Indian cricket is weighed down by selection politics; it needs dynamic decision makers to progress

  • Austin Coutinho
  • November 9th, 2019
  • 11:19:20 IST

Close on the heels of the dynamic former India skipper Sourav Ganguly taking over as BCCI president — although for a short while — comes the news of Dr Vijay Patil, another go-getter, heading Mumbai cricket. If Indian cricket is to grow and maintain its position at the world level, then the country will need many more Gangulys and Dr Patils.

Recently, there was a team selection fracas while picking players to represent Mumbai in the national T20 championships for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. The selection committee, led by former Mumbai skipper Milind Rege, left out promising paceman Tushar Deshpande from the squad and therefore received criticism from former players and cricket fans alike. The Mumbai selectors, they believed, should have backed Deshpande because he was an India probable, having played for India A last season.

It was later revealed that Rege, who has been picking Mumbai teams for donkey’s years, was allegedly intimidated and arm-twisted by two of the selectors into picking players he wasn’t really happy with. It was said that some of the names that Rege had put up for consideration were dismissed by the duo and therefore, after a stormy selection meeting, the veteran had wanted to step down in disgust.

Mumbai, the 41-time winners of the Ranji Trophy, have never even featured in the finals of the national T20 championships in 11 seasons, leave alone winning them. The newly elected president of the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA), Dr Patil therefore stepped in, in what the media termed as an unprecedented move, to resolve the issue. The result: Deshpande was included in the team along with two others. Also, the two dissenting selectors – both good friends of mine – were asked to go.

Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

If Indian cricket is to grow and maintain its position at the world level, then the country will need many more Sourav Gangulys and Dr Patils. Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Dr Patil, in the above instance, backed his selection committee chairman wholeheartedly. Voices of dissent have already begun emerging from within the MCA’s apex body for what they term a ‘unilateral decision’. However, the new president has displayed strength of character in a situation that would have shown Mumbai cricket in poor light and therefore his action – unilateral or not – is worthy of praise.

Cricket fans in India who believe that all selections to the state and national teams are made by selectors are just being naïve. Like the football manager who decides on a game plan and therefore the composition of the team to play out those tactics, most team skippers in cricket decide largely upon who should be a part of the squad and who should play in the final eleven, based on their game strategy.

Seldom does it happen that the ‘wise men’, as they are known, gather a set of players together and hand the list over to the skipper. It is only a weak skipper who will let that happen. “It isn’t the 11 that you select that wins you a match,” Rahul Dravid once said, “It is what the 11 does on the field that really matters.” What the selectors want isn’t important, what the skipper wants is.

Cricket associations all over the country, especially over the last couple of decades, have become places of politics. Former Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi once said that anybody who aspires to become the CM of the state should first go through five years of working as President of MCA. Elected representatives of most cash-rich associations wield a lot of power and, like politicians, have their own cronies and business interests. Selectors and various expert committees are normally subservient to the apex committee members.

Long, long ago a fellow fast bowler, who wasn’t a regular at the Mumbai Ranji nets, asked me to accompany him to the MCA secretary’s office before one practice session at the Wankhede Stadium. When we entered the secretary’s office, he looked at my friend and said, “Why aren’t you coming for the Ranji nets? I have instructed the selectors to pick you for the next match. See that you come regularly from now on.” That was that. Despite not picking many wickets in local matches, he played for Mumbai ‘on the instructions’ of the then secretary.

On another occasion, the then chief of Mumbai’s selectors – a former Test cricketer – was at my club in Chembur. “Hey, isn’t that the Mumbai fast bowler?” he asked pointing to a lad playing football. “Yes,” I replied, “but he was dropped in the last Ranji match, wasn’t he?” “Couldn’t help it,” he said laughing. “The Mumbai skipper (a legend) has told me to make sure that this boy doesn’t enter the Mumbai dressing room again.” The very promising fast bowler, with a skiddy bouncer, was guilty of regaling his teammates in the dressing room with funny one-liners even in tense situations. He therefore had to pay the price for being ‘not serious enough’.

And this funny anecdote was told to me by a friend, a former Mumbai player and coach. A legendary India skipper and chief of Mumbai selectors was once sitting in the VIP box at the Wankhede Stadium, watching a Ranji match. As each batsman walked out to bat, he would ask my friend in Marathi, “Hey! Who is this?” When that happened once too often, one ex-Mumbai player who was sitting next to the former skipper asked him, “Sir, you picked these players; you don’t know any of them?”

“What do you do in the afternoons, after your company nets get over in the morning?” one very influential and friendly secretary of a top corporate team in the city once asked me. “I go for the Ranji nets,” I recall replying. “Forget the Ranji nets,” he told me, frankly, “if you want to do well in cricket, come and bowl at our nets.” In Mumbai, the most talented players throng clubs and company teams run by selectors and influential office-bearers of MCA.

I have a bagful of stories to show that teams, at the state and national levels, are picked by skippers, coaches, office bearers, vested interests and even by sponsors. Selectors only get the crumbs; they get to pick the rest of the team — and what’s more, often get paid for doing so.

Therefore, when Dr Patil spoke to the selectors and added names to the Mumbai Mushtaq Ali Trophy list, it wasn’t an unprecedented move. It was something that has been happening over the years but behind closed doors. The new MCA president had the guts to overrule the selection committee overtly, in the interests of cricket in the city.

As someone who has played the game in the city for a decade-and-a-half, mentored players for Mumbai at different levels, served as coach in summer camps, as coaching committee member and as TRDO, I would want Dr Patil to look at the following aspects to try and bring back glory to Mumbai cricket:

Revamp summer camps: More technical, fitness and mental training for Under-14 and Under-16 players, rather than matches. More matches for players of Under-19 and Under-23 camps.

A robust coaching system: Introduce aptitude tests for people aspiring to be coaches through the NCA coaching courses. Private academies should be affiliated to MCA and certification (for example A, A Plus, A Double Plus etc) should be given to them by the cricket improvement committee.

A fair selection system: As far as possible, selectors at different age group levels shouldn’t be from only a few clubs/corporate teams. Honesty and integrity should be the criteria for picking selectors.

Take more grounds under the MCA umbrella, even if they are in far off suburbs, till the Metro work in Mumbai is completed.

Tournaments: The leagues and tournaments in the city are the backbone of Mumbai cricket. Efforts should be made to make them more competitive and interesting.

Umpires and groundsmen should be looked after better. After all, they are the lifeline of the city’s cricket.

The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, coach and sports administrator, he believes in calling a spade a spade

Updated Date: November 09, 2019 11:19:20 IST

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