John Benaud played three Test matches for Australia, scoring 223 runs and taking three wickets. He took no catches. You probably know his brother, Richie, 13 years older, who played in 63 Tests, was captain for 28, took 248 wickets, scored 2,201 runs and then went on to become the most recognisable voice in the game’s history.
It is improbable to the point of being impossible that any human being, or rented broadcast camera for that matter, has witnessed as much Test cricket as Richie. And yet, younger brother John can still hold his own when it comes to one thing: selection.
John Benaud, one of Australia’s most successful selectors, called his book ‘Matters of Choice: A Test Selector's Story’, and it should be essential reading for the powers that be in Indian cricket. Not the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which is in absentia thanks to the courts, but the selectors, led by MSK Prasad, and also comprising Sarandeep Singh and Devang Gandhi.
More critically, the men picking the playing eleven in any game, Virat Kohli, the captain, and Ravi Shastri, the coach, as it appears the vice-captain, Ajinkya Rahane, has little input in this unless he is the first turkey to have voted for Thanksgiving.
India made some bold calls ahead of the first Test against South Africa in Newlands. The most noteworthy was dropping Rahane, the vice-captain, who averages a mere 53.44 away from home, for Rohit Sharma, who averages 25.11 and has never made a century in whites outside India. Rahane has hundreds at the Basin Reserve, Wellington; Lord’s, London; MCG, Melbourne; P Sara and SSC, Colombo; and Sabina Park, Kingston.
All that is bold is clearly not beautiful as Rohit’s struggles in both innings in Cape Town proved.
India made other questionable calls. Picking Shikhar Dhawan ahead of KL Rahul was one such decision. Dhawan is all hands and no feet, and while this may work a treat in sub-continental conditions, the strength becomes a weakness when the ball bounces, seams, swings and does not come to you at perfectly hittable height between shin and knee. Rahul is undoubtedly better equipped to play the situation, but he is not the form player at the moment.
Jasprit Bumrah had not played a first-class game in a year when he was handed his Test cap. Nobody knew what he might give you, bowling the second or third spell of the day, simply because he had never bowled more than 10 overs in a day in one year. Yet, he came through with more than flying colours, dismissing AB de Villiers in the first innings and Faf du Plessis in the second, the biggest wickets on offer. His selection was a roll of the dice, if the think-tank were to be honest, but one that paid off richly.
Contrast India’s approach to selection with what South Africa did, and you have a Tale of Two Selections that even Charles Dickens could not have written. Two days before the first Test, Dale Steyn, one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time, was told there was little chance he would play, as he was coming off nearly a year’s break — and he’s no spring chicken like Bumrah — and he rattled the cages in the nets so robustly that he could not be left out.
But, if South Africa had to play Steyn, they wanted insurance, and Ottis Gibson, the coach, made the call to play four quick bowlers and the spinner. This was not a bold call or one made in hope, but one that came from clarity.
South Africa did not take half a step forward, which would have been to include an all-rounder, having dropped the specialist batsman in Temba Bavuma, or pick a batsman who could bowl a little spin place of Keshav Maharaj. Gibson, du Plessis and whoever else picks the final eleven, made their choices solely on what was needed to win the first Test against India.
It can be argued that hindsight is always 20-20, and journalists and fans have the luxury of looking back with this perfect vision. But, there is a reason why captains, coaches and selectors are paid what they are, acknowledged for their experience and acumen, and given those posts. And it is they who should have the foresight to make the right choices.
For now, the South Africa-India scoreline is 1-0, but when it comes to selection, the home team is far, far ahead.