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Unfair, unfair cricket!

Harsha Bhogle

It's a game of broken hearts and nobody feels that more acutely than Vinod Kambli and Nayan Mongia.

It is not the end of the world for either player but when you are young and looking ahead, a step back can feel like a mile. If, like Vinod Kambli, you have made a comeback, this is devastating.

And yet, looked at logically, the only place that Kambli could have got was Navjot Sidhu's. But Sidhu had never been dropped. He had been injured and is merely regaining his place. He had a good tour of the West Indies and, in terms of numbers, is among the two or three best that we have ever had in the one-day game. If India can put out a one-day side without Navjot Sidhu, it must be a very very strong batting side.

So, all that Kambli can really hope for, amidst such a young batting line-up, is for Mohammad Azharuddin to fail. That is the only shaky spot in the middle order and virtually every young batsman in the country is eyeing it, like a hyena, waiting for him to fall. Mentally, Azharuddin is in no mood to give up the game just yet, though he and Indian cricket and replacements like Kambli would all be better served by uniformity of thought and action in Indian selection.

One of the selectors said that Azhar was dropped for the Independence Cup because the team management was categorical in their opinion that they did not want him in the side. Clearly, this was the reaction to the defeat at St Vincent. The team management is still the same and there has been very little cricket since the Independence Cup to cause them to change their mind. That means, really, that Azhar has been thrust on them and that cannot be very pleasant, given that a lot of expensive international telephone time had been spent in telling the selectors that he wasn't wanted.

This is very unfair on cricketers like Kambli. If there is a problem with Azhar, pick Kambli. If the problem resolves itself, send Kambli packing. As a result, everytime he bats, he finds himself on trial and that is not good, either for him or for Indian cricket. Hence, the need for consistency.

It is a similar story with Nayan Mongia. When he was injured in South Africa, Saba Karim got a couple of games and because he batted well, the team stayed with him until they realised that he wasn't a good enough wicket keeper and that in the big games, they would much rather stay with Mongia. That was the rationale behind his selection for the Independence Cup. Suddenly, the selectors and coach are talking about needing a long batting order and therefore, are justifying the preference for Karim over Mongia. So were they wrong the first time? Or are they wrong now? Or is there another reason behind Mongia's sacking which the paying and viewing public has a right to know?

Unfortunately it doesn't help that we have the most inarticulate chairman of selectors that I have seen. Even Gundappa Vishwanath, who preferred to be most economical with words, explained selection policies better. With Ramakant Desai, the media conference that follows the announcement of the national team runs something like this : question, pause, question, two words, long question, pause....

Two players are going to be added to the team for the Test series that follows. The selectors have also said they will reserve the right to make more changes based on the performances in the Asia Cup. That is a bit bizarre because the Asia Cup is a one-day tournament and the cricket that follows is largely five-day cricket. Also, given the structure of this team, the two players to be added will have to be an opening batsman and another bowler or an all-rounder. There is no room for another wicket-keeper. If Karim keeps reasonably well, would that be used to pick him for the Test matches? I hope not, because though Karim is a decent cricketer, he is not a better wicket-keeper than Mongia and surely, the thing to do would have been to tell Mongia that he would be in the Test side.

The selectors have also decided to look at a new Bombay spinner, Nilesh Kulkarni. He certainly has the performance behind him having taken 41 wickets in the Ranji Trophy last year. Remember though, that since Bombay won the Ranji Trophy, he got a lot more games to bowl in and that a successful season has come immediately after a rather poor one. But there is always a case for picking a man in form and hopefully Kulkarni will bowl well in the Test matches where he has a better chance of selection.

If the selectors have problems with spinners they face a completely bare cupboard with seamers and this is the truly mystical quality of our cricket. Two years ago, it seemed that there were many more to choose from with the Bombay trio of Kuruvilla, Ankola and Mhambrey, Prashant Vaidya of Bengal, Feroze Ghyas of Delhi, Sandeep Sharma of Punjab, Iqbal Siddiqui of Maharashtra, Obaid Kamal of Punjab (now of Uttar Pradesh), Dodda Ganesh and David Johnson of Karnataka and a couple of very promising youngsters in Mohd Saif and Zakir Hussain.

The choices before the selectors for the third seamer's job did not involve any of these players as Kuruvilla is firmly in place. Instead, they went in for a young man who is just one season old; who took 23 wickets from six matches in one of the two weakest zones in the country (strangely North Zone is the other really weak zone just now); didn't get a permanent place in the Duleep Trophy for East zone and took six wickets from four games in the Deodhar Trophy.

It would therefore be fair to say that Debashish Mohanty hasn't been tested at all. He played in the SAARC Trophy for India A and did reasonably well, but maybe the Irani Trophy would have been a better place to check his talent. As a result, we once again find ourselves in a situation where the captain would have very little confidence in his new bowler. If, for example, Prasad or Kuruvilla were to injure themselves in Sri Lanka, would Tendulkar have the confidence to play Mohanty in a Test match?

I'm afraid all this means that our bowling is terribly, terribly weak. And remember, except for Srinath and the extremely unfortunate Ankola, no bowler was unavailable. One of the reasons for this is the incredible chopping that has taken place over the last fifteen months leaving very few bowlers confident enough to perform. The following is a list of bowlers who played for India in this period and who are not around now. Fifteen months isn't a long period. Ideally, you would not like to have more than one or two changes unless there are some serious injuries; otherwise, it means teams have not been picked with an eye on the future. Here goes: Paras Mhambrey, Sunil Joshi, Aashish Kapoor, Venkatapathy Raju, Salil Ankola , Dodda Ganesh, David Johnson, Narendra Hirwani.

As a result, our bowling bench strength is rather dismal and, often, that is what determines how strong the team is. Luckily that is not true of the batting where the tour selectors will have to face the ticklish question of whom to leave out. Given that Robin Singh is not a ten-overs bowler any more, you need four other bowlers. With Karim to bat at number seven, that leaves place for six batsmen of whom you need to play Jadeja and Robin for their ability to get quick runs in the end. So whom do you leave out from among Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Sidhu and Azhar?

As the selectors have already made clear that the opening partnership will not be disturbed (Ganguly's batting in the Siyaram Cup made me stand up and clap while I was on air), Sidhu will have to bat in the middle. And with Dravid having made an extremely classy century against Pakistan, it will be down to either Sidhu or Azhar. I suspect Azhar will get the first couple of games but it is a very good situation to be in because it means places cannot be taken for granted and that the replacement is a proven international cricketer. Ah, for even a fraction of such riches with our bowling!

There have been some horror stories emerging out of the camp about the physical conditioning, and it comes as no surprise that we rank bottom in the world when it comes to fitness and fielding. I get the feeling sometimes that our fielding is like our bureaucracy. Occasionally, like you will get an outstanding finance secretary, you will get a wonderful fielder. But when he goes, he will carry his quality with him for there is no system that throws up good fielders.

There is a despondency to Indian cricket that is reflected in the manner in which the camp was conducted (no indoor nets, so twiddle your thumbs when it rains; no bowling machines because... well, no one has thought about it, a talk by a psychologist who happened to offer his services, no sign, either on the ground or in committee rooms of a physical trainer...). And I am afraid it is apparent that India is effectively third seeds for the Asia Cup, a tournament they have won everytime they have taken part.

The popular perception is that Pakistan is the better side even without Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Mohammad Zahid, Shahid Nazir, Saqlain Mushtaq, Mushtaq Ahmad and Aamer Sohail. And Sri Lanka is clearly the favourites. The Indians, therefore, start as underdogs and my only hope is that India vs Bangladesh on April 24 is not an inconsequential match.

But then, India has done well only when they have been written off. So....

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