The job of India’s cricket selectors is to get together the best available talent to play for the country in international matches. Each selector receives up to Rs 1 crore per year for doing so; a handsome amount by any standards.
Selectors aren’t Team India’s back-office boys; they don’t necessarily need to pander to the likes and dislikes of the high and mighty in the team, be it the skipper, coach or any other superstar. They are expected to be neutral, or at least to be perceived by various stakeholders to not taking sides. At the moment, this doesn’t seem to be happening and therefore the followers of the game in India — and abroad — are now looking askance at MSK Prasad and Co.
Foresight, an eye for talent, the will to do justice to that talent and the courage not to succumb to external pressure are qualities required of a selector. Dilip Vengsarkar, former India skipper and legendary batsman, was one such person and there were many others — men of stature — in the past. He was, for a while, the head of BCCI’s talent resource development wing and later, chairman of the national selection committee. During his tenure as skipper and selector, he is known to have backed some exceptional talent for both Mumbai and India.
This story is of the mid-1980s, when Padmakar Shivalkar, having served Mumbai for donkey’s years was on the way out. Vengsarkar — who was captaining the Ranji squad then — was informed by his associates of a very talented left-arm spinner in local cricket who could replace Shivalkar. One fine afternoon therefore he decided to see that bowler with his own eyes. Accompanied by his ‘friends’, Vengsarkar walked down to Azad Maidan, from his Tata office, when he was told that the spinner in question was bowling in a match.
Two deliveries later, Vengsarkar was seen walking away saying that he did not think the bowler was good enough to play for Mumbai. He was very clear about what was required to be playing for Mumbai.
It was around 1990-91 that Vengsarkar would speak highly of a young lad from Kolkata, a left-handed batsman who would turn up for Tata, Jamshedpur. “Classy off-side strokes,” he would say. That boy later led India and came to be known as ‘God of the off-side.’
In the mid-90s, I recall Balvinder Singh Sandhu telling me about the outstanding talent of a young spinner from Punjab. “He’ll play for India,” he had said. Not only did he play for the country, but he also picked 417 Test wickets and 269 ODI scalps — a boy named Harbhajan Singh. That was foresight.
Players like Sunil Gavaskar or Sachin Tendulkar or Virat Kohli are picked to play for the state and country purely on instinct. Nobody could perhaps have predicted that each one of them would end up as a batting legend when they made it to the India squad at first. There could easily have been others at the time that they were picked, who would have had better credentials, statistics-wise. There have been so many talented players at the domestic level or in limited overs cricket, over the years, who have failed miserably in Tests. Jason Roy of England is one prime example. Even Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma are white ball legends who haven’t performed as they are wont to in Tests.
Prasad and his team, who have sat on the judgment of some very senior and experienced players over the last few years, have played very little international cricket themselves. They have therefore come in for severe criticism from cricket followers, especially in India. I for one do not believe that such criticism is fair. An art critic, for example, who reviews a SH Raza or a Francis Souza painting doesn’t have to be better than those legendary artists. It’s the discerning eye that matters.
All the same, looking at the predicament that Prasad and his team are in, I would like a minimum criteria to be laid down for selectors in India. All of them should have played at least 25 Tests or 50 ODIs, besides having played at least 50 first class matches. Selectors can’t afford to be ‘friends’ with the team management or with players; their relationships should be perceived, by all concerned, as professional.
Selectors’ working with the team management to get the best players into the squad is understandable. It is however not okay — in principle — for the mighty and the powerful in Team India to influence one player’s selection over another. A few days before the selectors sat down to pick the side for India’s Test matches against the touring South Africans, certain media persons were ‘informed’ by coach, Ravi Shastri that Rohit Sharma could make it to the side as an opener. That Prasad and Co complied, tells a story.
It is common knowledge among players that it is the superstars in the team, at every level, that select the team that they desire. Selectors only fill up the blank spaces in the squad. Is it surprising then that MS Dhoni is keeping the selectors on tenterhooks by neither making himself available for India’s matches nor taking a call on his international career?
A long time ago, with many of Mumbai’s players in India’s touring squad abroad, I had had a good chance of making it to the Ranji team with some good performances at the local level. Just before the cricket season commenced, two Mumbai teams were participating in an upcountry tournament; one was my company — the defending champs — and the other, a team sponsored by a local businessman and led by Mumbai’s then skipper. One evening, as I was having dinner with my teammates, a member of the other team – who was my mentor of sorts – told me, matter-of-factly, to forget about playing for Mumbai. Then he explained to me how the businessman had lobbied for another fast bowler to be picked when the Mumbai team was selected. That had ended my dream of playing for my beloved city forever.
I am glad that Shubman Gill has made it to the Test squad. He is classy and my instincts tell me he will do well for India. Then there is Abhimanyu Easwaran and a few others who are knocking at the door. They shall have to knock hard enough for the selectors to take notice. Ajinkya Rahane did that and is now India’s vice-captain in Tests. A selector’s job is thankless and for every good pick, there are at least four or five players who feel hard done by. It is also true that some selectors are biased and unscrupulous.
I wasn’t really surprised when Mohinder Amarnath, Indian cricket’s ‘Comeback Man’ called the national selectors a bunch of ‘jokers’ after being dropped from the side for the umpteenth time. A soft-spoken, good-natured cricketer, he was perhaps punished for belonging to the ‘controversial’ Lala Amarnath family.
Selectors do play games; sometimes they are made to play games by the high and mighty. In the end, it is the players who suffer. Ask a ‘Paddy’ Shivalkar or an Amol Muzumdar or a Hari Gidwani. But who cares?
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, coach and sports administrator, he believes in calling a spade a spade.
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