Venkat Ananth

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Does merit still matter?

It's indeed a sad day for Indian cricket when the worth of toil isn't recognized anymore. Or, in other words, is replaced by a noticeable departure from the reward and reinforcement system. Toil, in the classical Indian cricketing lexicon is what a first-class cricketer is expected to do (mainly in front of empty stands) - over after over, session after session, day after day, season after season. It is only after these exhaustive years that a traditional Indian cricketer can lay claim to that India Blue cap. That cap is the reason why he undertakes this sweaty, grimy and often exasperating journey of toil in the first place. Ask Ajinkya Rahane that and he'll tell you how exactly he's broken into the Test elite for now. Which is precisely why Rahul Sharma's selection to the Test squad is deflating for the classic through-the-system cricketer - there is no toil, there are no performances, there is nothing that suggests he merits a place, except maybe a talent deficit - a bigger indictment of Indian cricket as it stands today.

Six months ago in "The Rahul Sharma Syndrome" I alluded to a possible change in selection discourse in Indian cricket, where the selectors willingly might end up sacrificing the very notion of reward for arbitrary choices. That of cricketers with limited abilities being plucked out of these larger-than-life twenty20 leagues and fast tracked to the highest level. It's not quite a personal "I told you so" moment, but on Friday, when the squad for the first Test against the West Indies was announced, these exact worst fears regarding Indian cricket's selection policies (or politics) were confirmed. Just imagine what the likes of Amol Muzumdar and Kanwaljeet Singh must have felt.

Rahul Sharma, (and read this carefully) - the third choice spinner below Bipul Sharma and Sarabjeet Ladda in the pecking order for his State team Punjab, a man who has played a little over 10 first-class matches over six seasons (and mind you, not a full season yet) with only decent figures to show in this season of the IPL was picked to play Test cricket for India. And the very next day, the BCCI decided to award him an annual contract - the only player in that list who hadn't represented India in any format.

 

Selectors to blame

 

To be fair to the young lad, his selection to the national team and his subsequent elevation as a contracted employee of the BCCI isn't his fault, for he had nothing to do with it. As a matter of fact he has been quite candid on the importance of domestic cricket, even claiming that the selectors should give first priority to those who have delivered in the Ranji Trophy. Stunning words to hear at a time when former cricketers were collectively chanting for his inclusion in the national setup. Sadly, the selectors did not just let themselves down, but even Rahul Sharma. He wanted to play the pre-season Buchi Babu Tournament for the Punjab Cricket Association XI to break into the Punjab team, and here he is picked to play for the national team. That is something he can't be blamed for.

Which brings us to why he's been picked in the first place? The answer to that is a mixture of both lack of choices and regional selection dynamics playing out. For starters, India's leg-spinning alternatives i.e. Amit Mishra and Piyush Chawla have been tried and they haven't grasped their chances well. So, logically Sharma, through his IPL performances has emerged as the third best leg-spinner in the country and maybe deserves a go. Then of course comes the theory that regional selection dynamics might well have had a massive say in Sharma's selection. Unfortunate, yes, but Mohinder Amarnath as a definite choice to succeed Kris Srikkanth this time next year might have already played his cards on the table with Sharma's selection.  Rahul Sharma is coincidentally (as they quite regularly suggest) from Amarnath's zone. Or as a former selector so candidly put it to me - "Punjab in, Punjab out" (read between the lines). Again, for chest-beating Indian fans, this might well be a conspiracy theory, but for those who have been following the selection dynamics closely, it's a theory well worth pursuing.

 

Show me the stats

 

The cricketing logic (or the lack of it) is what makes Sharma's selection bizarre and bemusing to be blunt. So here's the deal - he plays a T20 tournament and to be fair does thoroughly well in the same. What after that? Nothing of note. He's scheduled to fly out to Australia for the Emerging Players' Trophy, or India A as they say, pulls out injured and the first game he plays after the IPL is a first-class game for the Rest of India against Rajasthan, the Ranji Champions. Admittedly, a national selector who was present during this game claimed it was the first time they saw Sharma bowl and in a matter of 36 overs, with less than impressive figures of 0/65 off 21 overs and 2/49 off 14 respectively, they believed him to be worthy of an India cap - across formats. As a matter of fact, we don't even have credible evidence about his wicket-taking abilities in first class cricket, more in the tactically attacking role as leggies have are always known to play, lure the batsman into playing against the turn, bowl batsmen around their legs and all of those. Even the little comparisons with Anil Kumble, because of his height, action and lack of turn are just too preposterous and not credible enough.

Now for the classic fan argument, which has been taken forward by former cricketers too, "So what if they picked him, he anyway won't play in the XI" - Sure. Taking this logic forward, I think I should make a good case for myself in the next selection committee meeting, having played the same number of cricket matches in the last six years, with probably, the same number of wickets as Sharma. This he won't play argument isn't fair, given that any player picked for India must be ready to play. Is Rahul ready for Test cricket? A blunt and simple no. And lastly, the typical, "If they did it - right, if we did it - wrong" argument. By this, I am quite obviously referring to the "Well, if Australia can pluck Michael Beer and Nathan Lyon from T20 tournaments, what's wrong if we do it?" - the answer is in the question itself, where I'd rather not comment on Australia's selection policies and focus on our own.

The selection committee would have deserved some marks if they had discovered a freak, but even by Sri Lankan standards, Ajantha Mendis had to play a full season for the Army Sports Club to gain some prominence as a mystery bowler. Here, Rahul Sharma’s case was about a mere tournament and he is no freak. If anything, his selection is. As fans, it's worth watching if this might well be the course Indian cricket has decided to take in the next few years - preferring starlets over proven performers in India's dusty cricketing nursery i.e. the Ranji Trophy. One can only sit back and hope that the toil, that typical agricultural ploughing on some of the most barren cricketing pastures isn't deemed wasteful.

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