Each time an Indian cricket team is announced, there are two things that are discussed in great detail. Firstly, of course, the merit of the players that made the cut. And secondly, the merit of the people that selected those players.
Be it a legend like Mahendra Singh Dhoni, an on-and-off performer such as Ambati Rayudu, or a newcomer like Prithvi Shaw, there are vociferous opinions shared on either side of the debate for every player. And on each of these instances, there are questions raised over the credential of the selectors.
‘How can someone who has played just a handful of matches for India be qualified to judge a person of such great stature’? – this is an argument one often comes across.
When it comes to cricket in India, even a layman is an expert. Anyone who watches the sport can make a compelling argument. They know exactly which player should be invested in, who needs to be discarded and who can be relied upon when the chips are down. And surprisingly, it’s hard to disagree with these opinions on most occasions.
But selecting a group of players to play for the country requires more than just a personal liking for an individual, doesn’t it? There are a fair few more factors at play while picking a squad – like team balance, form, mental toughness, and playing conditions, to name a few.
Can one have an eye for talent only if they possess the same kind of talent themselves? Is the ability to spot talent a skill in itself?
In the senior men’s category in India, which comprises the Ranji Trophy, Duleep Trophy, Irani Trophy, Deodhar Trophy, Vijay Hazare Trophy, Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, and the numerous India A series, there are close to 500 matches that are played in one season. Surely, picking the 15 best players can’t be an easy job.
BCCI’s qualification criteria for selectors:
Senior committee: Should have represented India in either a Test match or an ODI.
Junior committee: Should have played more than 50 first-class matches.
Should be under the age of 60 and be willing to undergo a medical examination.
Should have retired on record, from all forms of cricket at least five years prior.
Should not be part of any IPL team/management or any other league in the world.
Should not be associated with any cricket coaching academy.
To be a selector of the senior men’s Indian cricket team, one has to have a Test or One-Day International cap. The job requires you to travel across the country through the year and watch hundreds of domestic matches. Of course, one is paid well but there’s the responsibility of selecting a small group of individuals who will then have billions of dollars riding on their shoulders. It goes without saying that there’s high pressure involved.
So who is equipped to take up this task? Does a general understanding of the game suffice? Does one need to go through the grind of playing professionally to be qualified to pick the Indian team? Does representing the country in one Test or ODI set your credentials apart? Or do you have to have a certain amount of international cricket under your belt to know what it takes at the highest level?
In India, the performance of the selectors comes under as much scrutiny as that of the players. If the results on the field are unfavourable, the discussion invariably veers towards the credentials of the people who picked the players to represent the country.
Recently, someone as distinguished as Sunil Gavaskar, who was dismayed by Virat Kohli’s automatic reappointment as captain for the West Indies tour despite the disappointment of the World Cup, termed the selectors ‘lame ducks’ for lacking the stature to stand their ground. His argument was that since none of the current selectors have played much international cricket, they don’t have the courage to look someone like Kohli in the eye and do what’s right.
MSK Prasad, who is the chief of the selection committee, was polite in his rebuttal, citing the example of Trevor Hohns and Ed Smith, selectors of the Australian and England teams respectively, to drive home his point that he and his team were well equipped to do the job at hand. To the uninitiated, Hohns and Smith have played only ten Test matches between them but are responsible for ushering in glorious phases for their respective countries as selectors, with several big names working under them.
“India’s current selectors have also played a lot of first class cricket. Even they have the knowledge,” said former India cricketer and selector Madan Lal. “Someone who has played over 70 first-class matches has played cricket at that level for close to a decade. He’s bound to have a lot of knowledge.”
Sanjay Jagdale, who was a selector of the Indian cricket team between 2000 and 2008, agrees. He was a part of the selection committee during a crucial phase in Indian cricket, when the country was slowly becoming a powerhouse on the international stage.
“I never played international cricket while Sourav [Ganguly] is one of the best captains India has ever had, but I never felt intimidated,” said Jagdale. “It depends on the individual. There are several selectors and coaches who have exceled internationally despite not playing at that level. I never had a problem standing up to the captains. There were times I disagreed with Sourav or even with MS Dhoni but it’s important to have your own opinions.”
However, can the experience of playing only domestic cricket truly match the knowledge that comes with international exposure?
“There’s a school of thought which says that if you haven’t played at a certain level, you don’t have the gut feel for it,” said Milind Rege, chairman of Mumbai’s senior selection committee. “Wouldn’t there be a difference between someone who has played 50 Tests and someone who has played two Tests? It’s hard to argue with that. The player with more experience will surely have a deeper understanding of the pressures at the highest level.”
The challenge for a selector to prove his or her credentials becomes greater when you throw the captain’s opinion into the mix. After all, it is he who has to lead the players on the field. If a selector isn’t a well-established name, how can he possibly stand up a captain who will invariably be a powerful figure?
Over the years in Indian cricket, each captain had certain players he backed more than others. It’s only natural for one to feel more comfortable around certain individuals. It’s his responsibility to bring the best out of the team and get results on the field, but it’s the selectors’ job to pick the personnel. There’s always a chance for differences to crop up.
“I never experienced any such power struggle,” said Jagdale. “We had an outstanding captain in Sourav and coach in John Wright. We discussed everything and agreed on most things but there were definitely times when we didn’t agree. They took it nicely and it was all very healthy. I can remember at least ten instances when there were differences within the selection committee as well as with the captain. And with regards to big players. But that’s a healthy sign. As long as no one tries to dominate. But the final call is the selectors’ because they’re the ones watching domestic cricket closely.”
Lal, on the other hand, reckons the captain’s opinion is paramount.
“The captain has all the power to have a say and convince the selectors,” he said. “If the captain has a point then the selectors must listen to him. Almost 90 per cent of the time we do agree with captains but you can also disagree at times. Because he isn’t recommending any Tom, Dick and Harry. Captains don’t watch domestic cricket because they are busy playing themselves, unlike the selectors who’re watching everything. Both parties need to be able to convince each other about their preferences.”
A good selector
So what makes a good selector? Watching hundreds of matches, dealing with the captain and team management, facing media scrutiny, constantly having to prove your worth – there’s a lot that can go wrong very quickly for a selector. They hardly ever get credit for the team’s success, but the brickbats are always round the corner.
“The most important quality that a selector must have is honesty and integrity,” said Jagdale. “Of course, you must have knowledge and an understanding of the game but that’s of no use if you don’t have integrity. It’s okay to make mistakes but honesty is the top priority. You must have the vision and ability to spot talents for the highest level. Once you’re convinced of a youngster’s talent, you have to give him time. You need to know the requirements of the team – current and future requirements – and have a list of players you think can make the cut. Then you have to decide how you’ll give the players opportunities. You have to prepare a team with a lot of planning.”
One complaint that often comes up against selectors is the lack of consistency. Certain players are given longer ropes than others while some are neglected despite being consistent performers. It’ll be unfair to question the selectors’ intent on such occasions, but it’s hard to make sense of the math.
“In 2003, about seven months before the World Cup, the India A team was travelling to South Africa. We sent [Mohammad] Kaif and Yuvraj [Singh] in that team because we felt that they could fit into the senior team in the World Cup. We gave them the exposure,” recalled Jagdale. “Rishabh Pant got hundreds on his first tours of England and Australia. But what did the selectors do? They sent him back. They didn’t include him for the limited-overs leg of the Australia tour and not even for the series against Australia at home. This is no preparation.
“You bring back people like Dinesh Karthik and Ambati Rayudu who have been playing for 15 years. They were there even when I was a selector 15 years ago. How can you go back to someone who hasn’t established himself for so long? Rishabh Pant is your future, he isn’t a finished product and needs time and exposure. Instead of giving him that you send him back from Australia. And suddenly he finds himself batting in a World Cup semi-final. This was not a good move by the selection committee.”
Only answerable to yourself
Resisting the urge to back players from your own state is another hurdle the selectors have to cross. It’s been an age-old practice in Indian cricket for men in positions of power to favour players from their own state. This has been on the decline over the past decade or so but one often sees traces of it even today.
“It becomes easier at the domestic level because all the selectors are from the same state,” said Rege. “Picking the Indian team is a different ball-game altogether because all the selectors come from different states, and they probably feel compelled to pick players from their region because they’ve seen more of them.”
Rege added: “Being a national selector is a double-edge sword today. Because you’re paid so well you feel like you have to be with everybody. Because I’m paid so well I’ll hesitate in speaking my mind, else the captain might ask to get rid of me. What happened to Mohinder Amarnath and Dilip Vengsarkar? These guys were great Test players but got sacked because they voiced their opinions. They weren’t liked and were removed conveniently.”
“It’s important not to favour players and indulge in groupism – you take my player and I’ll take yours,” added Lal. “In India, we often get caught up in which zone we belong to. People from state associations expect that a selector from their zone will pick players from his region. In such a situation it’s important for the selection committee to work as a team and check each other. You’ve got to have character. You aren’t answerable to anyone but yourself.”
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