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December 9, 1997


Your time starts now!

Prem Panicker

In all the hurly-burly of the recently concluded Pepsi Series between India and Sri Lanka, a few factors that could have an immense -- and immensely harmful -- long range effect on Indian cricket appears to have gone unnoticed.

The first of these is the latest style, if you can call it that, of the functioning of the national selection committee.

What is the general practise? Essentially, to pick a team for a tour, or a series, and then leave the team management (which means captain and coach) to take it from there. The selectors, by both convention and practise, have a further role to play if, and only if, the management for reasons of injury or loss of form require that a member of the squad be replaced.

Now consider the just concluded series. A team is picked for the first Test. The entire selection committee than goes to Mohali, the venue of that Test, and on the fourth day, picks a side for the second Test.

"We have decided to retain the same team." "The meeting took only 15 minutes."

Then the committee travels to Nagpur, and picks a team for the third Test.

"We have decided to retain the same team.... the meeting only took ten minutes..."

Travels to Bombay, and picks a team for the Sharjah tournament.

Now is that a fun job, or what?

What is actually happening is that the national selectors, and their respective zones, are being rewarded by the BCCI higher ups for their support in the recent organisational elections, in course of which the Dalmiya-Dungarpur-Lele axis triumphed over the Bindra-Agashe-Sunil Dev-C Nagaraj lineup.

Thus, the selectors get to travel from venue to venue, living in five star comfort at the expense of the BCCI, ostensibly so that they can confer, and pick the team for the next Test -- an unprecedented act even in the totally-without-precedent world of Indian cricket.

Five days of all expenses paid luxury for meetings that do not take more than 15 minutes tops. This, in an age of high technology, when tele-conferences are the easiest things to arrange.

And that tells merely half the story. The selectors and their respective zones scratched the backs of Dalmiya et al by giving unstinted support during the elections. In return, what they have been given is unparalleled powers.

Check out these statements by Sachin Tendulkar and Anshuman Gaikwad, when asked about why Venkatesh Prasad was left out of the teams for Mohali and Nagpur. "The selectors asked us to drop Prasad," said Gaikwad. But the selectors have no authority to choose the playing eleven, it was pointed out. "That is how it is. If even one selector is present at the venue, he decides the lineup," said Tendulkar.

This, again, is a first. In fact, even during the earlier tenure of this same selection committee, such a situation did not exist, the selectors decided squads but not the composition of the playing eleven.

The reward for loyalty -- read, votes in elections -- is, thus, unprecedented power.

What is the result? Simply this: a situation has been created wherein the selectors decide everything, up to and including the composition of the playing eleven, and even the batting order. Remember Ramakant Desai's words, when explaining the lineup to Sharjah? "Sidhu has been selected as opener, and instructed to play shots and take advantage of the 15-over field restrictions, and Sachin has been asked to bat at number four," said the chairman of the national selection committee.

So that, apparently, is that. The selection committee will first pick the squad. Then it will pick the playing eleven. And then it will decide who bats where.

And then it will sit back. And allow the captain to carry the can, to take the blame as and when the team does badly.

Consider the situation: the Indian captain has, always has had, the power of veto in team selection. Thus, if he disagrees with one or more players picked by the selectors, he has, as per the BCCI's own written constitution, the right to turn down that particular player.

That has been taken away. De facto, if not de jure.

And not content with that, the captain's right to decide the makeup of the playing team has also, now, been taken away from him.

We have, thus, two authorities. One, the national selection committee as a body, that takes all the decisions without any of the responsibilities for producing results. And the other, the team management comprising captain and coach, who take none of the decisions, but who are held accountable for producing results.

As if this weren't enough, there is Jaywant Lele. Who, in his twin capacities as BCCI secretary and convenor of the selection committee, appears to be the closest thing to a megalomaniac this side of Napoleon.

This is what he said when Anshuman Gaikwad was appointed coach: "He has been appointed for one year and if he does not produce results, Krishnamachari Srikkanth will take over...."

For sheer callous arrogance, that statement, I thought, was hard to top. Lele topped even that with ease, but we'll get to that in a minute. For now, imagine the pressure it puts on a coach. It is like hiring a guy to do a job in say a company, and as he signs his appointment letter, telling him that his replacement has already been lined up.

Gaikwad, in an informal chat with some members of the media, was asked whether he felt the pressure. Whether this sword hanging over his head would hamper him when it came to taking bold decisions in terms of strategy. The coach's response was interesting: "I know that in this job, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. So I figured I might as well be damned for doing. Our thinking is, we will play aggressively, and forget about the extraneous considerations."

Meanwhile, Lele struck again when announcing the captain for Sharjah. "Sachin Tendulkar has been retained to lead the side, but only for 27 days. A captain for the series against Australia will be picked later...."

The story of the Indian captain's life, that -- captain for a game, a Test, a series, and now, for 27 days!

That, you would think, is how it should be -- strict, complete accountability.

The trouble being, this accountability appears to begin, and end, with the players, the captain, and the coach. You are sacked if you don't perform -- and in the case of players like Debashish Mohanty and Harvinder Singh, you are sacked even when you do perform and perform brilliantly what's more.

But does this accountability extend to officialdom?

Does it, ever! Way back in May, I met Lele in Bangalore. And, among other things, we talked about the physical fitness trainer for the Indian side -- something, mind you, that both BCCI president Raj Singh Dungarpur and secretary Lele agreed, at the start of their tenure, was "top priority".

"We have to think about it, we have to find out where the money is coming from," went the secretary, then. Never mind that in the subsequent months, the BCCI has found money to host two annual general body meetings where one should have sufficed, found money to pay various committees that haven't even met because "there is nothing to discuss", found money to put the selection committee up in five star luxury at various Test venues and fly them from centre to centre, and so on, and so forth.

When it comes to a trainer, though, "we have to figure where the money is going to come from."

Fair enough. So the same question is put to him immediately after the Indian team returns from Pakistan. "We have been having discussions with Bobby Simpson, he has suggested a couple of names, when he comes here as ICC match referee, we will finalise on a name, taking his inputs," was the response.

Bobby Simpson has come. And gone.

Lele is yet to finalise the name.

Why? Because no one made him BCCI secretary "for 27 days". He is into his second year in office. And his tenure depends on how well he can politik -- not in the kind of results he gets or, in this case, does not get.

And we still wonder why Indian cricket does not do better than it is currently doing!

Prem Panicker

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