Around this time last fortnight, as the BCCI met for one of its landmark boardroom events, the Annual General Meeting - they had an imperative task at hand which could perhaps define the route Indian cricket has chosen to take for the next year. The suits had to sit together and pick a national selection committee to succeed Kris Srikkanth & Co and in their wisdom and in a first, much unlike the usual bazaar like cacophony, negotiations, politicking etc and resisting every zonal pressure that came their way, they chose Sandeep Patil and his colleagues as the five supposedly-wise men to take and make decisions. Patil, who has previously involved himself with Indian cricket in various capacities as a coach and until recently, the director of the National Cricket Academy, was appointed Chairman of Selectors, with the likes of Saba Karim, Vikram Rathour, Rajinder Singh Hans and Roger Binny as his new colleagues in the job. Save Roger Binny, none of the other four selectors were first preference choices for the zone they represented.
Interestingly, this is probably the first time in recent memory that the BCCI has taken a more national and holistic view while appointing the selection committee, although retaining the zonal representation system. Effectively, it means that candidate mattered, the state association he was supposedly representing, didn’t - not as much as it used to, at least. The end result was pretty much what every stakeholder in Indian cricket would have been satisfied with - the five best men for the job (according to the BCCI) were picked and credit where due.
Looking at the composition of this committee, the interesting glue that binds these five men is their recent involvement with Indian cricket at all levels - the grassroot to domestic cricket and even, the academy. In essence, these are men who are in touch with the game where they ought to be. Rathour coached the Punjab Ranji team last season while Rajinder Singh Hans has involved himself with the UP Cricket Association at various levels apart from his stint as a junior national selector. Saba Karim, has been a television studio expert and a commentator (who occasionally covered Ranji matches for the broadcaster) and Binny too has been involved in several coaching roles with the Karnataka State Cricket Association (notwithstanding his position as an office-bearer there).
The newly-appointed committee could be slow-starters, if I may say so. To expect drastic decisions in their first set of selections would be grossly unrealistic and playing safe might be the way to go. But going forward, the least we should expect from these five men is a vision, a policy and consistency in the process they’ve been entrusted with. They inherit a legacy of the previous committee that can only be described as shoddy, highlighted aptly by the shocking indifference to the twin Test debacles that unfolded in England and Australia. A legacy, that was typically followed by the extremes of a muted reaction, a belligerent ignorance of facts or worse, often motormouth quotes by the former Chairman. In a sense, Patil and his team have their tasks well in order, beginning with undoing the damage done by their predecessors. While the tenure of the previous committee coincided with some of Indian cricket’s seraphic moments in the recent past, the World Cup win in 2011, the climb to the top of the ICC Rankings and other trophy wins, their gross ignorance of the basic development of cricketers, with virtually minimal or zero scouting of potential long-term talents and brazen nepotism has left an indelible mark on the current phase Indian cricket is in today. The unenviable task of erasing this very legacy of blunders is what these five men have been entrusted with and employed for.
So how exactly do they go about doing this? Have a vision, follow it up with a policy that no matter what, shall be adhered to. A vision that is a) progressive and b) dictated by where they perceive Indian cricket to be in the next two to five years, leaving a positive legacy for their successors and even carrying forward the vision they’ve shown. The policy - more or less based on the concept of rewarding performances, absolute resistance to repeated attempts at nepotism from different quarters and importantly, a zero-tolerance policy for continued non-performance, irrespective of the stature the player holds in Indian cricket - even perhaps the occasional equivalent of Sir Alex Ferguson’s hairdryer - the concept of perform or perish. Once they have a policy (not exactly what I proposed) in place, the art of decision-making and decision taking might just be a tad uncomplicated. Easier said than done, I am pretty sure.
Given that the basic unit of Indian cricket still (or hopefully) lies in its first-class roots, it becomes a non-negotiable for these selectors to go to grounds and watch matches, however snooze-inducing or super-exciting the action might seem to be. Going by the basic logic of scouting and I am using football as an example, the more matches you watch, the more players you’re exposed to. And the more games you watch a player in, the more you know about different aspects of his game - ranging from talent, technique, leadership, temperament and situation management. To put it simply, this isn’t quite astrophysics. As a given, unless you watch a player play, you can’t pick him. Not by calling up journalists, or skimming through those BCCI scorecards, or speedometers as we’ve seen before. The selectors have made a good start I’d say, by opting to not travel down to South Africa for the Champions League T20, instead watching a few contracted players grind it out in the ongoing Duleep Trophy. Another interesting development in the last few days has been concerning performances of batsmen on the extremely flat pitches that were used for the Challengers, and how the selectors might not consider them, which to me is a great takeaway from their brief stint so far.
Finally, I’d hope to see this committee deliver on one of the most important yet most ignored aspect of selection i.e. communication, something that the previous committee didn’t give much thought about. The recent fiasco over VVS Laxman’s retirement outlined everything that you needed to know about communication - the selectors picked the squad with Laxman’s name and immediately thereafter, the Hyderabad batsman announced his retirement from Test cricket. Says something, doesn’t it? The current crop of selectors now have an even more arduous task at hand - overseeing Sachin Tendulkar’s much debated future as an India cricketer. Even though the batsman has admitted to giving retirement at least a thought, if not anything else, it’s imperative for the selectors to sit down and discuss his availability - more on a series by series basis or on a short-term basis, six-months, let’s say. This is exactly where the former selectors failed both Rahul Dravid and Laxman, who deserved a more amicable farewell from the game.
As said earlier, it’d be unfair to both criticize and expect radical changes from this committee when they pick the squad for the England series. Instead, there could well be an opportunity to put several non-performers on notice, senior players who might have taken their place in the side for granted. That in itself, could be disturbing the status-quo. Having said that, the selectors will be on trial for what happens after the England series, for whatever they do could alter the immediate course of Indian cricket - a leap towards glory, or a trott back towards doom. The choice, literally is theirs.