'Form is temporary, class is permanent' is an oft-repeated cliché in sport. How permanent is class? How long does one neglect form and hope for the classy ones to start performing? Selectors, the conscientious among them, always find themselves in this dilemma and are often criticised for their decisions, either way.
In the recent India-South Africa Test match at Vishakhapatnam, Rohit Sharma – India’s white-ball legend – was picked to partner Mayank Agarwal as opening batsman. The decision, by the selectors and the team management, was based purely on Sharma’s proven ‘class’ in two different, shorter versions of the game. The team management even came out with a statement, before the series began, that the ever elegant Sharma would be persisted with even if he failed a few times, looking at his class and potential as a Test opener. Agarwal, on the other hand, was the man in form. He was someone who had worked his way up the ladder through sheer grit and by dint of hard work.
That both Sharma and Agarwal scored what are now known as ‘daddy hundreds’ in the first innings of the Test has saved the selectors and the team management a few blushes. They will be happy that they won’t have to answer their critics till the end of the Freedom Trophy series, at least as far as the opening slots are concerned.
At the end of the India-South Africa series, however, the selectors will have to ponder over their decision to make Sharma open the innings and ask themselves if they have found a long-term solution to India’s top order problems in Tests.
The team management’s decision to drop the popular wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant in favour of the more reliable Wriddhiman Saha was a brave one too. However, the wretched form of Cheteshwar Pujara will have them worried; once again a question of class versus form. How long a rope can they afford to give him? Will Shubman Gill, the young man with huge potential, even get a look-in this series, probably at Pujara’s expense, if the latter doesn’t put up runs on the board sooner rather than later?
Brave selectors, and brave team leaders, make brave decisions.
Dropping poor performers, however ‘classy’ and replacing them with potentially good performers is one of those brave decisions. Cricket is probably one of the few games where team leaders and pundits believe that a player has to feel secure before he/she performs. I have never understood this concept. Isn’t a star football striker taken off if he doesn’t score? Are some ‘favourite’ players made to feel more secure than others and haven’t we heard of some players being rejected after one failure? How many assurances of opportunities does it take to make a player feel secure to perform well?
I wonder sometimes if bowlers of the quality of Ravichandran Ashwin, with nearly 350 Test wickets, and Ravindra Jadeja, with 200 Test scalps, don’t feel insecure when they are unceremoniously dropped from the playing eleven. Aren’t they classy? Or is class and potential reserved only for batsmen?
Bishan Singh Bedi was a class act by any standards — a wizard. His bowling action was sheer poetry and his cunning was something that batsmen only realised after they had been deceived in the air and off the wicket. He played for India for a decade and a half. In Bedi’s shadow, for no fault of his, left-arm spinners of the calibre of Rajinder Goel (750 first-class wickets) and Padmakar Shivalkar (589 first-class wickets) never got a look-in at the highest levels. It was class versus form/potential again.
Selectors, especially in India, always find it difficult to call time on the careers of legendary sportspersons. They dragged their feet when it was time to drop Kapil Dev and they did it again with Sachin Tendulkar. MS Dhoni, who has currently made himself ‘unavailable’ to the Indian team, has neither decided to hang up his boots nor have the national selectors had the guts to sit across the table and talk to him about his career plans. Out of the Indian greats who retired early, I can easily recall the name of Sunil Gavaskar, who decided to walk away into the shadows even as his fans were asking (in the words of Vijay Merchant), why? And not, why not!
Dilip Doshi, who was 32 when he made his India debut as a left-arm spinner, was fortunate to be playing when Bedi made his exit in 1979. In 33 Tests thereafter, he picked 114 Test wickets. We can only speculate as to how many talented batsmen would have lost heart and given up on their dreams of playing for India when the names of legends like Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman adorned India’s scorecards; class versus form!
There is no gainsaying the fact that class has no substitute. Legends will always be legends. However, there always comes a time when players of class need to be bid a formal goodbye. Team leaders therefore have to be pragmatic and not allow their presence to hurt the team’s performances. They can’t occupy space in the team at the cost of another player who is in form, although he/she may lack class.
Bill Shankly was a Scottish footballer and legendary manager of Liverpool in the 60s and 70s. Having acquired a European player once, on transfer, with a heavy price tag, he was fed up with the player’s attitude and his tendency to not conform to the club’s playing style. In one important FA Cup game, when the player got injured just before half-time, Shankly was informed by the physio, who had run in to treat him, that he could continue with a bandage around his shinbone. “Tie both his legs together,” shouted Shankly, visibly exasperated, “and get him out on the stretcher.”
When a class player’s confidence is shot by continued bad performances, in cricket or in any other game, the team leader – coach or skipper – has to take a call, drop the player – however big he may be - and sit down and explain why he/she has to take a break. A player in form needs to replace the player with class. The latter then needs to go back to the drawing board to regain his/her confidence.
It so often happens that when one of the selectors says that ‘you can’t’ or ‘you won’t’, he or she is probably afraid that ‘you will’. I have seen this happen time and again and am therefore convinced that most selectors, at various levels in sport, have their own axes to grind. They also like to play safe. When a player with class fails, it is an aberration; when a player who is in form fails, it’s a selection error.
In 1971, if Vijay Merchant hadn’t voted for Ajit Wadekar as skipper, ahead of the ‘classy’ Tiger Pataudi, we probably wouldn’t have won those series in the West Indies and in England. Point to ponder?
The author is a sportswriter and caricaturist. A former fast bowler, coach and sports administrator, he believes in calling a spade a spade.
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