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By Suresh Menon
Why do our selectors not surprise any more? Where is the inspired selection, the unexpected pick who goes on to big things? Perhaps the media are partly responsible for the safety-first attitude of the selectors. After all, they are former cricketers who know how corrosive criticism can be and would rather be praised for sticking to the straight-and-narrow than invite censure for taking a chance.
In recent years, selecting the top half of the Indian eleven has been one of the simplest jobs on offer. Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, V V S Laxman, Sourav Ganguly each played over a hundred Tests in what must count as the golden era of Indian batsmanship. Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman together played 118 Tests, thus ensuring tfew selectorial headaches.
In any case, it doesn't need a genius to pick a Tendulkar who has been a cetainty in the team for 23 years, before either Ishant Sharma or Bhuvaneshwar Kumar were born. Which is why there is a strong case for appointing your best selectors at the junior levels. Anyone who follows the game can pick a squad of 15; the records are available, there is enough television footage, and reputations are made over a period.
But it is the selector who can judge what a player will become who is invaluable. Like former Karnataka skipper V Subramanyam who saw a tiny schoolboy named Gundappa Vishwanath in action and gave him a break. Once Vishwanath had made his Ranji debut with a double century and his Test debut with a century, it didn't require great insight to select him as a national player.
Vishwanath himself may have been the last national selector to make an inspired choice based not on record but on potential. In 1990 as chairman of selectors, he picked a bespectacled student to play for India with nothing but instinct to go by. That is how Anil Kumble, India's highest wicket-taker got his break and spearheaded the Indian bowling for the best part of two decades.
If selection were to be based purely on statistics and averages, then all you need is a computer or a statistician to pick the Indian team. The highest scorer in the national championship, the highest wicket taker and so would be automatic choices. Yet it is no coincidence that some of the heaviest scorers ever in the Ranji Trophy or the most successful bowlers have been players with limited or no exposure to international cricket. Either their careers coincided with a better-placed rival (Rajinder Goel versus Bishan Bedi) or selectors decided early that they were not Test-match material (Amarjeet Kaypee). Also, such aggregate records are skewed because they played more Ranji matches than their Test-playing counterparts.
Should India have made a few bold choices for the series against Australia? The best time to experiment is when a team is at a low ebb. And the Indian Test team, after eight consecutive defeats in England and Australia followed by a defeat against England at home for the first time in 28 years, is not at the height of its powers. The team selected for the first two Tests is ad-hoc, with no particular thought to the long-term. The return of Harbhajan Singh acknowledges his record against Australia but hardly inspires confidence in the state of Indian spin bowling. Could a couple of the under-19 boys who won the World Cup have been given a chance?
These are difficult questions to answer, especially if you are wary of criticism. It is difficult to believe that in recent months no player has caught the selectors eye, appealing to his instinct rather than his calculator. Virat Kohli and Cheteswar Pujara may not have set the Ganga on fire yet, but then neither did Dravid or Laxman in the early years. There might be a spinner or a batsman lurking in the undergrowth of Indian cricket who may not have the record but who is a long-term prospect and needs to be encouraged.
That, in essence, is the selector's job. First to recognise the talent, to be able to see centuries and five-wicket hauls in the future from an innings of 25 or a spell in which one or two wickets are taken. Then to guide them into the team. Men like Sandip Patil have played enough cricket and watched enough to be able to spot a potential winner. But they are usually held back by the threat of media criticism and the possibility of a promise developing late or not at all. Hence the safety-first attitude. The here-and-now gains precedence over tomorrow.