Mongia should be back where he belongs

As if there are not enough problems with the composition of the Indian team, the selectors by their indecisiveness, have added fuel to the fire by meddling with the one spot with which there seemed to be no problem - the wicketkeeper's slot.

Through the years, even as the selectors have played havoc with the careers of batsmen, bowlers and all rounders, the stumper's slot has generally remained above controversy. In the early fifties, Probir Sen was the leading wicketkeeper in the country. For the rest of the decade, it was either Naren Tamhane or `Nana' Joshi who fitted easily into the stumper's slot. In the sixties, there was healthy rivalry between Budhi Kunderan and Farokh Engineer with KS Indrajitsinji getting a look in only if the two were injured.

Engineer's career lasted in almost uninterrupted fashion till the mid 70s. Following which Syed Kirmani, after a long apprenticeship under Engineer, succeeded him and was the No 1 choice for a decade. Bharath Reddy was his understudy for a long time but got a look in only on the tour of England in 1979 when Kirmani suffered a temporary loss of form. By the mid 80s, Kiran More who was Kirmani's understudy in the last few years of the bald pated Karnataka stalwart's career, took over the wicketkeeper's slot, even though the brilliant but unpredictable Sadanand Viswanath made a brief bid around the same time to succeed Kirmani. By the mid 90s, More, after a fairly successful career which had seen him even rise to the post of vice captain to Md Azharuddin on the tour of New Zealand in 1990, was starting to show signs of decline and his Baroda colleague Nayan Mongia succeeded him in the slot, warding off the challenge from Bengal's Saba Karim.

The point to be noted in all these smooth transitions is that there has generally been no problem with the wicketkeeper's slot in the Indian team. But events since the injury to Mongia last year read like a tragicomic script. MSK Prasad was given the stumper's slot in the one day tournaments early in the season and he also made his Test debut against New Zealand. He was not exactly impressive but was still selected as the sole wicketkeeper for the tour of Australia. This was plainly asking for trouble on a long tour for Prasad lacked the experience, dynamism and fitness to carry such a heavy burden for almost three months. He played in the Test series against Australia without enhancing his reputation, was asked to pack up and Sameer Dighe was sent for the Carlton & United Series.

Now where did Dighe come in from suddenly? He wasn't at all in the reckoning despite being in the India A team. All the while, the other wicketkeepers seemingly fit to don the India cap were Mongia (who by now had recovered) and Karim. Mongia in the meantime had been shabbily treated by the tour management when he was sent by the BCCI as a replacement for Prasad who was temporarily out of action with an injury while Karim continued to be among the runs around the domestic circuit.

As far as wicketkeeping was concerned, there was hardly any difference between the mediocrity of both Prasad and Dighe and the batting of both was several grades below international class. In the meantime, there was another candidate for the stumper's slot in Ajay Ratra, who emerged as one of the heroes of the victorious campaign by the under-19 team in the World Cup in Sri Lanka. So now suddenly there seemed to be a number of candidates for the wicketkeeper's place in the Indian team. But no, this was not a case of embarrassment of riches for neither Prasad nor Dighe has filled the bill. His claims having been ignored for long, Karim's best days are behind him. This leaves us with Mongia and Ratra. All things considered, now that Mongia is fit, it would be best to have the 30-year-old experienced wicketkeeper back where he belongs - as India's No 1 stumper - with Ratra probably being groomed to take over from him when the situation arises. That approach would possibly lead Indian cricket back to the happy times when there was no musical chairs for the wicketkeeper's slot.