“If I put my hand on my heart and say after the Champions Trophy, we felt that we need to be a fitter and a stronger side, we felt that we need to raise our fitness levels. We are trying to fix some fitness parameters and whoever it has to strictly adhere to those parameters”. These were Some strong, honest words from the chairman of selectors, MSK Prasad while addressing the media during the India vs Sri Lanka Test in Pallekele. This would have been heartening to hear if in the same press conference, he hadn’t uttered the words, “Yuvraj has been rested”.
As it later emerged, both Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina had reportedly failed a fitness test at National Cricket Academy in Bangalore and that was the reason both were not considered for selection. Clearly, it seems to be a case of a player being dropped and not rested. The chairman of selectors will do well to set similar standards of transparency from himself and his committee as he does with the players when it comes to standards of fitness.
The purpose of doing a press conference after team selections is to make the fans aware of the selection standards and procedures followed. As stakeholders in the game, this is the least the fans deserve to know. Prasad was probably trying to soften the blow for some diehard fans who may not take kindly to their hero getting sacked. If that is indeed the case then Prasad is not the right man for the job. Remember this is a paid assignment, it’s his responsibility to deliver a strong message even if it means some backlash from a section of fans.
Prasad’s predecessor, Sandeep Patil was known to be a straight talker and one who oversaw the departure of Sachin Tendulkar. It was a hard and thankless job, but someone had to do it. There were rumours that in the case of Tendulkar, Patil had to use back channels to make sure the players announce their own retirement when selectors saw the end of the road for them. The selectors were also understood to have nudged VVS Laxman towards retirement.
In his final press interaction as chairman of selectors, Patil refused to give away the details of what had transpired. "There are some matters between the selectors and BCCI which should remain confidential and cannot be revealed", was his blunt response. He also went on to say, "The only sad thing about being a selector is that you end up losing some of your friends".
If Prasad wants to do justice to his role, then he should be prepared to lose a few friends and well wishers in the process. Perhaps Prasad doesn’t enjoy the same authority and respect as Patil did and may find it difficult to directly communicate with the players. If that is the case, then he has to find his own ways of doing what is required. Being chairman of selectors is a crown of thorns, but it was Prasad who asked for it.
On being questioned about Dhoni, Prasad needlessly drew a comparison with Andre Agassi finding more success late in his career. Tennis is an individual sport, Agassi can still play if he wishes. When Agassi fell off the road with injury, poor form and personal issues in 1997, he had to play Challenger Series Tournaments to push his ranking back up from 110 to 6. Cricket doesn’t work that way.
There is just one slot in the team for a wicket-keeper batsman and only the best in the country can be selected to do the job. If in the opinion of selectors that person is Dhoni then he should be picked, if not then choose whoever best fits the bill. If the purpose of doing press conferences is only to mollycoddle every ageing star, then BCCI and Prasad might as well do away with it.
If resting Yuvraj, who was anyhow out of action for the last month, wasn’t baffling enough, Prasad’s comment on Ashwin playing county cricket added more confusion, “We knew they have been contacting our players but from a selection point of view they have been rested first, and then they have been given consent by the BCCI to go and play county cricket”. He could have given a more positive and assertive vision by stating that we see Ashwin as more of a Test specialist now and we thought it will be good for him to get exposure in overseas conditions while we try other options in ODIs. Washing your hands off every hard decision is the first sign of a weak leader.
While Indian cricket is indeed moving forward by expecting better fitness and professionalism from its players, the story of India’s progress in cricket can’t move ahead if the same benchmarks are not set for those who run the game. At the international level, selection is way more critical than coaching. The selection process for the team and the people who are responsible for it must be taken into account for every decision they take. Those who aren’t willing to own up can make way.