The curious case of Jalaj Saxena and nepotism in Indian cricket

The selection of the MP cricketer to the India A team smacks of favouritism.

Saxena has unwittingly become the poster boy of nepotism in Indian cricket.

“We’re back to square one, sadly,” exclaimed a former national selector when I asked him about nepotism in India’s selection policies. The context here, of course was set little over a week ago when India’s selectors picked a side which ideally should have had cricketers on the brink of breaking into the Indian cricket team. In the past, the India ‘A’ setup (or any other representational team) used to be a level before the national team, a goal in itself for cricketers who would use it as a platform to advance their ambitions. Unfortunately, these representational sides symbolise favouritism in Indian cricket, where loyalty is rewarded with undeserving berths, proximity to authority with career-changing selections. The very idea of these sides seethes in defeat.

Firstly, credit where due to the selectors as far as this squad is concerned. They’ve picked the strongest possible batting unit with the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma definitely competing against each other for a few “transition slots” as they’ve come to be known these days. Even Abhinav Mukund finds a place in that side, and deservedly so, given his consistently good First Class record in the last 30 months or so. Shikhar Dhawan is probably the only questionable selection in this squad, given his below par performances for Delhi this season. One felt guys like Manish Pandey deserved a go, given that his Ranji season included some really impressive knocks for Karnataka.

On the other hand, the bowling unit, to put it charitably, looks terribly out of place. There’s a definite absence of a focus area and unfortunately, some of the selections must raise eyebrows. Bhuvaneshwar Kumar ahead of a consistent Parwinder Awana? No way. Or even Akshay Darekar instead of say, an Iqbal Abdulla or heck, Pragyan Ojha? No. And almost lackadaisically, our selectors have shown their reluctance to look beyond RP Singh, who bowled so poorly this season for his state, he couldn’t find a berth in even the Duleep Trophy team. But sadly, one of the glaring themes of this selection is the sad case of nepotism which has come in way of other, deserving individuals. Almost as a regular feature with representational teams these days, these selectors who’re paid an annual salary of Rs. 25 lakh to pick the best side, irrespective of association loyalties and zonal demands, have sadly tended to deviate from their briefs and some examples here are a clear indication of how they see their position and privilege.

SAXENA'S CASE

Take Jalaj Saxena for example, and he stands out not because of his below average cricketing pedigree but because unfortunately and perhaps unwittingly become the poster boy of nepotism this time around. If merit were the only consideration for some of these lesser-reported and lesser-analyzed selections, then Saxena had no business making it to the India ‘A’ team or even some of the representational sides he’s been a part of since the Narendra Hirwani assumed charge as one of India’s five national selectors.

I’ll put out some numbers for you, and I leave it to you to assess and thereby conclude. In the last three seasons as a first-class cricketer for Madhya Pradesh, he averages 37.00 (2009-10), 41.50 (2010-11) and 20.66 (2011-12) respectively. And this, for a guy who in the early part of his career was an opening batsman for MP and slipped lower ever since - as low as number eight. He’s scored a lone 100 in this period (142 being that score) and in the 2011-12 season, his highest score was not more than 46. Let’s consider his bowling numbers (since I was told by an MP insider that Saxena has become more of a bowler these days) and see how he fares - 2009-10 (4 wickets at 61.50), 2010-11 (9 wickets at 38.33) and 2011-12 (14 wickets at 45.21). If these numbers are good enough to persuade the selectors into picking him for India A, it’s fair to say that Indian cricket either going through an acute talent deficit (when it probably is not) or that nepotism is irresistible, even when as a selector, your mandate is to pick nothing but the *best* representational teams.

Just in case, someone comes up with a bizarre justification of Saxena’s credentials as a quality limited-overs prospect, here are some numbers. In the last three seasons, in List A games played in India, Saxena’s batting numbers include two fifties in 19 innings with a highest score of 79 and averages as follows. In the 2009-10 season, he scored 146 runs at 20.85, and followed it up with 126 runs at 31.50 in the next season and recently finished the 2011-12 season with 137 runs at 22.83 and a highest score of 40.

As an off-spinner, this season is by far Saxena’s best - 13 wickets at 19.92, considering that in the past two seasons he’s picked 5 (2010-11 @ 30.40) and 4 (2009-10 @ 71.50) wickets respectively. If the logic of this selection is to be believed, Saxena is perhaps the third best off-spinner in the country with only Harbhajan Singh and Ravichandran Ashwin ahead of him.

Saxena, over the years has made it to several representational sides with average, if not below average numbers. Saxena was picked first for the Rest of India squad and the Challenger Trophy squads immediately after Jagdale's elevation as Board secretary in September last year. His most recent selection to these squads coincided with the appointment of Sanjay Jagdale (a former selector from the Central Zone and not to forget Hirwani’s cricketing mentor) as the BCCI’s secretary and by virtue of that position, the convenor of the national selection panel.

The other interesting bit about Jalaj Saxena’s selection is the fact that he plays for the Cricket Club of Indore, where believe it or not, Jagdale is a coach. Not just that, apart from Saxena, three other cricketers from Madhya Pradesh made the Challenger Squads. A former India cricketer (who represented MP in the Ranji Trophy) refused to comment over Saxena’s selection by simply saying, “You tell me, in 30-odd years many average cricketers have represented India or India A. You have to pose these questions to Kris Srikkanth and his selection committee.”

WHAT ABOUT DAREKAR?

The second interesting pick for me is the young Maharashtra lad, Akshay Darekar, a left-arm spinner who had a really impressive season with the ball. But ahead of fringe members like Iqbal Abdullah (who, by the way was the bowler of the tournament in Australia playing for India’s Emerging Players XI) and Pragyan Ojha? What about Ravindra Jadeja, who despite his obvious status as a limted-overs specialist continues to pick wickets in the Ranji Trophy? Perhaps helps to have a selector from your state association? Maybe. Darekar’s claim is perhaps justified by the bucketful of wickets he’s picked this season for both Maharashtra and the West Zone, 42 in all. But an India ‘A’ call-up? No way.

Venkatapathy Raju said, “In order to play for Rest of India, I know people who have toiled for three years. And today, you don’t even need to play domestic cricket to feature in the Irani Trophy.” And for a guy like Darekar, and every other one-season wonder that Indian cricket has come to see these days, the key is to perform in the second year, and this time in the Elite Division (Maharashtra were promoted) where he’d be up against better batsmen, tougher wickets and tighter situations.

The unfortunate part here, and with a fair bit of emphasis is this defeats the very purpose of sending representational and developmental teams, especially given the tendencies of the selectors in pushing their own protégés. And consider the impact on those who are genuinely on the fringes of national selection. “Of course, it will let their frustrations grow and ultimately talented cricketers will give up that ambition of playing for their country. You have to keep them interested and play them in these tournaments. Otherwise they will be happy with everything the IPL offers them,” Raju said.

WHAT ABOUT JAYDEV?

Unfortunately, Jalaj Saxena isn’t the only case of nepotism in Indian selection over the years. Arjun Yadav, the son of former India off-spinner Shivlal Yadav has made it to several India ‘A’ squads, the most recent being in 2007, where he was called up to setup for the tour of Zimbabwe and Kenya, even with Board officials saying, “It’s only an India ‘A’ team”. Jaydev Shah, the son of former BCCI official Niranjan Shah was picked as captain for an India A tour to Israel immediately after the first edition of the IPL and subsequently also found a place in several India ‘A’ squads, in leadership roles. And last season, Aniruddha Srikkanth, the son of Kris Srikkanth, Chairman of Selectors, made it to the Emerging Players’ Tournament despite mediocre numbers in the domestic season.

You try and question why some of these rather audacious selections happen and the answer seems simple. Our cricketing discourse revolves around the national team and the IPL. The lack of interest within our media to cover some of these unsexy stories - Duleep Trophy selections and India ‘A’ tour selections, gives these selectors a firm sense of chutzpah to pick their own players. The fact that they can get away with these selections is something that’s the media’s fault too. The larger public outrage on these teams might be limited, but they’re quite clear indications of the direction our cricketing establishment wants to take the game in. The mandate for the selectors is fairly clear, isn’t it? Pick the best team available. Anything other than that, I mean compromises along the way, and we’re definitely back to square one.

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