
The best part about the last committee and this one is that they are impartial. We don't talk about players from our own state or zone. That's why there is something called a "neutral policy" that we have adopted. We don't watch the matches of our states - for example, I don't watch an Andhra game and Jatin [Paranjpe] won't watch a Mumbai game. When we pick players, Sarandeep, for instance, won't ask for a player from Delhi. But I would have seen those matches and I might raise the issue of selecting that player. The neutral policy is a very good one and it worked well with the previous committee. We are continuing that and I am sure in the coming days, with the kind of openness we have, things will only get better.
How have your interactions with the two captains - Dhoni and Kohli - been so far?
Fantastic. The three qualities we associate with both Virat and Dhoni are integrity, passion and patriotism. It is very easy to communicate with them because our thought processes are along the same lines.
Believe it or not, both of them keep track of all the youngsters in domestic circuit. When we talk about some domestic players in the selection committee meeting, they even know the current stats of these players.
How much say does the selection committee have when it comes to workload management and determining how much rest a player needs, especially given the number of injuries recently?
All of us are equally concerned and worried about the number of injuries among the players. As of now, we don't really have a concrete policy, but we will definitely sit with the team management and the BCCI and design a policy for workload management.
With so many overseas tours coming up in the next two seasons, are there certain plans you want to put in place?
That's the reason I am saying we are working on bench strength and on slot-wise selections, so whenever there is a requirement, we know what fallback options are available. All the members of our committee make extensive notes of the matches we watch, and in the evening we exchange notes. When we sit at the selection meeting, everything is tabulated and each of us has the same data. The meetings are no longer five- or ten-minute affairs. We discuss at length and leave no stone unturned.
We have players in our radar according to the slots available. That's how we depute selectors to a certain match. If we are looking at a spinner, Sarandeep is already there. If we are looking at an opener, Devang [Gandhi] and Gagan go there. That is how we determine which selector goes to which matches.
This current Indian team is more or less settled and we are eagerly waiting for our overseas tours. Our boys have done really well in Sri Lanka and West Indies, and all of us are waiting to do well in South Africa, England and New Zealand. This team has all the flavours to do well - good spinners, medium-pacers and good batting strength.
What, according to you, have been the most satisfying decisions made by your committee so far?
We can say that this committee has done a good job by picking Parthiv, Jayant and sticking with Karun Nair - and giving them a good run. We are early into our term. We can't really take the credit for whatever this team is doing right now, because the previous selection committee has really done a good job by investing in these youngsters. Our real challenge will be about developing good bench strength, picking the guys who are really doing well at domestic cricket right now, inducting them into the national team, and seeing that they grow into top-class international cricketers. Maybe three or four years down the line, when those boys keep doing well and win matches, that will be the best indicator of what we have done.