Only last week, Ravichandran Ashwin told Cricbuzz, “I would say 80% of India’s cricketers are accidents. That’s how it works.” This was said in the context of selection and insensitivity of selectors in junior cricket.
This is an interesting observation coming from someone who is widely regarded as a thinker of the game, and whose off-spin bowling is of the rare kind that preys on a batsman’s mind before actually challenging him on the pitch.
Those words kept coming to mind while watching Ranji Trophy champions Gujarat’s bid to become only the third state/unit to win the Irani Trophy since the turn of the new millennium, and denied by a combination of umpiring gaffes and match-winning efforts by Wriddhman Saha and Cheteshwar Pujara for Rest of India.
The coming-of-age for Panchal
The Irani game brought the curtains down on a remarkable domestic first-class season that saw Gujarat become first-time Ranji Trophy winners – and how! – by handing past masters Mumbai only their fifth defeat in 46 final appearances in the competition’s 83-year history and their first since 1990-’91.
It signified the coming-of-age of not just Gujarat as a cricketing state, but also for a bunch of individuals from the side, several of whom backed their promise with terrific performances this season. Opening batsman Priyank Panchal, for one, was exceptional, as he came close to toppling VVS Laxman’s record 1,415 runs in a single Ranji season with 1310. The 26-year-old also hit 30 and 72 in the Irani game.
Here’s where Ashwin’s opinion kicks in, for it is applicable across cricket in India – possibly the country’s sporting landscape even – and in this context, could easily translate to: Will Panchal’s performance, and others likewise, be recognised when still in blazing form?
Logically it should. In Panchal’s case at least, considering that India struggled to find a settled opening pair for most of the previous two Test series due to a combination of poor form and injury, forcing the selection committee to recall veteran Gautam Gambhir.
Given that top-ranked India is faced with three daunting overseas Test tours in 2017-’18 – South Africa, England and Australia – would it not be good to have someone like an in-form Panchal in the mix, blood him in a home series so he is prepared?
Time to look ahead
If the senior national selection committee’s outlook is on these lines, then Panchal should be an automatic choice for the one-off home Test against Bangladesh to be played in Hyderabad from Feb 9. And again at some point during the subsequent four-Test series against Australia at home.
Selection and debate go hand in hand. The choice of openers for the Rest of India squad is a case in point, and it was also the first assignment for the trimmed national selection panel following the implementation of the Lodha committee recommendations.
A selector punts on performance, talent or a combination of both while picking a player. One expected the exciting Prithvi Shaw to walk into the Rest of India XI on all counts.
The 17-year-old Mumbai opener scored a century on first-class debut in the semi-final against Tamil Nadu, hit a stunning 71 in the first innings of the final and a 35-ball 44 with eight fours in the second innings as Mumbai took the 100-run first innings deficit out of the equation and set Gujarat a challenging target of 312 for victory.
Shaw had just returned from the U-19 Asia Cup. And junior India coach Rahul Dravid had reportedly endorsed Shaw’s elevation to the Ranji side when he was consulted by Mumbai’s chief selector Milind Rege.
If one can safely assume that Dravid knows his cricket, and with Shaw performing in both the big games, then the precociously talented boy had virtually picked himself for the Rest of India game on both performance and promise.
Shaw is still young and a tad raw. The openers picked for the game – Abhinav Mukund, who played the last of his five Tests in 2011 and is hoping to stage an international comeback, and promising 22-year-old Akhil Herwadkar – had also stacked up the runs.
Not everyone has the luxury of age on his side. For someone like Panchal this is possibly the perfect time for the big break.
The Ahmedabad-born has spent eight seasons in dometic cricket, and is clearly at the top of his game after almost doubling his previous best season tally of 665 in 2015-’16 to finish as this season’s highest run-getter in the Ranji Trophy on the back of five centuries, including a triple and a double.
It can be argued that not every spectacular domestic performer is rewarded with the India cap. Indian cricket history is also replete with instances of talented players unlucky not to have donned national colours.
It is understandable if one is vying against the best for the slot – like a middle-order bat in the era of Dravid-Tendulkar-Ganguly-Laxman.
The opener slots in the current Test side could do with more competition. Panchal rightfully deserves an opportunity.