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October 10, 1997


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Who is challenging who, here?

Prem Panicker

Vinod Kambli slammed 89 off 110 balls with six fours and four sixes. Amol Majumdar got 56 off 73 balls with five fours. Ajay Jadeja made 16 not out off 15 with a huge six. Robin Singh smashed 37 off 21 balls with five fours and one six. Holders India Seniors -- without the services of Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly and Ajay Jadeja -- beat India A comfortably, by a six wicket margin, in the first match of the Challenger Series.

All applaud!

Pardon me, though, if I stay seated and join in the celebration. Pardon me, too, if I don't waste precious bandwidth giving detailed reports and analysis of the "Challenger" series between India Seniors, India A and India B.

I am not doing it because I fail to see the point behind it all.

Here is why. First, what is the stated object of the exercise? To watch -- more importantly, for the selectors to watch -- the top 33 players in the country in action at one time and, thus, to shortlist the 14 best players who will then, in the coming season, do duty in India colours in the international arena.

Is that objective being fulfilled here? I submit, not. Look, for instance, at some performances of the first game, from a selectors point of view. In the absence of Sachin Tendulkar, Seniors skipper Jadeja sent in Saba Karim to open the innings. And the makeshift opener "blasted 38 off 46 with five fours and four sixes", as the media reports would say.

So play selector for a moment. You are sitting down to pick the side to play Sri Lanka in November-December at home. You figure, with Ganguly in great touch, it makes sense perhaps to let Sachin bat down the order a bit, not risk his wicket early on but send, instead, a pinch-hitting opener on the Romesh Kaluwitharana-Shahid Afridi lines.

Good thinking. So should we, on the evidence of this performance, send out Karim to open? Hey, the man did get runs at almost one a ball, and the fours and sixes he hit indicate that he was taking advantage of the field restrictions -- in other words, he was doing what he is logically supposed to do. And if he wasn't going at a run a ball right in his first knock, hey, that is understandable, give him his head, like the Lankans did with Kalu, and he will get the confidence and begin playing even more shots.

Right? That is what the evidence would suggest, correct?

Problem is, Karim got his runs against an attack comprising Doda Ganesh, Ajit Agarkar, Sairaj Bahutule, Noel David, Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Rahul Sanghvi. Does it follow then that he will do as well and better against Vaas, Pushpakumara, Muralitharan, Jayasuriya, Dharmasena and company?

The same problem applies to Kambli's pyrotechnics -- I mean, Kambli is always explosive against domestic bowling, so just what fresh evidence are the selectors are the selectors supposed to have garnered from that display?

Come to think of it, from a selectorial point of view, the only two performances of interest are those of India A openers Wasim Jaffer (58 off 94 with 6 fours and comprising a clearn, compact knock) and Venkat Laxman (39 off 43 with five fours), the pair adding 75 in 15 overs for the first wicket before being seperated. This performance is interesting, I feel, simply because it provides the selectors with two more viable options for the opening slot -- and this time, the evidence is more valuable considering that the bowlers they faced were Debashish Mohanty, Harvinder Singh, Rajesh Chauhan and Nilesh Kulkarni, the same bowlers who had done duty for India against Pakistan recently.

Sure, Azharuddin was the real star of the India A attack with 57 off 56, six fours and one six, but in any case the selectors don't need a Challenger series to pick Azhar for the upcoming series against Sri Lanka anyway.

And oh yes, the selectors got some reason to scratch their heads in puzzlement when Nayan Mongia blasted 45 off 33 balls with four fours and a six in the middle of the order, against the Senior attack. So now with Karim and Mongia both slogging heartily, we can get back to the game of who to pick for the national side.

But that is by way of aside -- the tenor of the argument here is, just what is the purpose behind the Challenger Series anyway, and does the present format serve the purpose?

Obviously, no. To really provide useful input, such a series should have the best batsmen in the land -- which, by definition, means the ones who do duty for the country -- facing the best of the young hopefuls among the bowlers. So that the bowlers looking to make it to the international arena are in fact bowling against the standard of batsmanship they will encounter if and when they make it to the side and go up against teams from other countries.

And by the same argument, the best bowlers in the land -- to wit, your national lineup -- should be bowling to the batsmen who are on the brink of national selection. That would be, if not totally conclusive, at least indicative of the form and fitness of the younger lot of players for the big time. What we have here, however, is the spectacle of one side being so far ahead of the other two, that the series is reduced to a no contest before it has even begun.

Just another instance, actually, of a potentially good idea spoilt in the execution.

In passing, a little thought. Between the three sides, 36 players have been picked. Cream, presumably, if India's cricketing crop. And as I look through the lineup, I notice some rather interesting omissions.

Navjot Singh Sidhu. Venkatapathy Raju. Aashish Kapoor. David Johnson. Ajay Sharma. To name just a few.

Of those five, four are players who in the last 12 months have actually played in India colours -- and yet are, today, not fit enough to be in the top 36 (when you consider that Srinath, Prasad, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid and Kuruvilla are not playing this series, it becomes top 42) in the country.

The fifth? Before the Asia Cup, Sharma was one of the hottest prospects -- the man, many believed, who would prove to be the all-rounder we needed to open up our options. A man who could bat a 100, and bowl a good ten over spell. So in May, friend Sharma is good enough to make the shortlist of 26. Come October, he is not good enough to make the first 42.

The kind of thing that makes it hard to keep your eyebrows from flying off your face altogether...

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