Sunil Joshi’s first meeting as the new chairman of the BCCI’s senior national selection panel was somewhat of a breeze. The formal discussions to pick the squad for the three-match One-Day International series against South Africa lasted a little over an hour, the selection process simplified by the availability of Shikhar Dhawan, Hardik Pandya and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, all fully recovered from injuries of varied nature. It’s debatable, though, if future meetings will be as straightforward and without drama.
Joshi emerged almost as a left-field choice as South Zone replacement for outgoing chairman MSK Prasad. It was widely believed that Laxman Sivaramakrishnan was the front-runner, with former junior chief selector Venkatesh Prasad too in the mix. Joshi, the former India left-arm spinner who has worn several coaching hats in the recent mix, impressed the three-member Cricket Advisory Committee chaired by Madan Lal enough to secure the nod for one of the hottest, most scrutinised seats in Indian cricket.
At 49, Joshi would appear to be the ideal mix of the experienced and the contemporary. He has played 20-over cricket on the biggest franchise stage of all, representing Royal Challengers Bangalore at a time when Virat Kohli was still in the infancy of his celebrated career. He has led Karnataka to and been part of Ranji Trophy-winning sides on several occasions, and dipped his feet in coaching, both domestically and at the international level. The one-time coach of Hyderabad and Jammu & Kashmir, as well as spin consultant/coach with Oman and more recently with Bangladesh with whom he had a long stint, Joshi was in charge of the Uttar Pradesh team in the season gone by.
He therefore comes armed with knowledge of current cricketers beyond the established order, a knowledge bolstered by his presence in the television studios as commentator either side of his coaching stints. That he has represented the country in 15 Tests and 69 One-Day Internationals should further help dispel potential asides of him being a ‘lightweight’ candidate.
So far so good. Joshi, like fellow new entrant Harvinder Singh (the Central Zone representative with Gagan Khoda having served out his term), is on a one-year contract -- on probation, you could say. Such are the exigencies of boardroom, and board, functioning that even though a selector can serve a four-year term, the decision-makers have settled for a fourth of that period for the time being. During that time, India will be involved in several skirmishes of great import. It’s unlikely that Joshi’s future will directly be linked to the performances of the national team alone – if that were the case, those in and around the squad first would have every reason to anxiously look over their shoulders – though good results won’t harm, of course.
One of the many slights the previous selection panel had to endure was that it didn’t have the ‘stature’ to stand up to Kohli and head coach Ravi Shastri. That presumptuous proclamation stems from the misplaced notion that the team management and the selectors necessarily have to be/are at loggerheads all the time. It’s no secret that in a 15-member squad, 12-13 players automatically select themselves. It’s for the remaining places that there are differing points of view. The trick in finding the right balance between what the captain/team management want and what the vision of the selection panel is, because the eventual goal is a common one – for the best resources to all be pulling in the same direction for the optimal results.
Joshi is fortunate in some ways in that once the South Africa series is out of the way, India don’t have any international cricket for nearly three months. That will provide time for the chairman to interact closely with his four fellow members, of whom three – Devang Gandhi, Jatin Paranjape and Sarandeep Singh – will complete their tenures later in the year.
Over the next 12 months, there is the Asia Cup in the Emirates, the Twenty20 World Cup in Australia, the four-Test series immediately after that Down Under, and a five-match Test showdown at the start of next year at home against England. The Asia Cup should, in all probability, be the final audition for the World Cup, which India haven’t won since the inaugural edition in 2007. The nine Tests, India’s last engagements in the league phase of the World Test Championship, will determine if Kohli’s side make it to next summer’s final at Lord’s or not. What once seemed a formality is a lot less cut and dried following the 2-0 drubbing in New Zealand. From here on, no Test win will be worth more than 30 points, so for India to guarantee themselves a spot at Lord’s, they will need four wins, at least.
The immediate priority, though, will be the composition of the Twenty20 squad and, most crucially, how Joshi’s panel views the future of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. The law of diminishing returns, as well as the iconic former skipper’s prolonged voluntary hiatus from the sport and KL Rahul’s emergence as a commanding batsman/keeper, should suggest that Dhoni has already played his last game for the country. But things are never that straightforward in India, are they? Not when the heart takes over, not when popular opinion revolves around sentiment at the expense of prudence.
Prasad has been emphatic in stating more than once in the last seven months, since the 50-over World Cup in England, that his band was looking beyond Dhoni. But the spectre of the Indian Premier League looms large. What if the mercurial Chennai Super Kings skipper rolls the years back and reinforces his credentials in front of and behind the stumps? Should that be enough to bring someone who has been picky and choosy – the semifinal exit against New Zealand in Manchester in July remains Dhoni’s last game of cricket – straight back into contention? Should it negate everything Rahul has done since the start of this year, both behind the stumps and in front of it where he has grown immensely in his role as a finisher in 50-over play and opener in 20-over action? Will the selectors’ vision be in sync with the team brains trust? And if not, how does the tricky issue find a resolution?
Already, Joshi’s team has made a significant break from the past by putting Kedar Jadhav out to pasture in 50-over cricket, merely a financial attraction in a year where otherwise it has little context. Jadhav’s continued presence in the squad, and often in the eleven, meant the in-form Manish Pandey had to cool the bench. The move to overlook the younger, fitter man – among the finest fielders too in the country – made even less sense given Kohli’s reluctance to throw the ball to Jadhav for his once-effective, now hardly novel, off-spin delivered with the right hand parallel to the ground. In his limited opportunities, Pandey has reiterated what the team has been missing out on. Whether the Jadhav template can be carried forward to the far more delicate Dhoni situation will make for interesting viewing.
For all their pre-eminence, India haven’t won a global silverware since the 2013 Champions Trophy. As a Test side, despite their No. 1 ranking and their place at the helm of the WTC table, their away form continues to be less than edifying. Corrective measures must be put in place, whether that involves changes in personnel, a change in mindset or an acceptance of a reality that seems to be escaping the think-tank. Once he gets a hang of things, these are the immediate issues Joshi and his co-selectors must address dispassionately, unemotionally.
In normal course, Joshi should remain chairman till the end of his term unless any of the three newcomers later in the year made his Test debut before 6 June, 1996. Page 64 of the BCCI constitution unambiguously states, among other things, “The senior most Test cap among the members of the Committee shall be appointed as the Chairperson.” Hyper-active president Sourav Ganguly’s assertion last month, therefore, that ‘it will be the one with the most Test caps’ is contrary to the constitution, though it is worth remembering that the BCCI has approached the supreme court contesting several clauses in the constitution adopted in August 2018.
Joshi’s journey from the cricketing outpost of Gadag in north Karnataka to India’s chief selector has already been fascinatingly storied. An exciting new chapter pregnant with possibilities is the latest addition to an undulating ride certain to have its share of thrills and spills in the next several months.
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