In a freewheeling interview published last week, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar recalled a time with Suresh Menon when Indian cricket team was lead by Tiger Pataudi, a man with one eye and had a lead bowler with one hand, Chandra himself. Those were simpler times in Indian cricket. An era when ability to bat and bowl was the sole basis of selection to the team.
Things have changed now. This is an era of Yo-Yo tests, specialized diets, workout routines, and managing workloads. Fitness cannot be compromised in this team and for good reasons. Captain Kohli and the rest of the team management believes that if you want to play three forms of international cricket and a gruelling couple of months of the Indian Premier League (IPL), you need to be in top physical condition at all times.
Selection of Indian cricket team these days is as much a science as it is art. To hear a selection briefing these days can be similar to hearing a lecture on corporate governance where best practices are elucidated and best interests of the team are repeatedly stressed upon. Results are important, but process supersedes it. While it sounds painstakingly clichéd, the results achieved by this Indian team over the last two years justify the methods.
There has been a lot of emphasis on cultivating and nurturing specialists for different forms of the game. There will always be those, like captain Virat Kohli, who are indispensable in every format of the game, but he often finds himself in an almost completely different group as he moves from coloured to white clothes.
The Indian squad for the upcoming Sri Lanka series hasn’t been announced yet, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume Murali Vijay returns to the Test team owing to his record and joins KL Rahul, who has been India’s first choice Test opener for a while. Let’s also assume that barring Hardik Pandya, who has been rested, the rest of the Test squad remains the same as the last Test India played.
It’s possible then that other than the captain, the Indian playing eleven for the first Test against Sri Lanka will be completely different from the one that played the limited-overs series against New Zealand. Such an arrangement was unheard of in Indian cricket where we often believed that the best players adapt to all formats of cricket. We had two or three players who were considered specialists of certain formats but the core of the team remained the same across all formats.
These days, selection meetings aren’t about deciding simple questions like “Who is your best fast bowlers?”. Taking a cue from corporate governance again, the selectors are talking about specific skill set that a player brings to the table. It’s about who gives you the best chance of winning based on the demands of certain formats, against certain teams in certain conditions. To get the right answers for the team, it’s important to ask the right questions like “Who is your best yorker bowler?” or “Who is capable of bowling a long and disciplined spell in the subcontinent?”
The discussion has also extended to spin bowling where we now have a clear unwritten policy of picking more reliable finger-spinners for Test matches and the more adventurous wrist-spinners for One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and T20 Internationals (T20Is). This policy acknowledges that to bowl all day in a Test match, the spinner needs to be patient, whereas to make things happen in a spell of four overs, the spinner needs to be willing to try different tricks.
At times it’s not just about the skills for a certain format of the game as it is about transition across formats. Someone like Ravichandran Ashwin, who made his name in IPL with his bagful of variations, may be as handy in T20s as he is in Tests, but even by his own admission, it takes some time to settle into his line, length, pace, flight and mindset for a specific format of the game.
A team that wants to win every game cannot afford to play out a transition period where a particular bowler is not at his best. In worst case, too many transitions also lead to loss of a certain skill. Harbhajan Singh, for example, had a beautiful natural loop at the start of his career, but too much ODI cricket meant he had to constantly adjust to a defensive line of attack. As his career progressed, his Test match flight and his probing off-stump line starting eluding him. India doesn't want that happening to Ravichandran Ashwin.
Individually, players may not be pleased with being pigeonholed. When fit, most players would hate taking rest and hitting the gym instead of going out there and playing the game. Michael Holding often says that the best exercise for a fast bowler is to bowl fast. In his era, Michael Holding would bowl non-stop throughout the year in international cricket or county cricket and still managed to have a mostly injury-free career. But perhaps Michael Holding was a freak who didn’t need workload management. Bowlers who are aren’t so blessed physically need have a more scientific approach to give themselves the best chance of having a long career.
Jasprit Bumrah has been the pick of Indian bowlers in the last couple of limited-over series and has expressed his desire to play Test cricket for India. But it’s possible that the selectors would be looking to preserve his body for the 2019 World Cup. When it comes to an individual player’s ambition and what’s best for the team, there can only be one winner. Ajinkya Rahane may fancy himself as a limited-overs player with several good seasons of IPL under his belt, but he doesn’t fit in the scheme of things for the national team with the spot for openers already sealed. Just because a midfielder is talented, you can’t slot him for a striker as there is no other place for him in the team.
Indian cricket is not alone in its newfangled approach to selection. Australian cricket has been plagued by injuries to their fast bowlers in the past decade and coaches there scrupulously track the number of overs bowled by each fast bowler in a season to ensure they get ample rest and conditioning. Cricket Australia even has a published guideline for workload management of fast bowlers in junior cricket.
As the game of cricket continues to get more professional, it will also continue to grow more methodical. A small system can be managed with an ad-hoc set of rules, but the behemoth of Indian cricket cannot prosper without well thought out player management policies. They will sound boring at times and will come at the cost of individuals, but we better get used to it now.