Ajinkya Rahane (L) and Manoj Tiwary, two players who have paid the price for the short-sightedness of the selectors and team management © Getty Images and AFP
By Abhijit Banare
After the spineless capitulations in England and Australia, Team India’s inexplicable losses in its own backyard outraged the nation and raised several questions about the side and its management. While the blame keeps shifting from time to time, the poor use of bench strength has gone largely unnoticed over the years. This has cost India an opportunity to make the transition phase smooth.
Talented young players who were supposed to take over from ageing seniors were not given adequate chances and groomed, despite being drafted into the squad. Now that senior players aren’t performing, the shortsightedness of the selectors and team management in not planning the transition lies exposed. While on one hand discussions about leadership change and transition has been spoken about a lot, it has become extremely difficult to implement the same.
Fluctuating bowling squad
Moreover, an observation over the past three years highlight to a screaming issue of constantly fluctuating bowling line-up. On an average India has never gone with the same set of pacers in a squad for more than two series, which shows the acute lack of planning. While most of the playing eleven features Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma, the so-called backup players have featured more in inconsequential matches than during the major part of the series. Among the unused or little exposed include Sudeep Tyagi, Pankaj Singh, Dhawal Kulkarni, Jaidev Undakat, Abhimanyu Mithun and Varun Aaron. Today, none of them are in the fray for national duty. All that we have found good enough in the past three years is Umesh Yadav.
The pattern shows two things:
a. The players have been picked on current form or perceived potential, and not on consistent performance over a period of time.
b. Even if it was for talent, then it has not been used to an extent where the value of the player can be judged at the international level.
It is experience and not one season wonder which will get India players who can last for a long time. And experience here is in context of a player performing well in consecutive seasons and giving them a considerable stretch of eight to ten Test matches before taking a call. But the pressure of perform-or-perish on debut is not allowing bowlers to settle down. Almost every player mentioned above was picked when they were in sublime form, only to be dropped when the selectors found another young talent next season. It’s true that the selectors must have noticed something promising in a young bowler who has the potential to succeed. But effort should be made to meaningfully test the player. Not many would disagree or lash out if India loses few matches in the process of generating a new set of bowlers. This process becomes more significant since India’s prime fast bowler Zaheer is struggling as well. While the topic of Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement has been squeezed enough, not many have thought about a bowling line-up without the 34-year old left-arm pacer – at least in Tests.
The story of batsmen is more or less similar. The reluctance to drop a few senior players to try out bench strength was never a top priority when the team was performing well. It’s always considered unpopular to change a winning combination. Thus, many batsmen picked up during the era of the ‘Fab Five’ ended up with a similar fate as the bowlers.
As Warren Buffet says, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.”
The rigidity to persist with seniors match after match has cost the growth of players like Ajinkya Rahane, Robin Bisht, Manoj Tiwary, Abhinav Mukund and others who could have virtually been ready to take over from the seniors. Eventually when the opposition takes note of over-dependence on ageing senior players, they sniff an opportunity even before entering the field.
The comeback men
Due to a large section of young players being underutilised as discussed earlier, the faith of captain-coach on those players during a crisis situation is less, as compared to a certain set of players who have been already tried. Unfortunately this set consists of players like Rohit Sharma, S Sreesanth, Piyush Chawla and Ravindra Jadeja who manage to sneak into the playing eleven despite inconsistent performances, while a majority of others remain unused. Rahane must be wondering what mistake he has done to be ignored the way he has been.
The selectors seem to be in a hurry to pick players on the back of one-off performances. A triple-century by Jadeja suddenly made him deserving enough for a Test cap. Ironically he was , chosen as a bowler in the recently-concluded Test series against England.
This discrepancy in selection and managing the resources is not an issue to point fingers at the captain and coach completely. Instead we fail to understand the lack of an appropriate mentor or organisational set-up in India who can bridge the gap between oscillating ideas of selectors and ground reality of available resources. A periodical review of performance of players in domestic circuit and gauging their potential on a regular basis will help in staying prepared for the future rather than solving a crisis after suffering from the consequences. Allowing bench strength to grow with adequate opportunities is need of the hour. Better late than never.
(Like most Indians, Abhijit Banare has been obsessed with cricket since childhood. He is an avid follower, smitten by statistics and analysis. A journalism student in Mumbai, he considers himself lucky to have grown up watching batting legends like Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. He also likes to keep a sharp eye on Indian politics, and can be followed on Twitter and blog)