March 23, 1998
Wadekar hits a "zone"
Almost before you could put your hands together to welcome Ajit Wadekar into the national selection committee, you find yourself wondering if it is going to be such a good idea after all.
The reason why Wadekar's imminent entry into the five member team that decides the composition of the national cricket side is easy to seek. A common criticism of the panel under Ramakant Desai's chairmanship was its almost complete lack of experience of cricket at the highest level. Thus, barring Desai and Shivlal Yadav, none of the other three had played international cricket. And even among the two "experienced" selectors, Desai had not played one day internationals, while Yadav had played around six or seven.
All of which amounts to a monumental lack of experience -- to which factor the innumerable mistakes in team selection in recent times were being ascribed.
Wadekar, thus, was seen as something of a welcome change. He has played at the highest level, and that very successfully. He has led the side to some stunning victories, and thus is presumably aware of what it takes to captain a team, also what a captain is entitled to get by way of team composition. And he has been a successful team manager -- which further enhances his data bank.
More than his tenure as captain and as player, it is his stint as manager that, for the analyst, provides the best reason for hailing his entry into the selection committee. For, as manager, Wadekar has handled Azharuddin and Tendulkar, the two power centres in Indian cricket today. Plus he has first hand experience with the other stars -- ranging from the Ganguly and Dravids with the bat, to the Srinaths, Prasads and Kumbles with the ball.
All of which is why the news that he could replace Desai as chairman from the West Zone was widely welcomed in cricketing circles.
It took Wadekar just one press briefing, one quote, to demolish all the hope. His quote -- and I do hope he is not, as in the earlier episode regarding the bugging of players' hotel rooms, going to use the familiar escape hatch of being 'misquoted' on this one -- runs thus: "I will strive to increase the number of players representing the national side from the West Zone and Mumbai. As of now, there is just one player, Sachin Tendulkar, from Mumbai representing the country against the touring Australians."
On second thoughts, why would this statement surprise any of us? Check out his response, in course of an online chat on Rediff, to a similar question. (Link to full transcript given at the end of this piece).
Here, he reiterates his concern at the absence of players from the West Zone. He blames it on "regionalism in selection" -- apparently unaware that his harping on a particular zone is precisely the sort of regionalism he is harping against. And he mentions several names as being among the contenders for the national side -- Vinod Kambli, Ajit Agarkar, Sanjay Manjrekar (who to give Wadekar his due announced his retirement subsequent to this chat), Abey Kuruvilla, Nilesh Kulkarni, Amol Majumdar, et al.
First up, Wadekar has been coopted into the national selection committee. And his task is to help select a national team, not one to represent Bombay (strangely, his list of contenders does not even include a single non-Bombay player -- or did they change the rules on us and make "Bombay" and "West Zone" synonymous?).
By making the statement he did, what Wadekar has done is to legitimise zonal bias in team selection. All along, we could argue that the likes of Rungta, Pandove and Bannerjee were biased because they owed their positions to the support they get from their respective zones, and that this explained their own eagerness to pander to the interest of their zones.
But Wadekar has a stature that transcends Bombay, and indeed the West Zone. So for to show similar bias comes as a true shocker. More, it comes as depressing news for all those who were hoping for a clean up of the selection process.
For what were we advocating? That the constitution of the panel be changed. That it be made mandatory for national selectors to have considerable experience at the international level. This, we said, would ensure that teams would be picked on cricketing, rather than zonal and regional, considerations.
And now here is a cricketer, more experienced than most, loudly advocating a regional tilt to the selection process! Which, effectively, puts all hope that the system would change for the better back by about a decade.
But that is merely one of the problems with Wadekar's mindset. Check out the names he is advocating, and the reason for that advocacy. It is not the intention, here, to debate the relative merits of Ajit Agarkar or Amol Majumdar or even Vinod Kambli. The question that needs raising is a more basic one: How do you pick a player for the big time?
Wadekar appears to believe that Ranji Trophy performances are the proper yardstick. Which, frankly, shocks me -- by that reckoning, the likes of Sujit Somasundar, Vikram Rathore, David Johnson et al should be in this side ahead of say Dravid, Ganguly, Sidhu, Srinath and company.
From a person of Wadekar's credentials, I would have expected a statement that he would wish to personally examine players, from whichever zone, who have been doing well in domestic competition. That in course of this examination, he would analyse not their scorecards, but their technique against pace and spin. And that he would use this to decide whether or no a player is capable of making the transition to the big time.
But no, Wadekar says the Ranji performances are enough. Why, then, blame the less experienced quartet of Yadav, Pandove, Rungta and Bannerjee for acting as they do?
Yet another question that needs an answer from Wadekar is, who would he drop? I mean, you can only have eleven players in a side. Wadekar believes, apparently, that at least seven players from Bombay deserve berths. At whose expense? While I haven't spent any time with the calculator, I would even offhand venture a guess that the top five batsmen -- Sidhu, Dravid, Ganguly, Tendulkar and Azharuddin -- are, in the past 12-18 months, averaging in the high forties to the fifties. Which, by any yardstick, is very very good -- so whom among them would he drop to include say an Amol Majumdar?
With that thoughtless quote, Wadekar has damaged the cause of West Zone more than, perhaps, he realises. Ajit Agarkar's is a case in point. This Sunday, I got a chance to check out a few videos of the lad in action, given to my by a friend in the media. I found him an ideal India prospect -- he is quick, both in the air and off the wicket, he has variety again in the air and off the seam, he is a very aggressive, attacking bowler and, thus, complements Srinath admirably. More important, he is a batsman in the Azhar Mahmood mould -- a perfect candidate for the number seven slot, behind Ganguly, in this batting lineup. Thus, his entry into the side will beef up both the batting and the bowling, and end India's search for the all-rounder.
But if and when picked for the senior side -- an imaginative selection panel would have picked him for the third Test, so that he can be blooded against a top quality international side without, however, facing the pressure of a must-win situation -- his selection will be seen as "Bombay bias" on the part of Wadekar.
And therein lies the real damage that one ill-judgement statement has caused. A Wadekar in the national selection panel could have done considerable good. Instead, even before his first official sitting as part of the panel, we are already apprehensive that he will do considerable harm.
And that in turn leads to one last thought: if Wadekar's mindset is as seen above, why then should we believe that the induction of Test players into the selection committee will, in and by itself, help bring about a more rational method of team selection?
Full transcript of the Wadekar chat.
A personal note: This is by way of being an apology.
On Saturday, out of sheer mental exhaustion, I dashed off a match report that, on re-reading first thing this morning, makes me cringe.
While the analysis, what there was of it, is okay, the blunders make the thing unacceptable. Again, I could justify it on the basis that I was expected to do that thing in all of 30 minutes in order to meet a deadline -- but the fact remains that the piece, as uploaded, was shoddy.
My apologies to all readers. Being human, I am pretty sure I will goof again -- the best I can do is say I'll try and limit the number of screwups to an acceptable, or should that read forgiveable, level.