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August 6, 1999


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Kambli lucky, Mongia unlucky

Harsha Bhogle

So if Azharuddin and Nayan Mongia hadn't sent their letters to the secretary of the BCCI, there would have been no reason to have a selection committee meeting! For the truth is that had everyone been available, India would have made no change to the team that disappointed some in England.

Now, Vinod Kambli comes back and he must consider himself just a bit lucky. But don't grudge him that. For anyone who has to miss nine months due to an injury that looked like it came out of a horror film, deserves these little pieces of luck. He is a lovely team-man, cheerful person but very short of match fitness. He only played off and on for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy last year and it didn't help him that they didn't qualify for the Super League. All the months away from the game, and I fear a little whiff of his old indiscipline, also left him overweight. His chances in the couple of matches he got in the triangular in April were limited and obviously, he has played no competitive cricket since then.

Luckily for him, India isn't exactly spilling over with talent at the moment. Really, his only rivals would have been Kanitkar and VVS Laxman, and to be fair to them, Kanitkar played very well against the West Indies 'A' team and Laxman scored tons of runs for Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy. But in close decisions like these, you have to allow the committee and the captain to pick a man they feel most confident about.

Nayan Mongia's replacement would have merited some debate and I am bit surprised that the selectors went in for MSK Prasad over Saba Karim. In April and in June, when the time came to consider a replacement, Karim was the man picked and so he should have thought that he was number two in the eyes of the selectors. But he is older than Mongia and the opportunity for blooding a young replacement must have been too tempting to ignore.

But like Kambli, Prasad hasn't played much cricket since January because his team, Andhra, didn't qualify for the Super League of the Ranji Trophy either. He did play the Wills Trophy and the Deodhar Trophy, but it is a very long gap to bridge. Luckily for him, he has nine days to go before the camp and another week before India's first game so there is enough time to rediscover the sound of ball hitting glove.

Having said that, Prasad is a clean wicket-keeper and a very enthusiastic young man. And the one-day game is a far easier place to make a debut than a Test match. I will be interested in seeing how he bats though, because on the few occasions that I have seen him, he has looked very impressive. Like so many batsmen from the South, he bats with a flourish; high backlift and a predominant wrist. It is important for Indian cricket that he settles in quickly for he will provide Mongia with the competition that he seems to require to spur him on.

I have been a bit perplexed though by reports in the Indian media in recent times, in the aftermath of the World Cup and the build-up to the first team under Tendulkar, that wicket-keeping is a problem area for India. I thought I saw India play most of its matches in recent times, and I am sure I saw all their games at the World Cup, and the person I saw behind the stumps struck me as being quite brilliant. For that performance to merit a change, everybody else should have been playing like Sampras at Wimbledon !

The tragedy is that we have allowed a drop in batting form to cloud our assessment of Mongia's wicket keeping skills. And yet, he averages around 20 in the last year which, given the number of batting opportunities he has had, isn't too bad. What has magnified those failures is that the batting after him has been disastrous. He does need to score more runs than he has in recent times, but that is because he is a far better batsman than he allows himself to be.

Now, he will watch Prasad closely and that can only do him good. There isn't too much competition for places in Indian cricket so let us enjoy it while one comes along!

I am just a little surprised that there isn't another change in the side given that India are playing in Sri Lanka. In those conditions, Sri Lanka have traditionally used spinners to bowl anywhere between 30 and 40 overs with a combination of Muralitharan, Dharmasena, Jayasuriya, Aravinda da Silva and Chandana. I thought India would have wanted an additional spin bowling option since the chance of playing three seamers would be remote. I thought the selectors would have looked at Sunil Joshi for either of Mohanty or Agarkar, or even in place of one of the batsmen because only one of Khurasia, Kambli or Ramesh will get a game.

Remember, even after the World Cup team was picked, Joshi was sent to Sharjah on a horses-for-courses policy and India went there with three spinners and three pacemen. But I suspect nobody wanted to rock the ship too much and, maybe, there was a need to send out signals of confidence to people like Agarkar and Khurasia.

While this team has been picked for two tournaments, this lot will really get the nod for four given that there will be no domestic cricket in India till after the matches in Kenya. That might actually be a good thing to happen because it will give the new captain the time to form an assessment of the fringe players.

By then, a new selection committee would have been formed though I hope there are very few changes to the current one. This has by and large been a good committee and they have a crucial job to do because the BCCI has just announced a five-year plan for the 'A' team. That is the best news I have heard for a very long time.

Picking a good 'A' team will be a greater service to Indian cricket than picking the national team.

Harsha Bhogle

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