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By Suresh Menon
Sport has a version of throwing good money after bad; sometimes you recover the investment, at other times you take a deep breath and cut your losses. Team selection is not an exact science, which is why attempts to peg it to batting or bowling averages alone often go awry. Occasionally, a player arrives fully formed, as it were, and the selectors shine in the reflected glory of a Sachin Tendulkar or a Kapil Dev.
How long does a player remain one 'with potential' ? How long before a decision has to be made about 'performance'? It is the most important call a selector has to make. Picking a team at the international level is relatively easy – most people can get the 16 or 18 right, with Tweedledum replacing Tweedledee as needed. But having picked a player, how long a rope should he be given? That is a tough one, and there cannot be definite markers.
Just the other day, Virat Kohli was seen as a talented player who did not do justice to that talent. There were calls for his head. The selectors persisted with him, and can now take credit for their sobriety and refusal to bow to public demand. Kohli is now an important member of the eleven, and the obvious future captain.
In the same boat as Kohli till recently was Mumbai's Rohit Sharma. Young, talented, casual, lazy were the adjectives he has had to live with. In 83 one-day internationals, he averages nearly 32; his century in each innings of a Ranji final three years ago suggested even bigger things. Yet, he has been inconsistent, fares poorly in Sri Lanka, and matters have not been helped by a colleague labelling him (with all good intentions, no doubt), a wonderful player in the nets.
Indian cricket has had many wonderful players in the nets – the best in the last quarter century was perhaps Delhi's K P Bhaskar who batted with astounding ease and command at the nets. Sadly, that's where it ended.
The greater the investment in a player, the greater is the temptation to give him one more chance to come good and make up for all the failures. It is both a practical response as well as an ego-salving one for the selectors who may be loath to admit they were mistaken in the first place.
Yet, there is a call to carry Rohit Sharma through the Sri Lanka series, if only as a final examination. He has not been a complete failure in the format, after all. He has two centuries and 12 fifties and has won matches for India. India can afford to carry him because the current series is of no great consequence in the grand scheme of things. If India lose, but somehow rejuvenate the likes of Rohit Sharma and Irfan Pathan, that would mean success in a bigger sense.
Sharma is 25, Irfan is 27, and a man who has already played 45 Tests, Ishant Sharma is only 23. None of them has established himself in the national side. Then there is a host of medium pacers who have been in and out of the team. Despite the presence of specialist coaches and a National Cricket Academy, there seems to be something wrong with a system that sees such players struggle. In the ideal world, an Irfan Pathan who abruptly lost both pace and swing as a bowler, would have taken time off to fix his problem at the NCA. Sadly, as one former cricketer put it, the NCA has become merely a high profile nursing home, with its focus on rest and recuperation rather than tweaking technical problems.
If a selection is honest, made on cricketing grounds and not influenced by the usual Indian temptations, then selectors must be allowed to go with their instincts. Richie Benaud, for example, who made his debut in 1952, was in the team for six years before he emerged as the leg spinner and all rounder he was to become. In fact, it was four years before he had his first five-wicket haul. But there was never any question over his talent; it was only a matter of time.
Persisting with Rohit Sharma might be unfair on someone like Manoj Tiwary. But if India gain at the end of it, there cannot be a complaint. It is a judgement call. After all, it is for using their judgement that selectors are paid.