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March 30, 1998


Why has Prasad been left out?

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Prem Panicker

Saturday night, the national selectors announced a 14 member squad for the first match, versus Australia at Cochin on All Fools' Day, of the one day triangular series featuring Australia and Zimababwe, besides hosts India.

Rahul Dravid The line-up, for the record, reads: Mohammad Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Vinod Kambli, Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Robin Singh, Ajay Jadeja, Ajit Agarkar, Nayan Mongia, Javagal Srinath, Anil Kumble, V V S Laxman, Debashish Mohanty and Rahul Sanghvi.

As with any such exercise, the first thing one thinks of are the omissions: Saurav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Venkatesh Prasad, Harvinder Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Venkatapathy Raju, to give them names.

Ganguly's omission owes to his one-match suspension -- of which more later -- which, perhaps, explains why the selectors have specifically stated that this side is only for the first ODI.

Dravid's omission, and that of Venkatesh Prasad, continue to defy logic. Conventional thinking appears to be that Dravid is too 'slow' in the run-making department to qualify for the ODI side. To a generation of fans reared, apparently, to the mindset that a batsman qualifies for a place in a one day side only if he has a strike-rate around the 100 mark, it seems pointless to play devil's advocate. To argue that several of the most stirring chases put up by the Indians in recent times against huge targets, whether in a losing or winning cause, have seen Dravid play starring roles. Or further, to point out that his strike rate, strange though it might seem, actually matches, even betters, those of some at least of the 'dashers' in the side.

No, Dravid is slow, so Dravid must go.

Venkatesh Prasad And Venkatesh Prasad? This time, it is the selectors who are apparently difficult to convince -- not of the medium pace seam bowler's abilities, but of his fitness. They've had him undergo fitness tests. They've had him bowl and throw under the supervision of team physio Andrew Kokinos. They've picked him for representative teams -- including one against the touring Australians -- in recent times. They've summoned him to the Indian team nets to bowl to his erstwhile teammates in practise sessions.

They've found him fit for everything -- except a place in the national side.

And while on fitness, they've not seen fit to explain to the poor bloke just what he is supposed to do, to convince them that he won't fold under the strain of top class cricket. Climb Everest walking backwards all the way, perhaps?

There is a rather strange smell here. Fitness, for the selectors, appears increasingly to be a weapon, rather than a valid cricketing reason. Take, by way of contrast, the case of Javagal Srinath. He injured a side muscle while going for a difficult catch in the Calcutta Test. The injury, and the real risk of aggravating it needlessly, in a situation where the Test series had already been decided, kept him out of the Bangalore Test. However, he was cleared for ODI duty on the last day of that Test -- while Prasad, who has been playing domestic cricket for months now, who has twice been picked by the same selectors for representative sides, remains "unfit."

It all leads one to believe that the real reason lies elsewhere. The question is, where. The answer is with the selectors. And our selectors, like God, do not account for their acts. Thus Prasad's non-inclusion, I am afraid, will have to go down in the books as one of those unexplained mysteries -- like the riddle of the Sphinx, or the wreck of the Marie Celeste.

Venkat Raju is essentially an attacking bowler, who doesn't have a containing bone in his body. His omission, thus, is easily explained. As is that of Harbhajan Singh the offie, who debuted in the Bangalore Test -- too raw, too inexperienced, ergo too risky to be tried out in a context where one bad over could make the difference between a win and a loss.

And Harvinder? He has, in ODIs, performed decently in every game that he got to play in. His omission from the 14, thus, becomes a bit difficult to understand. Hopefully, the BCCI will at the least ensure that he spends the off period at the MRF Pace Academy, adding teeth to his bowling armoury under the eye of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, both now in India. But again, given the way the BCCI functions, that seems too much to hope for.

Remember Dodda Ganesh? You do? Great -- the BCCI and the selectors for sure have forgotten him, why should Harvinder be any different?

Which brings us to the inclusions. Of the 14, Rahul Sanghvi alone appears to have not even an outside chance of making the eleven -- his inclusion being in keeping with the pick-them-and-drop-them, it's-very-good-for-morale attitude that has been the trend in recent times.

And the others? One way to figure out where each player stands would be to put down the sure players, in batting order, and then attempt to fill in the blanks.

So: pencil Sachin Tendulkar in at the number one slot. Leave number two blank for now. Skipper Azharuddin slips into number three, the slot he opted to play in when he resumed the captaincy. Four stays blank. Jadeja fills the number five slot (such questions as whether he is back to full fitness after a recent injury, and talk of his having to go abroad for an operation, are presumably neither here nor there). Robin Singh comes in at number six. Seven -- given the number of all-rounders picked in the 14 -- stays blank for now. Mongia comes in at eight, Kumble at nine, and Srinath at ten, with the last man in remaining blank.

First question is Tendulkar's opening partner, and the logical choice, in Ganguly's absence, is Sidhu. So that is number two filled.

Unless the intent is to pack the side with all-rounders, the number four slot given this squad should go to Vinod Kambli. The free-stroking left-hander, coming in after his captain, will give the side the advantage of being able to maintain the momentum provided by the top three. Or will the team management get really adventurous and slot Kambli at number two, replacing Ganguly with another left hander who is capable of hitting over the top in the first fifteen overs? Leads to interesting speculation -- but Kambli at four has the further plus of being in when the spinners, particularly Shane Warne, are in operation.

With five and six slotted, the next blank comes up at number seven -- and that is a contest between Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Ajit Agarkar. Both are free-scoring batsmen -- with Kanitkar being marginally the better bat, and Agarkar shading the former with the ball. The choice thus would depend on the nature of the Cochin track -- the least bit of grass or other sign of life, and the temptation would be to go with Agarkar, who is quick both in the air and off the track.

And Mohanty to follow Mongia, Kumble and Srinath rounds off the eleven.

Or does it?

The line up has four fast to medium bowlers in Srinath, Mohanty, Agarkar and Singh. And just the sole spinner in Anil Kumble -- unless Sachin Tendulkar decides, on the basis of the turn he got in Bangalore, that he would like to challenge Shane Warne for the title of premier leggie in the world (yes, this statement is facetious and no, it is not flame-bait, thank you).

Given that obvious imbalance, there could be a strong temptation to play Sanghvi. And an equally strong one to drop Mohanty, and to go with both Agarkar and Kanitkar in the all-rounder's slots at seven and eight, Messers Mongia, Kumble and Srinath doing a Mad Hatter's Tea Party act and moving one place down the table.

V V S Laxman looks destined, thus, to carry the drinks, replacement gloves and such other accoutrements as his more privileged colleagues out in the middle may desire from time to time -- or again, will the selectors in an unusually adventurous mood drop Sidhu, and open with Laxman, to take advantage of his off-spinning abilities, albeit they are part-time?

You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

The more you examine that line-up -- with suitable readjustments for personal preferences -- the more you end up feeling that there is one player lacking to make it complete.

Saurav Ganguly, to give him a name. And that brings up the question of his suspension, for a game, on the charge of showing dissent when ruled out, LBW, in Bangalore.

First, what exactly did Ganguly do? He indicated his bat, suggesting that perhaps he had nicked the ball onto pad.

The action replays confirm that he did not. Which is not to suggest that Ganguly is lying -- when you play with bat close to pad, either defensively or when flicking across the line, you tend at times to brush pad with bat, and imagine you've flicked the ball.

In any event, that is what he did. And as per the code of conduct, that qualifies as dissent. Therefore, he is eligible for punishment. Whether the one match sentence handed out to him is too harsh, whether a fine would not have been more appropriate for a fleeting gesture unaccompanied by any further gesticulation -- all this is a matter for armchair debate.

For debate, too, in the West Bengal assembly -- which, on the day the suspension was handed down, took it up for debate, all parties for once agreeing -- and such consensus, in the WB assembly, is a landmark -- to condemn the decision, and to see in it a deliberate attempt to hamper the career of Bengal's pride. It takes a more savage pen than mine to do justice to the humourous possibilities inherent therein -- Varsha Bhosle, perhaps?

Prem Panicker, continued

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