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August 6, 1999


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Kambli, M S K Prasad in team

Prem Panicker in Baroda

There are three places set out in the conference room on the mezzanine floor of Hotel Surya Palace, Baroda. They are neatly labelled: Ajit Wadekar, J Y Lele, Sachin Tendulkar. Ninety minutes after the five selectors, plus coach Anshuman Gaekwad and captain Sachin Tendulkar - with Lele in the chair, met to pick the teams for the twin tours of Sri Lanka and Singapore, two of those seats are filled. The notable absentee is Sachin Tendulkar, who, immediately after the meeting, left for his hotel.

He has done this in the past as well - leaving before the obligatory media conference. On one famous occasion, in Bangalore, he had even left - stormed out would be a better descriptor - before the selection committee had finalised the team.

This time, though, Tendulkar - whose first innings as captain began with a tour of Sri Lanka, and who now finds himself leading a team to that same country at the start of round two of his tenure in the hottest seat in the country - pauses a moment in the lobby. To - again unlike earlier instances - flash a smile at those of us in the media who are gathered there. And to respond to one - just one - query.

Are you happy with the team picked for you? "Yes, I am," he says, no elaboration. And he is gone on a wave of the hand.

The team, Tendulkar professes himself happy with, and which Lele announces some five minutes later, reads as follows:
Sachin Tendulkar (captain), Ajay Jadeja (vice-captain), Saurav Ganguly, Sadagoppan Ramesh, Rahul Dravid, Amay Khurasiya, Vinod Kambli, Robin Singh, M S K Prasad (wicket-keeper), Anil Kumble, Nikhil Chopra, Ajit Agarkar, Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad and Debashish Mohanty.

This side will play a triangular in Sri Lanka, involving the host nation and Australia, later this month, before flying to Singapore for another triangular involving the West Indies and Singapore in the first week of September.

Cast your eye over that list, keeping in mind the recent World Cup, and the two changes leap out at you - Vinod Kambli and M S K Prasad.

The former, we are duly informed, has been brought in as replacement for Azharuddin - which, effectively, means that Amay Khurasiya is looking at another tour in which he gets to do nothing but make up the numbers.

And the latter comes in place of Nayan Mongia, who on the eve of the selection meeting, announced that he is still to fully recover from the hairline fracture - and related complications - suffered during the early stages of the World Cup.

There is a curious story behind the two omissions - within the space of some 72 hours, first Azhar, then Mongia, ruled themselves unfit. Which, for those who have been following Indian cricket even cursorily, will seem strange - the more normal practise is for players to hide their injuries, to play on and on until they break down completely.

So why the 'voluntary retirement', in a matter of speaking? Officially, all that Lele will tell you is that the two players volunteered the news of their unfitness, which the board duly took note of.

However - as with much else in Indian cricket - there are stories behind stories. And the one lurking in the background here is that the selectors had, as early as the day they had appointed Tendulkar to lead the side, decided that Azhar and Mongia wouldn't figure in the team list for the twin tours.

In Azhar's case, the selectorial thinking, as per one of the famous five who speaks to us on condition that we don't use his name ("Or even the zone I represent, please, sometimes you reporters say things like 'a selector from the south, or east, or whatever, speaking under conditions of anonymity'") is that he is running a very bad patch of form, coupled with an injury that is yet to heal sufficiently for the player to be able to produce a fitness certificate.

"If we pick him and the injury doesn't heal as expected, what then? Or what if we pick him, and then find that he is out of match practise thanks to his injury? So we had decided to leave him out this time."

And Mongia? "His performance during the World Cup, both as keeper and batsman, was seen as below par," says the same selector. "The problem we had during the Cup was that the lower order did not contribute significantly with the bat, and Mongia was the biggest disappointment in this regard."

In other words, Mongia was for the high jump anyway. And thus, one of the selectors made a little call and tipped the player (in fact, both players) off. And that in turn sparked the statements by both Azhar and Mongia, begging off from the tour.

It is better to drop out than be dropped out, right?

But what of the future? There is no direct word on either player's fate. But there are clues, hints, indications aplenty. Thus, at the press briefing, a direct question is asked: If and when Azhar submits a fitness report, will he be included in the side for future tournaments?

"It all depends," says chairman of selectors Ajit Wadekar. On what? "On team balance, the nature of the tournament, things like that."

Reading between the lines - and extrapolating with straws in the wind furnished off-record by a couple of the selectors - we could well have seen the last of Azhar as a one-day player, though he could still be in contention for a place in the Test team.

Meanwhile, still reading between lines and extrapolating the heck out of things heard, Mongia is finished as an India player. No one - least of all, Wadekar - will say so in so many words. But when asked whether Syed Saba Karim was considered for selection, and what influenced the choice of M S K Prasad, the chairman let out a broad enough hint.

"We did consider Saba quite seriously, but it was decided by the selectors, the coach and the captain that it is time to look to the future."

Meanwhile, the combination picked, barring the two replacements, is essentially the same as the one that went to England for the World Cup.

"That is right," says Wadekar. "We did consider more changes, but decided against that."

Which changes were considered? "That is irrelevant, let us not get into that," Wadekar says.

So why were more changes ruled out? "For two reasons. One, in Sri Lanka, at both Premadasa Stadium and Galle, we will be playing on seaming tracks like the ones we found in England, so the same combination makes sense. Further, these guys have been playing together, for some time now, as a unit, and, therefore, it was thought that in the interests of continuity, it would not do to make too many changes."

The media briefing throws up other interesting questions - and answers.

Was Dodda Ganesh, who has been having a wonderful run in domestic cricket, considered for selection?
"Yes, he was, but it was felt that we should persist with the same four seamers that went to England."

When Amay Khurasiya already exists to fill the middle order slot left vacant by Azhar, why Vinod Kambli?
"We decided that we wanted a player with experience to replace Azharuddin, who is the most experienced player in the side."

What opening combination will the team go with, given that Saurav Ganguly had recently said in a signed article in a Bengali daily that Sachin Tendulkar should be batting at number four?
"Saurav has been misquoted on that," chips in Lele, without however clarifying how it is possible to "misquote" a signed article written in the first-person.

"Sachin and Saurav will open, definitely," chimes in Wadekar, rescuing Lele from the hole the diminutive board secretary had dug for himself on that one. "And Ramesh is in the side as third opener, just in case."

The lack of all rounders keeps coming up when the team is analysed, yet there are no new ones being tried in this list?
"We did discuss some names, boys like Jacob Martin have been doing very well, but we decided to stick with the existing combinations. We have batting all rounders in Robin, Sachin and Saurav and even Jadeja, and bowling all rounders in Srinath, Chopra and Kumble, besides a wicket-keeping all rounder in Prasad, the team management will have to make sure that they all chip in with bat and ball."

Another problem that was in sharp focus during the World Cup was the failure of the tail to contribute with the bat, how has that problem been addressed?
"Well," says Wadekar on a laugh, "we are merely the selectors, we can't do anything about that. However, one reason why this selection meeting took so long was that we discussed this issue threadbare with both the captain and the coach, and both have been told that it is their business to see that the tail begins wagging, and wagging regularly."

Sachin Tendulkar had come under enormous pressure during his first stint as captain. At that time, he had willingly accepted the job. This time, he has himself said he is - make that was, since the captaincy is now a fait accompli - not ready for the task. Will the pressures on him now be doubled?
"Well," says Wadekar, "we can only ensure that Sachin gets the kind of team he wants, and which fit the requirements of the tournaments we are playing in. The rest is in his hands. But I must add that any player who plays for the country is under pressure, given the enormous interest there is in cricket in India - it is not only Sachin who feels the pressure. And if you remember, Don Bradman was in his time ranked the number one batsman in the world, yet he led Australia successfully without it affecting his batting - and Sachin is now ranked number one batsman in the world today."

The team, for the first time in two years, goes for a tournament without physiotherapist Andrew Kokinos - will this impact on fitness, already not our strongest point?
"Kokinos's contract expired with the World Cup, and we will consider his replacement, if any, at the annual general body meeting of the board, in September," responds Lele. "Meanwhile, Dr Ravindra Chaddha will continue as team doctor, and the captain and coach will look after the fitness aspect as well."

And that is about that, for this particular exercise in team selection. The squad is essentially the same, and that in turn takes away the need for lengthy analysis.

Meanwhile, World Cup defeat or no, some things never change. Even as the selection committee meet in a little dinette on the ground floor of the Surya Hotel, the lobby is crammed with mediamen - and a forest of television boom mikes and cameras - who have flown in from around the country. And the streets outside are a screaming, throbbing mass of people -- mostly school children - all waiting for one glimpse of, who else, Sachin Tendulkar.

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