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News Analysis

Hapless Karun Nair caught in selection crossfire

Nair is not the first batsman to have gone through selection mismanagement in recent times, but his handling by the team management, in particular, has been baffling

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Karun Nair's stumps were broken off the first ball he faced, India v Australia, 2nd Test, Bengaluru, 4th day, March 7, 2017

Karun Nair's stumps were broken off the first ball he faced  •  Associated Press

Manoj Prabhakar was a brave, street-smart cricketer, whose spirit of rebellion Indian cricket could have well done without. Those who played with him tell you he carried a deep-rooted resentment for the system ever since Kapil Dev called up Madan Lal from the England leagues to replace the injured Chetan Sharma in the Headingley Test on the 1986 tour of England. As a member of the squad already, Prabhakar believed he had earned the right to play the Test when Chetan got injured. But the India captain had other ideas.
Ajinkya Rahane in recent times has gone through similar mismanagement. He and Rohit Sharma went through the whole Australia tour of 2011-12 giving throwdowns to each other in a corner even as India stumbled from one defeat to another. In the year that followed, Rohit played himself out of the Test side through poor ODI form on the tour to Sri Lanka. Two players retired; Cheteshwar Pujara took one place, and out of nowhere came Yuvraj Singh to usurp Rahane in the queue. He didn't get a chance either in first-class cricket, to score the runs needed for selection, or in the Test XI. So much so that when Yuvraj was finally dropped, India picked Ravindra Jadeja, a bowler, ahead of Rahane.
There wasn't much in the name of a support system to help these players out. They had to fend for themselves. You hope there is someone talking to Karun Nair right now, explaining to him why he is not part of the Test squad against West Indies and what the future holds for him. By all accounts - Nair told Cricbuzz as much - the team management did not do so when they kept him out of the XI for six straight Tests.
At some level, Nair seems to be caught in the crossfire between the selectors and the team management. One thing was clear from the South Africa tour earlier this year: the team management rated Rohit Sharma ahead of even Ajinkya Rahane, leave alone Nair. The selectors gave them Nair as the reserve batsman in England. The team management responded by refusing to play Nair even when the situation and conditions called for the reinforcing of the batting.
Even when the team management gave in and finally played an extra batsman, it was not Nair. A bolter, Hanuma Vihari, made his way into the squad through first-class runs, something Nair could not have done sitting on the bench on a long tour where India didn't play a single first-class game outside the Tests. Nair spent close to two months with the India squad impressing Shankar Basu, the trainer, with his fitness.
The handling of Nair drove Sunil Gavaskar to anger during the England tour. "I know he has not been your favourite player. You don't want to pick him," was one of the instructive things Gavaskar said after India picked Vihari for the Oval Test, "you" being the team management. Vihari, of course, scored a half-century at The Oval, and has now got a chance to book his place for the Australia tour. India don't have the services of the injured allrounder Hardik Pandya for the home series against West Indies, which means a sixth batsman is likely to play, and these are home runs against a much lower-ranked opponent. These are runs that ensured Rohit played ahead of Rahane in South Africa. These are runs Nair would have thought he should have had a chance to score. And this is being said with no ill will towards Vihari, who was at the right place in the right time and grabbed his opportunity.
As usual, the selectors refuse to comment. This particular selection process has been especially curious. The selectors met in Delhi three days before the actual announcement of the squad but the BCCI said the meeting had nothing to do with this selection even though the secretary had called for a selection meeting that day. The announcement was made through a release that omitted to mention when the selectors actually met, or if they did actually meet.
Yet the selectors need to be given that slim benefit of doubt. They possibly realise that if Nair is going to warm the bench during this series - which, let's face it, seems to be his fate - he may as well score runs in domestic cricket. Except that the only domestic cricket on at that time will be of the shorter variety. There is still time for Nair, though. There is inspiration for him in his state team-mate Mayank Agarwal, who has scored so many runs again and again that it has been impossible to look away. Do that, and who knows Nair might see the selectors fight for him again when they have room for 17 men on the Australia tour.


One man who seems to have lost backers in the selection committee is Shikhar Dhawan. In Tests, he is that peculiar cricketer who seems fortunate to be there, and at the same time unfortunate when he is eventually left out. That's possibly because he makes his comebacks through limited-overs runs or injuries to others, then scores massively at home, and fails to score those runs in difficult conditions away from home. However, he also seems unfortunate when dropped because you can see he is putting in all the effort to try to succeed. He fights himself, he fights his natural game, he does all that with a smile, and still something or the other gets the better of him.
And so Dhawan is out again, yet again having failed to complete an away series: before England, he has been dropped midway in South Africa, Australia and also on the last tour of England. Yet it is possible to say Dhawan is unlucky to miss out. As the numbers of other top-order batsmen will tell you, the conditions in England were really tough for the openers. Dhawan showed the will to guts it out, consistently asking the bowlers to bowl good balls to get him out. After the first four Tests - the live Tests - Dhawan was easily the best of the five openers that played that series.
It was at The Oval that the openers finally managed to score centuries, Alastair Cook for England and KL Rahul for India. This Test featured the best batting conditions of the series, and bowlers at their most tired in a dead rubber. It is quite possible Dhawan might have secured his place had he scored runs here, but he got two really good balls to get out. It is also imaginable that Dhawan could have done well in Australia where the sideways movement is less pronounced and much shorter lived, but there won't be too many crying for Dhawan because he has had a lot of opportunities and doesn't have the difficult runs to show for it.
There is a sense of finality to this blow from the selectors. The message is clear: we know you can score two centuries in two sessions in these two Tests against West Indies but that's no good if you don't get even fifties in England or Australia or South Africa. There also seems no way back for Dhawan now; during the West Indies Tests, there is no other first-class cricket going on in India. When the first-class domestic cricket will begin, Dhawan will be busy with the limited-overs internationals. The only way back for this Australia tour seems a combination of ODI runs and failures for the new openers but the selectors seem to be in no mood to budge.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo