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December 19, 1997


Day of the long knives!

Prem Panicker

We'll give it to you straight -- the national selectors on Thursday dropped six players from the squad that just completed an eminently forgettable trip to Sharjah for the Champions Trophy quadrangular.

The squad of fourteen to take on Sri Lanka in a series of three one day games, beginning on December 22 in Guwahati, reads as follows: Sachin Tendulkar, Ajay Jadeja, Mohammad Azharuddin, Saurav Ganguly, Navjot Singh Sidhu, V V S Laxman, Robin Singh, Nayan Mongia, Sairaj Bahutule, Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Harvinder Singh, Javagal Srinath, Debashish Mohanty and Rajesh Chauhan.

The ones axed are: Venkatesh Prasad, Abey Kuruvilla, Rahul Dravid, Syed Saba Karim, Anil Kumble and Vinod Kambli.

The night of the long knives? That was a picnic, compared to what is going on, behind the scenes in the Indian cricket establishment.

What then lies behind the wholesale mayhem?

Item: Indian skipper Sachin Tendulkar and coach Anshuman Gaikwad, on their return from the disastrous foray in the Champions Trophy in Sharjah, have presented scathing reports indicting various players, including a few senior ones, of totally flouting pre-match strategies and, on occasion, even ignoring instructions sent out during the course of an innings.

Item: The buzz from Sharjah speak of massive, and semi-public, temper tantrums within the Indian dressing room. Of slanging matches between players, of open politicking.

Item: Manager Anshuman Gaikwad has in a strongly worded protest criticised the policy of the national selection committee to interfere in team selection (vide, to quote one instance, the picking of Abey Kuruvilla in the playing eleven ahead of Venkatesh Prasad) and in deciding the batting line-up (vide their 'order' to Sachin Tendulkar to bat at number four).

The cumulative result: The BCCI bosses, most especially board president Raj Singh Dungarpur, are fed to the back teeth with the current situation. And as a result, the national selectors were instructed on Thursday morning to pick a team based purely on performance, without caring a fig for reputations and past records. And, further, to ensure that their involvement begins, and ends, with the selection of the team, and that the committee is not to dictate terms to captain and coach once the squad is finalised.

In other words, the selection committee has been instructed to keep out of such matters as the playing eleven, the batting order and suchlike matters, which will be the sole prerogative of captain and coach.

Interestingly, Sachin Tendulkar's captaincy was not, at this meeting, a topic for discussion -- simply because he had, already, been named to lead the side in the three games. However, the word from the higher echelons of the BCCI is that even Tendulkar has been put on notice -- short notice at that -- and will need to start delivering results in the upcoming series against Sri Lanka, or risk losing captaincy of the one day squad.

In such a scenario, the selectors will in all likelihood opt to follow the England/Australia model -- one captain (Tendulkar) for Tests, and another (Jadeja) for one dayers.

Back to the squad -- as per its composition, Laxman has been picked as a wild card, the perception being that he can stand in either for Sidhu as opener, or for Azhar in the middle order.

Hrishikesh Kanitkar is the standby for Robin Singh, on the 'one all rounder for another' policy. It will be recalled that when the management saw fit to drop Singh for the crucial Champions Trophy engagement against the West Indies, there was no reserve all rounder in the side to act as substitute. That gap is now being plugged here.

Anil Kumble's ouster was on the cards -- and of the players waiting in the wings, Sairaj Bahutule is the one who has seemed most fit to step into the leg-spinner's slot.

The leg-spinner's role in one day cricket received a fresh lease of life in Sharjah. Courtney Walsh took what is, in Test cricket, an essentially negative tactic, and converted it perfectly to the one day format when he had Rawl Lewis (and, in the final league game against India, Shivnaraine Chanderpaul as well), the right arm leg-spinner, bowl round the wicket, pitching a foot and a half outside leg stump and turn the ball in.

If, with this line, the captain has on the on side a short fine leg and a backward square leg, the sweep is blocked. A short midwicket takes care of the attempt to push or flick the single in front, a sweeper tidies up in case of the pull, and a long on takes care of any attempt to go down the track and lift over the top.

A third man can be done away with because a ball outside leg going to that region is an aberration, a square point takes care of the outer edge as batsmen try to hit inside out, a short cover checks both the single and remains in place to take the drive on the up, wide mid off covers the angle when the batsman plays inside out into the straight field, and there is still one fielder who can be used to plug any strategy the batsmen come up with.

The tactic was so effective that Pakistan got debutant Manzoor Akthar to bowl the same line, and against England, roped in Mushtaq Ahmad as well to go the same route. You can, while on the subject, bet your bottom dollar that Arjuna Ranatunga, who must have been monitoring India's performance in Sharjah, will use it too with Sanath Jayasuriya.

India attempted it -- in one over from Anil Kumble, two balls in said over being pulled, and another being declared wide. The problem was, an outside the leg line begs for the "wide" call, except when the ball turns in towards the right handed batsman. In Kumble's case, the ball goes straight through, ergo, the line is countered with ease whereas the Chanderpauls, Lewises and Manzoors put the breaks on scoring and even come away with wickets. Kumble out -- and indications are that he will remain out unless, and until, there is a dramatic change in his bowling, as Desai pointed out at the briefing that the selectors had taken note of the fact that Kumble wasn't getting turn when even a Chanderpaul was able to turn the ball square.

The only problem with Bahutule, though, is that the Bombay leggie is busy playing the Duleep Trophy. The game concludes on December 21, one day before the first ODI against Sri Lanka. And Desai says Bahutule will definitely play in the final eleven. Which means he has to leaves his side mid-match, probably on the penultimate day.

By the same token, Kuruvilla's exit was a given (though surprisingly, Tendulkar resisted the move to drop him, and had to be overruled by the selectors on this one). He is a straight line and length bowler with no variation, and proved totally ineffective in his two outings, both at the beginning and at the death. Debashish Mohanty, who did superbly in Toronto, thus gets another chance -- though it needs mentioning here that Mohanty will not, in India, find the same helpful conditions that favoured his chest on, slinging action in Toronto.

But Venkatesh Prasad, who bowled superbly in the game against the West Indies -- the only one he did play, incidentally -- out and Harvinder Singh in? That is a shocker.

Then there is the curious case of Mohammad Azharuddin. His, however, is a rather complex tale, and is dealt with in a separate article.

The media briefing, in fact, almost turned into a slanging match with Ramakant Desai, at one point, reduced to banging his fist on the table while answering the question of how the selectors could decide the batting order. No real answer, interestingly, emerged.

"There was no such thing, it is a media creation," said Desai. "All we asked of Tendulkar was that it would be better for the team if he did not open the innings, since his early fall while trying to take advantage of the field restrictions affects the rest of the side. We did not ask him to bat at number five or six," thundered the committee chairman.

But sir, you did tell him not to open, which is what he has been doing successfully, and asked him to bat down the order, which is what the media has been saying....

A thump of fist on table, sending the mikes rattling, was all the answer that got.

Which brought us to the subject of openers, and the chairman of selectors indicates that Ajay Jadeja will now open with Saurav Ganguly. Sidhu? "He will bat one down." Then where does Tendulkar bat? "At number four," is Desai's response -- brief moments after he thumps the table to underline the fact that the selectors aren't deciding the batting order.

The fact that Kambli and Dravid were not regular members of the playing eleven led to their exclusion, we are told. And V V S Laxman comes in as a continuation of the policy of experimenting with the young.

And why was Saba Karim axed? Asked to open, he did reasonably well in both outings, then dropped back to his normal position in the line-up and got 26 off 22 -- a more meritable performance, in course of the tournament, than that of say Azhar.

"He missed some simple chances behind the stumps," is Desai's explanation. "In one day cricket, we can't afford to miss chances, so Mongia was preferred as he is the better keeper."

Hilarious. Earlier this month, the same bunch of selectors prefer Karim to Mongia "because Karim is the better one day batsman". Two weeks -- and three good performances by Karim with the bat -- later, Mongia is preferred to Karim because the former is the better keeper.

Is it just my nose, or is there something really rotten in the state of Denmark?

Prem Panicker

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