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October 8, 1999


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Keeping the faith

Prem Panicker

Even at the height of election hysteria, when the nature of the future government was still in the balance, there were people in our election chatroom asking questions about the Indian team as picked for the first Test against New Zealand, which begins this Sunday.

Now that, praise be, the numbers on the board indicate that the country could be in for a period of political stability, comes this delayed column, as per reader request. Some specific questions were asked, both in chat, and via email -- I'll try and answer them here.

Before the particulars, however, there is one general aspect on which I must confess I have violent objections -- and that is this trick of picking a team for just one Test, and adding that the selectors will also pick the playing eleven.

This practise was instituted by the committee under Kishen Rungta, and followed, off and on, by the one under Ajit Wadekar. The latter, to his credit, never tried to interfere to the extent of picking the actual playing eleven, unlike Rungta who insisted on playing boss and even going to the extent of deciding specific batting positions for some of the players.

Chandu Borde It is regrettable that Chandu Borde, who has played his cricket in a different and, from an administrative point of view, better age has reverted to the Rungta model. I wonder -- did Borde, during his playing days, ever have one single instance when the team was picked from Test to Test, and where the selectors even picked the playing eleven? Did Borde, during his first stint as selector and committee chairman, follow such a policy?

If not -- and the answer is no -- then why now?

This practise has two negatives tagged on to it. The first is that it puts all players, or at least, a good proportion of them, on permanent trial. For instance, if say India opens with Ramesh and Devang Gandhi this Sunday, both players will go in knowing that they could well be axed from the team for the second Test. In that situation, what will be their mindset? Will they play as the interest of the team dictates, or will they play in the way they think will ensure their continued selection? To give you a concrete example, let us assume that India bats second and when the openers go out, the team plan is to score runs quick, pile it on and turn on the pressure in the second innings on the visitors. In that situation, do you really see either Ramesh or Gandhi taking the odd risk in search of quick runs, knowing that if the risk doesn't come off and they get out, it could be bye-bye?

The other reason is that this completely undermines the authority of coach and captain. Take an example from my own field -- journalism. Here in Rediff, we have an editor. And a CEO. Suppose my editor tells me to do something, and my CEO, an instant later, over-rules him and tells me to do something entirely different. Who am I going to listen to? Obviously, my CEO -- because, at the end of the day, it is the CEO who signs my salary cheque. Same difference -- if the captain or coach tells say a Ramesh what to do, why should he listen, when he knows that both those worthies are just dummies, and that it is the selection committee that will decide from Test to Test whether he should be in the side, and what position he will play in?

Why does the selection committee insist on sending a team into the field with the hands of captain and coach tied behind their backs in this fashion? And whatever happened to Borde's statement, to my colleague Faisal Shariff in a recent interview (an interview, in fact, given after he was named chairman of selectors), that he believes in simply picking the 14 and handing it over to the skipper and leaving it at that?

Take another part of that picture. We keep complaining that no thought goes into this Indian team's performances. Now assume that Tendulkar and Kapil Dev decide that right at the start of the series, they want to attack, to really demolish the Kiwi confidence. To do this, they decide for tactical purposes to open with Ramesh and either Dravid or MSK Prasad, to go with three seamers and two spinners plus the alternate spinner in Bharadwaj who will bat at six.

And then, on the morning of the game, Mr Borde tells them, April Fool, guys, you have to play Devang Gandhi and Ramesh as openers, Ajay Jadeja in the middle, and MSK Prasad batting at number 7. In one shot, on the morning of the match, the selection committee thus has reduced my bowling options from six to four -- and hamstrung the captain and coach.


Does power corrupt, that quickly and that absolutely?

Another colleague, Harsha Bhogle, had on the day the team was picked written a couple of related articles. Sadly, despite the fact that Harsha is easily my senior in cricket journalism and has a much higher profile, I find myself disagreeing with what he had to say therein.

Mongia The first point of disagreement relates to Nayan Mongia, whom Harsha termed the best keeper of the recent World Cup, and called a must-pick. Mongia did get an award, from an English paper, for the best catch of the tournament -- but best keeper of the tournament? I disagree -- in fact, if you review India's games, you will find at least a couple of occasions when he has missed crucial stumpings and catches, and several occasions when he didn't even try for edges especially down the legside, that impacted on the course of the game.

I was planning to analyse Mongia's overall utility to the side, but by a happy coincidence, this morning I received a mail from a regular reader, Gaurav Johri, whose friend, Gopal Rangachary, has done a statistical analysis of contemporary keepers. That analysis makes my point much better than I could hope to, so we'll carry it on Rediff as a separate piece. And in passing, I must say Rangachary's analysis was extremely impressive -- in terms of the thought and effort that went into it, and as an example of how statistics, properly researched and applied with thought, can tell stories worth telling. I only wish we got lots more, of this type, from the readers -- it would add a wonderful new dimension to our cricket pages.

So for now, we'll leave Mongia's track record to Mr Rangachary, and focus on the aspect that really worries me. How much of a team man is Mr Mongia? Harsha would know better than I do -- but I remember instances when, during coaching camps, I have felt stunned at the way Mongia would, seemingly as part of casual conversation, run down one of his colleagues. More graphically, Faisal Shariff will relate the story of how, during the 1983 versus 1999 festival match just ahead of the World Cup, Mongia took the opportunity of being alone (or so he thought, oblivious that Faisal was in earshot) to tell Raj Singh Dungarpur how he was "worried" about Agarkar, how the medium pacer seemed to have lost it, how "the ball is just not coming into my glove with the pace it used to"...

That kind of attitude -- and believe me, that is not an isolated instance, but a part of the man's mental makeup -- makes him a big no-no. Fortunately, we now have in MSK Prasad a 'keeper who, after initial nerves, has settled down very well. He is easily a far better batsman than Mongia (Prasad looks for singles, he strokes on both sides of the wicket as against Mongia whose one regular scoring stroke is the paddle-pull across to the on side) and as a keeper, in recent times, he has taken the kind of diving catches, way to his right and left, that Mongia would leave religiously alone. Look at it this way: a keeper who tries for everything, no matter how difficult, flashing past will drop a few more than a keeper who doesn't try for anything even a little bit away from his body -- but if you ask a bowler, he is going to tell you he prefers the keeper who tries.

Sachin with Azhar Then there is the Azharuddin question. True, Azhar is easily the fittest in the side. True, Azhar still has few if any challengers to the middle order berth. True, Azhar rarely if ever fails on home soil.

Flip that coin on its head. Forget it is Azhar we are talking about. Take player X. Suppose he gets injured, and needs an operation. Suppose that injury and operation keep him out of the nets for over two months. Suppose he then comes back and gets only one game, against an ordinary domestic attack, on a pitch with little terrors in it. Suppose he announces his fitness just three, four days before you are picking your team for your first Test series in quite a while. Now, if that player's name was not Azharuddin, wouldn't you automatically discount him?

If the answer to that is yes, what then are you saying -- that logic goes flying out the window when a personality, a star, walks in the door?

I am not arguing that past record doesn't count. Of course it does -- but by that yardstick, then, when does the past become the past, and stop impacting on the present? By that token, why was say Manoj Prabhakar dropped when he was? His past record was still good at the time he took that horrible hiding against Lanka in the World Cup game at the Kotla. Why was Rajesh Chauhan dropped when he was? (No, please, not his action -- that was cleared). His past record is very good -- off the top, I don't think India has lost a Test Chauhan has played in.

Nor am I arguing that it is time to forget Azhar. I earnestly hope not -- an Azhar in form provides magic at the batting crease. All I am suggesting is that instead of getting emotional about the whole question, it is time to use the head, time to say fine, there is a domestic season coming up, Azhar will be playing, he can bat himself back into peak form and as that happens, he can be taken back into the side.

Another aspect relates to the importance of this series. If the Indian think tank's goal is simply to beat the Kiwis, then we are losing it -- on home tracks, that result is pretty much on the cards, I don't see the Kiwis pulling off any kind of upset here. The real key to this series would be to use it to settle the team down for the big one -- versus Australia, end of the year. And Azhar's best friends wouldn't suggest that today, he is your automatic choice to take on quick bowlers on the kind of pacy wickets we are going to find in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. So doesn't logic suggest that this New Zealand series can be better used to groom a youngster -- Bharadwaj, in this instance -- to fill that slot permanently?

How can selectors, and even the media, keep harping on the need to plan for the future, and yet scream bloody murder when a decision is taken with that future in mind?

Incidentally, the injury factor is as applicable for Sachin Tendulkar as for Mohammad Azharuddin (though unlike Azhar, Sachin is hardly in the autumn of his career). Sachin has just taken treatment for an injury that has recurred often in recent times. A much wiser course would have been to have him with the team, merely as observer and backroom backup for captain and coach, letting him use the time at his disposal to work with India's newly appointed physio, spend heavy duty time in the nets, and be very sure that his back was now capable of taking stress before putting him back in the firing line.

Okay, so that is three surefire flames heading my way. One, from readers who will say that I go out of my way to fault anything the selection committee does. Two, from readers who will want my head for suggesting that Azhar being dropped was a good thing. And three from those zillions of Sachin fans (incidentally, when Sachin is batting at his best, I am as admiring a fan as anyone else in the world -- which doesnt mean that I need to abdicate all trace of reason) who will insist that I need to be sacked, forthwith, from Rediff and restrained, by court order if necessary, from ever writing another line about cricket for the rest of my natural life (with the addendum that my natural life could get drastically truncated if they ever happen to be where they can get a hand on me).

Anil Kumble Having probably alienated all Sachin fans and all Azhar fans, let me make a thorough job of it by wondering what Kumble is doing in this side. Unlike Azhar and Sachin, Kumble was dropped for lack of form -- not fitness. In other words, in the opinion of the selectors, his bowling lacked bite, sharpness, the cutting edge. On what evidence has it now been assumed that it is back? A thoroughly forgettable performance in one domestic game on a spinning track on which an Anand Yalvigi, who's he?, got two wickets in almost one third the number of overs Kumble bowled?

Ah, they nod wisely when you ask them this, but just look at his past record. I am tempted to retort, what happens when Kumble faces the Kiwis? Does he run in, right arm over, and with a fluid motion, throw the latest edition of Wisden at the batsman? Expecting him to roll over and play dead by the sight of that "past record" hurtling at them at flipper speed?

You might pick players on the basis of past records -- but international batsmen of any class play what you bowl to them, not your name or your record.

By the way, if the logic for picking Kumble is past record, then why was Azhar dropped anyway? Something wrong with the latter's past record, that escapes us? Point being, if you follow one logic -- misguided though it may be -- shouldn't you at least apply it uniformly?

And while on that, what has the picking of Kumble done? Compounded injustice to injury by forcing the selectors to drop Nikhil Chopra.

Throughout this year, I have heard Ajit Wadekar, Sachin Tendulkar, Raj Singh Dungarpur, Kapil Dev and Chandu Borde, at various times, spell out their philosophy. The words have differed, but the thought has been the same. 'It is time to pick players with commitment... time to pick players who are keen to improve... players who play for the team... players who contribute in more than one aspect of the game...'

Now, keep those thoughts in mind when considering Nikhil Chopra. During the World Cup, Bob Simpson in a signed column wrote that of the entire Indian side, Chopra and Debashish Mohanty were a dream to work with. 'They know they will never make the playing eleven, yet they have been the most enthusiastic, the most tireless in the nets,' Simpson wrote. 'They bowl endless overs, they work to get batsmen out, then they come to me and tell me how they bowled to get each batsman, what they perceive as that batsman's weak point, and suggest that I talk to the player concerned and work on sorting out that particular problem.'

Would you, on that evidence, give Chopra an 'A' for team spirit and commitment?

At the start of this year, Nikhil Chopra was frowned upon on two counts. The first, that he was a lousy fielder. Secondly, that he bowled flat and fast, and never attacked the batsman.

Chopra actually worked on his fielding, worked hard, to the end that in the recent weeks, he is being placed regularly at point, at short cover, at short mid on and short midwicket, and has in those key positions been doing extremely well.

And with the ball, starting in Sri Lanka and continuing through the series thus far, he has been a standout. Confident of his place in the one day squad, he has started throwing the ball up, turning it more, using variations. Recognising that, his captains, Jadeja and Ganguly, have given him attacking fields, and Chopra has responded by taking wickets, and keeping his economy rate down as well.

He ain't too bad a bat either, is he?

So since he scores straight 'A's in every single criterion the various powers that be have spelt out, the logical thing to do was of course to drop him, without giving him a chance to prove whether he could translate that one day form into Test match results!

And, instead, to pick a bowler you dropped for form, who has since that omission not shown any visible sign -- visible to us followers of the game at least; selectors presumably have much sharper vision -- of having worked on his bowling and got over the concerned problem.

To Chopra, you have sent a signal that commitment, hard work, none of those buzzwords really matter. To Kumble -- and through him, to the others -- you have sent a message that name and reputation is all, that performance and form count for nothing, that a 'star' will continue to be pampered irrespective of performance.

Oh well -- this, after all, is Indian cricket we are talking about. Where the more things change, the more they remain depressingly the same.

I could continue the process of alienation and add Jadeja fans to the list by wondering what he is doing in this team. Middle order batsman, we are told. From which I assume the selectors think Jadeja is the man who will fill Azhar's shoes -- I would call that an absurd notion, on the face of it. Funnily enough, when it suits the selectors they talk of past record -- so how come in Jadeja's case, past record in Tests (including the fact that for the last few years, he has never, ever, been an automatic selection for a Test team) doesn't seem to count for much?

But why bother? If the purpose here is to win this series against New Zealand, the team as picked can do the job.

My error was that I hoped that with the change of guard, Indian cricket would finally realise that the Scarlett O'Hara technique, of living life day to day and not bothering about tomorrow, would end. That this series would be used mainly to produce a settled team ahead of the really big series, the one against Australia at the end of the year.

On available evidence, it would seem likely that the Kiwis will return, the Indian team will tour Australia and return, and all concerned will be still 'experimenting'.

Related articles:
Of heartbreak and joy
Killing them softly
'Selection with an eye on the future'
'A player should be a trier...'

Prem Panicker

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