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September 26, 1997


The Kumble factor

Harsha Bhogle

While the favoured ones moves with a little hesitation from wonderful Toronto, with its India-friendly wickets, to a country that is seething with indignation and crying for cricketing retaliation, the others will be packing in some inspiration for the most cruel cricket match on the domestic scene.

With the Ranjit Trophy calender spread as wide as it is, it is really the Irani Trophy that will determine who has a chance to break into, or to return to, the national team. A bad game here and a cricketer's next chance could be six months away. Maybe even longer. And a good game could bring a place in the Indian team within touching distance.

From that point of view, the Irani Trophy rarely functions as a team event. It is often number four versus number five in the same side, because both are probably aware that there is only one place that is realistically open in the senior side, and it is that spot both the fringe players are competing for.

As a result, the selection of the Rest of India side is the most important announcement in the domestic calender after the selection of the national side. Given that it was the same selection committee that picked the 27 probables a couple of months ago, you would expect few surprises and, in actual fact, except for one the selection is quite predictable.

By picking Ajay Sharma in their list of probables for the Asia Cup the selection committee had virtually made an announcement that even if you are on the other side of thirty, you still have a chance if you perform consistently in domestic cricket. Contrary to popular electoral wisdom, a cricketer in his early thirties isn't shopping around for walking sticks. Sometimes, given that he has a shorter perspective, he is actually hungrier than the younger ones, and keen to make the best of the little available time; to take in some fresh air while he is till around.

Robin Singh is a wonderful example of what persistence can achieve. Surrounded by people ten years younger, he seems to have discovered the potion of youth. Keep me going, he probably tells himself every morning as he takes his daily dose of that elixir, till the 1999 World Cup.

Ajay Sharma probably isn't as fit as Robin, but you cannot doubt the fact that he is gambling on himself; that he is playing because he believes tomorrow will bring with it an India cap. By picking him in their early season list, the selectors had told him that he has a right to wake up with hope. If they had left him out, they would have made a clear statement on his future -- like I fear they have with Sanjay Manjrekar.

I don't think Ajay Sharma believed, himself, that he would have been picked for the limited overs game -- but surely he had a right to believe that he would get a go against the same opposition that he had plundered last year as consistently as he had brushed his teeth. But they have left him out. If I was him, I would be shocked. Angry. Confused.

It is the inconsistency that is baffling. If the selectors believed they knew enough about him, there was no need to pick him for a camp. So three months ago, when they picked him among the Asia Cup probables, this set of selectors thought Ajay Sharma was good enough for the shortened version of the game. Three months later, they don't think so anymore. It is acts like these that make people question motives. And cause selectors to lose friends. And it is all a bit sad because in the selections of Mohanty and Harvinder, the selectors seemed to have redeemed themselves.

Unless Sharma was medically or otherwise unavailable, there was room for him in this side. The selectors have only picked five batsmen out of fourteen, and there are at least two players in this side who don't have a chance of playing the big game, of getting into the national side. It is wonderful to encourage them now, if that is a long term strategy. But if it is as short lived as the Ajay Sharma strategy, then it is just a waste of time.

This baffling omission apart, the selectors have done well to give Kumble, Sidhu, Mongia and Raju an early season game. They are all proven performers and at least with the first three, this should be looked upon as a playing-in game. The bowlers though, stand a better chance of attracting attention because it seems so tough to win a batting place just now. Aashish Kapoor will be especially encouraged because there is little doubt that the off spinner's place is wide open, and if Raju can use tracks like he once did, and if he can summon inspiration, he might still be the answer on home wickets.

The people I will be watching very closely are Anil Kumble and VVS Laxman from the Rest of India side, and Amol Mazumdar and Sanjay Manjrekar from Bombay. 1997 has been such a funny year for Kumble that it might still have a late twist in it -- and given that there is no direction at all to the search for two openers, Laxman should consider himself closer to a national recall than most others. And the two Bombay batsmen, scorned in spite of so many runs, will I suspect have an agenda of their own.

The Irani Trophy game might still be a more interesting cricket match, for these reasons, than the three ODIs in Pakistan that overlap it.

Editor's note: Follows, the two teams for the Irani Trophy tie scheduled to be played at the Wankhede Stadium, Bombay, beginning October 1:

Rest of India: Anil Kumble (Karnataka, captain), Navjot Singh Sidhu, Aashish Kapoor, Pankaj Dharmani (Punjab), Gagan Khoda (Rajasthan), VVS Laxman, Venkatapathy Raju (Hyderabad), Sridharan Sharath (Tamil Nadu), Amay Khurasia (Madhya Pradesh), Nayan Mongia (Baroda, wicketkeeper), Rohan Gavaskar (Bengal), Robin Singh Junior (Delhi), Sukhbir Singh (Baroda) and Dodda Ganesh (Karnataka).

Bombay: Sanjay Manjrekar (captain), Wasim Jaffar, Amit Pagnis, Jatin Paranjpe, Amol Majumdar, Sulakshan Kulkarni, Ajit Agarkar, Sairaj Bahutule, Paras Mhambrey, Manish Patel, Rajesh Pawar, Sameer Dighe, Nishit Shetty and Atul Ranade.

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