Dinesh Karthik has been the "nearly man" of Indian cricket for more than a decade. After a great start to his international career, he spent several years in the shadows of MS Dhoni. Opportunities at the international level were few and far between, and whenever they came, Karthik failed to capitalise on them. He was written off by cricket pundits as someone who is a bully at the domestic cricket level but can't make the cut at international level.
A few eyebrows were bound to be raised when Karthik was sent to England for Champions Trophy 2017 in place of an injured Manish Pandey. Karthik had last played for India more than three years ago. Wouldn't it have been more prudent to send the young and exciting wicketkeeper batsman, Rishabh Pant, in his place? Why go back to someone who is aged 30-plus and had failed to capitalise on the previous opportunities he got?
Karthik didn't get a game in the Champions Trophy, but he stayed on the fringes of Indian team ever since. A year later, he vindicated the selectors' faith in him by almost single-handedly winning the final of the Nidahas Tri-series in Sri Lanka.
Karthik's selection was just another example of the current selection policy of the Indian selectors led by MSK Prasad. In the past, there were times when performances in domestic cricket were overlooked on flimsy grounds, but not anymore. The selectors have successfully established a meritocracy in their selection policy. There is even a sense of predictability in the whole process. If you follow Indian cricket closely enough, you would know who has a good chance of making it to the national team based on their current form and performances in domestic cricket.
Past reputations and past failures both play a minimal role in selection now. A few selection committees from the past would have found it difficult to keep someone like Ravichandran Ashwin, world's number one Test bowler out of the ODI team, but Prasad isn't one to get bogged down by big names. If a player shows promise but fail to make the cut for the senior team, he could still get a chance to audition for India 'A', where apart from exposure, he will get a chance to enhance and improve his skill set under the expert guidance of Rahul Dravid and his coaching staff.
Indian cricket has never had the kind of riches of talent that it has right now. In the time of such abundance, it becomes all the more imperative to have a clear selection process in place to reward the most deserving candidates. There seems to be synergy in the way Prasad, Dravid and Ravi Shastri work in picking and placing the right cricketer for the right job, at the right time.
Of course, even if a player fails to catch the eyes of the national selectors, he can still get picked up by an IPL team. Even uncapped players like Krishnappa Gowtham and Krunal Pandya are hot properties at the IPL auction now, which apart from giving them a handsome pay cheque, presents another opportunity to impress the national selectors.
The recently announced Indian squad for England is simply a continuation of the ongoing selection policy. Ajinkya Rahane was dropped after failing to impress the selectors in the IPL and KL Rahul was rewarded for his stellar show this year.
The inclusion of Ambati Rayudu is a bold move, but one that is based on the back of Rayudu's sheer consistency in IPL this year. He has shown his versatility in various situations for his team. More than the numbers, the manner in which he scored his runs must have impressed the selectors. In each one of his outing this season, Rayudu managed to score quick runs while playing almost risk-free cricket.
Rayudu last played for India two years ago in Zimbabwe. Hailed as a teenage superstar at one point, he couldn't break into the national side in the 2000's despite setting the domestic scene on fire. Perhaps disillusioned with the system, Rayudu joined the rebel Indian Cricket League and was duly banned by the BCCI. After getting a pardon, he finally earned a call-up for the national team in 2013, almost a decade too late. Despite a start-stop ODI career of 34 ODI games, Rayudu has managed to keep a healthy average of 50-plus at the international level.
Selection isn't just about rewarding talent; it is also about rewarding talent at the right time. A Prithvi Shaw today will not be made to sit and wait for opportunities indefinitely like Rayudu had to in his early days. At the same time, even a Rayudu has a chance to pip his younger colleagues now if he can keep his form and fitness.
Selection is mostly a thankless job in Indian cricket. Mohinder Amarnath famously called the selectors "a bunch of jokers" back in his days. Being critical of selection is easy. Any team announcement invariably sends Indian fans into a frenzy on Twitter trying to crucify selectors on the names they have missed. But every once in a while, when selectors get things right, it's important to give credit where it's due. So, thanks Prasad and team for showing faith in the right people at the right time!