The musical chairs that pick India's second spinner
There's a chair out there. It has India's back-up spinner written on it. Before every series India play, the national selection committee gathers around the chair, and invites Pragyan Ojha and Amit Mishra for a little game. The selectors play music, and ask the two spinners to walk around the chair. Suddenly the music stops. The first man to sit on the chair gets picked for India.
Turns out, it doesn't make any difference, because that man doesn't get enough chances - that is, if he is lucky enough to get a chance in the first place - to show what he has got, and before the next series, the game is played again. Just that a third member, Piyush Chawla, has now been added to the musical chairs that is India's back-up spinner's place. And he will be making the trip to the West Indies.
This is not to bring Chawla down. He has worked on his legbreaks, and is a smart Twenty20 bowler. This, though, is to ask what wrong has Ojha or Mishra done. Ojha has played nine ODIs, eight of them against Sri Lanka who can be accused of being anything but poor players of spin. He has given away runs at 4.2 an over, and he last played an ODI in February 2009. From then to now, though, the selectors' muddled thinking has completed a whole spectrum.
Ojha went to New Zealand and the West Indies, but was replaced by Mishra for Sri Lanka and the Champions Trophy. Mishra did well in the two games he got in South Africa, but without getting a single game against Australia at home, he too was dumped. Ojha was back again, for the home ODIs against Sri Lanka, only to not play a game, and lose his place to Mishra for the tri-series in Bangladesh.
Soon after that tri-series, Ojha and Mishra would have thought that their time had come at long last. Harbhajan Singh was to miss the home ODIs against South Africa. After months and months of travelling with the team, they would have felt finally they would get a proper go. The selectors, though, pulled another fast one. For every series Harbhajan played in, India felt a back-up spinner was needed. When Harbhajan was not playing, the selectors went for only one specialist spinner, and gave the other spot to bits-and-pieces R Ashwin. Ojha lost out this time. Thankfully for MS Dhoni, Ravindra Jadeja did a decent job, and he didn't even pick a specialist spinner in the XIs.
Reason, logic, form etc. are clearly not important. The message being sent out to these spinners can't be good. There is no attempt to even sort out who is the Test spinner, and who is more suited to limited overs. Both of them took similar turns in Tests, getting actual caps there. It is also clear that Ojha is a more effective limited-overs spinner than in Tests. Yet, since his debut in June 2008, he has played only nine ODIs and four Twenty20s, but has travelled the world.
One can empathise with the selectors. This is not an enviable scenario: to make choices when the spinner cupboard is not exactly bustling with options. What can't be understood, though, is how they are judging who to select when they don't see them play, when they keep them busy for carrying drinks when the domestic season is on, and when they don't quite consider the IPL as a benchmark for Twenty20.
Ojha was the standout Indian spinner in IPL's last edition, Mishra has been the most impressive of the lot this time. Chawla hasn't been bad, but he hasn't exactly done anything stunning to usurp Ojha. So far in this IPL, Ojha has gone at 7.12 an over and has taken four wickets, Mishra has seven wickets at 7.31 an over, and Chawla three wickets at 7.38. Murali Kartik, who went for less than a run a ball last year, and whose 5.57 an over is the second-best economy-rate among bowlers who have bowled 10 overs or more this year, will have a seen-it-all smile on his face: he has known such muddled thinking from even before this selection committee came to power.
If Chawla's batting is the logic, it has occurred too late in the day, after having taken the other two for a ride around the world for two years. Of course Chawla has it in him to vindicate the selectors, but it is unlikely he will get a chance, and even if he does it will be more a chance happening than an intended move.
As of now, India's back-up spinner slot resembles that of freeloaders that Sports Authorities of India sends as part of official teams - a new person for a new meet, on a paid holiday to a new country. When it comes to selecting the second spinner, if musical chairs be the food of thought, play on.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo