It’s almost as if the shadow of defeat is yet to loom large on those who claim to govern Indian cricket. The events of the past two weeks, post-Sydney surely has pretty much given denial a connotation of immortality, much in the mould of Kim Jong-il. Notoriously, statements coming from the heads and shoulders of the BCCI have been typically ranging from the absurd, audacious, unreal and if you like it, the indifferent almost as if events in Australia are just a make-believe creation than reality. Remorse, it must be said, is in acute shortage of and shame, I am afraid, none whatsoever. Efforts to stem the rot, if any, aren’t visible or worse, aren’t working. Almost like a rudderless ship, there’s a feeling of sunkenness which is by no means going to be easy to fix. For a Board that doesn’t believe in careful, precise diagnosis of the problems engulfing the sport in this country, a surgery or replacement therapy seems the quick, easy way out.
Selectors, it must be said constitute the heart of this problem, shying away from what they’re paid to do - not just pick teams, but provide a sense of direction and vision for a conceivable period of time. Subject to correction, I am inclined to believe that the job and responsibility of the selector includes the following (or at least I hope so) - scouting (by watching as much local/domestic cricket as possible), communication (with a range of players - seniors, juniors, fringe), take decisions that at times are ballsy enough and finally, pick a bunch of players (and I say a squad here) that come closest to the sort of vision they’ve laid, and the direction they’ve chosen to take. I am afraid, the present hierarchy hasn’t come off best in all these aspects. Like the BCCI would repeatedly emphasize in bold, 18, underlined terms, yes, they presided over the World Cup victory and the ascent to the World #1, but what next? No idea.
Selectors in many ways are like the “Director of Football” we’re accustomed to in European Leagues these days, who’re not just entrusted with the donkey work of identifying and procuring personnel, but importantly, are supposed to ensure these procurements within a vision framework - a critical aspect of missing in Indian cricket today. Equally, Indian selectors, past, present and definitely future come to think of selection as an 2 hour meeting over Pongal and Filter Coffee, rather than a process that involves method - both extensive and indeed exhaustive. So where exactly have we gotten it wrong?
Watching enough cricket, are we?
Are India’s selectors watching enough cricket? Or let me quantify “enough”, in pure and simple words - “as much as they can”? The answer is a blunt no. Having spoken extensively to domestic players who’ve been toiling all season, it seems that the presence of a selector during Ranji matches is a bit of a privilege to have for those playing the games. But no, only a handful of matches this season have been scouted by those who’re paid to watch cricket. What else could possibly explain the case of a player being picked for the national team without the selector watching him even once, or for that matter through a handful of journalists or an opposition batsman’s assessment? Somehow I am tempted to know as to why they don’t go and watch as many games as they can? Lethargy, maybe? Or is it simply the easy way out, where the best thing to do would be waking up to Ranji scores in the morning, or gather in all five for an India match in Visakhapatnam, either way - that’s not what they’re primarily paid to do, sadly.
How do we fix this? Quite simple, actually. Instead of that big fat cheque/contract being doled out on an annual basis, introduce a match-fee system (implemented by some associations, by the by) where you get paid only if you watch 90% of the domestic season, the other 10% being international matches which fall in your region. Hopefully, this creates an incentive mechanism for the selectors to go out there, watch “as many games as possible” and with the help of scouts, find some quality players.
Secondly, one of the problems with India’s selection dynamics is the sudden emphasis on the IPL, which rather quaintly resembles Indian journalism today (tweets as quotes etc) -- easy way out. India A, which per definition is supposed to be that one-level below international cricket, is today sadly seen as a fantastic reward opportunity to blood IPL starlets and sneak them into international cricket. The India cap today, is worth the odd-four overs for 20, or a twenty-ball fifty, given that the road has become far too easier, with some red carpets along the way. Ask Rahul Sharma, that. Or Saurabh Tiwary for that matter.
The BCCI’s policy in this regard is rather confusing. To set it right, it must come up with specific guidelines where only those on the verge of Test or ODI selection should play the India A tours. Or those dropped must go back to play for India A before wearing national colours again. You can’t be promoting twenty20 talent in important assignments. Similarly, the BCCI should also try and look at creating a parallel FTP for the A team, which means when India are touring, say Australia, the A team could be somewhere in the vicinity, say New Zealand or thereabouts. The revitalising of the A-team culture, with proper selection to go with it could become critical for India’s Test cricket future.
One of the fundamental shortcomings of the Indian selection system is the lack of a comprehensive scouting mechanism, or a talent spotting, assessment and development index which must definitely assist the selectors. How do we go about this football style scouting? Fairly simple, actually. Forty top and willing former first-class cricketers (not zonal, by the by), paid handsomely to watch domestic cricket, compile reports and hand it over to a superior authority i.e. the selection panel who then take decisions. Basically, what this mechanism will ensure is this - the national selectors watch fringe players, while these paid scouts attend matches where they could identify a large pool of talent waiting to get to the fringes. With a careful emphasis on talent, it also ensures that a wider array of cricketers, with different skill-sets are being watched and not just a handful of those who might be in the reckoning for the elevation, as it stands today.
The emphasis on scouting might also ensure that age-group cricketers won’t exactly go unnoticed and upon consistent performance can move up the hierarchy. Also, with a great degree of hope, this should signal the end of political, often regional and zonal interference, with something close to three or four scouts from zones and associations different from the participating teams watching a single match and assessing a single player. For example, if player X from Mumbai is playing against Tamil Nadu, he’d be watched by these scouts from Karnataka, Delhi, Assam and say, Hyderabad. Ditto for player Y from Tamil Nadu. Four quality, unbiased assessments based on parameters that range from ability, performance, character should be handed over to the NSP for consideration. If such a mechanism can emerge and evolve, with a top-class network of skilled scouts, Indian cricket can only move forward than stagnate (as it is today).
Communication, in my view is another fundamental aspect of selection. But that again, stems from a certain direction, a certain policy which lends itself into these plans. Today, we’re witness to a rather speculative discourse about this transition business and a major problem in this regard is the apparent lack of communication. When the Rahul Dravid retirement rumour mill started gathering storm, the BCCI shot back with a sardonic one-liner which summed up the cluelessness of their approach, “The BCCI is not aware of any retirement plan,” they said - which to me is precisely the problem. The initial stage of the “transition” does not begin with the identification of potential replacements, but sitting down, one-on-one and discussing individual plans with the ones being replaced. That’s the least these legends deserve.
Again, not a talking to, but a two-way communication street where both sides put their plans on the table and hopefully, a productive conversation that gives the selectors a sense of direction to take. Something like what Manchester United does with the likes of Ryan Giggs, sit him down around November-December, discuss where he’s at come April-May and see if, at 37, he could enrich the first-team than let them down. Frankly speaking, this process, with regard to Indian cricket, should have begun once the euphoria of the World Cup faded away, and a sense of reality dawned on these selectors. They failed to read the obvious signs of decline, persisted with what they claimed to believe, and sadly, paid the price.
The second aspect of communication is closer home, actually - where the selectors need to identify and work closely with the replacement players, a bigger pool of cricketers - “the fringe”. How? Set targets, let them know they’re in their plans, keep telling them about what’s expected of these cricketers and track their progress to know if they’re good enough. This is not to put pressure, but just letting some of those lads know that they’re a step away from Indian colours could not just motivate them, but positively influence their performances also.
At the cost of repetition, I think, the BCCI must take this rather tumultuous period in India’s Test cricket fortunes to overhaul - not just its structures or its system, but its thinking. Personnel changes are okay, and in all probability, this selection committee might just resign for all you know, but as always, you’ll have another bunch of muppets coming in and making the same mistakes. As amply highlighted before, the problem is not personnel, but policy (or the lack of it). It’s time we started thinking.