Post the South African debacles, apart from one or two curious and questionable moves, I feel that the Indian team has been well-managed, well-selected and well-led. In a series of posts, I intend touching on all three aspects of team development (selection, management and leadership). However, there are certain signs that there is a certain method to the madness. We seem to have a few people at the helm who are, on the surface at least, passionate about the team and have its success as their core motivation.
It helps that this post-distaster recovery has been played out on home soil, where India traditionally tends to do well. But the recovery is certainly there the see.
In this post, I concentrate on the selectors…
Since Kiran More’s reign, the Indian selection team has become more and more sure of themselves. There appears to be a consistency. There appears to be confidence. And there appears to be a hitherto unknown self-belief. Especially in the tenure of Dilip vengsarkar, there is a certain swagger that comes perhaps from an innate awareness of their own roles and responsibilities. This has come about mainly because the selectors now have much closer interactions with the team and coach. Their term is three years. Although this term does not give them enough opportunity to be involved in any serious strategic thinking, it is certainly better than a one-year or two-year term. The chairperson of the committee has more teeth.
Of course, an ideal situation would, perhaps, be to have the selection committee as a professionally accountable executive body on its own. Australia has such a body led by Andrew Hilditch currently. But then, Cricket Australia is, itself, a professional organisation with a CEO and a Board of Directors. India does not have that organisational set-up. And I suspect that it never will have a professional set-up. The stakes are just too high. Given that base scenario, having a selection committee with a slightly longer reign gives it a bit more of a responsibility-accountability strain than a possible previous “all care no responsibility” scenario.
A tinkering of the current scenario would be to do away with the zonal representation: currently there are 5 members of the committee — one from each of North, East, South, West and Central zones. This leads to the perception — if not the dire possibility itself — of zonal issues dominating and driving selection policy. However, even the doing away of zonal representation on the selection commitee may be a bridge too far for the BCCI.
In selecting more recent players as the Chairperson of the selection committee — Kiran More and Dilip Vengsarkar are recent examples — the link in “thinking along similar lines as the players” is certainly there; and this link is perceptible. The selectors think along similar lines as the players. They are able to, thus, communicate better with the senior members of the team. And there is certainly, to my eyes at least, a strong captain-coach-selector bond. That troika seem to be bound by a vision rather than just the next match.
And, thanks to Kiran More, the selectors are ready to take bold decisions even against stars. The unthinkable has happened: Selectors’ effigies are regularly burned! Clearly, even if this is the only metric of “bold decision making”, they are doing something right! Kiran More sacked Ganguly with a message that he needed to go back and focus on his basics. He also indicated his support for bringing Ganguly back when the time was right.
Dilip Vengsarkar has taken the cue from where Kiran More left off and has been forthright and direct in his interactions with both players and media. He has been true to his “Colonel” nickname! He has pulled no punches in his selection decisions. Some of them have been bold. He got Saurav Ganguly and Zaheer Khan back in the team when the time was right. He made tough calls on VVS Laxman and gave a clear message to the player — despite his immense star-value — that his fitness was a big concern and a no-compromise issue. His responses to questions on Virender Sehwag, Irfan Pathan, Ashish Nehra and others could be seen to contain a tinge of arrogance (In response to Nehra’s ommission, he is reported to have said, “The last World Cup was four years ago. This is 2007. Even I played in the World Cup in 1987“). However, it is the kind of straight-talk that Indian cricket needs. For far too long, the acutely ravenous Indian cricket media has been fed lines that have been misinterpreted and over-analysed to rip both context and meaning off what was actually said!
The messages and sound-bytes these days are strong and direct, the likes of which one sees in Australia. There appears to be a strong communication link between the selectors and the players. But none of this would count much if the actualy selections are poor. The selections have been, by and large, good. The selection committee has a wealth of experience — and that too, recent experience — in it. They think like the players. They appear to be working towards a vision with confidence and clarity.
Kiran More, Greg Chappell and Rahul Dravid commenced the “development” strategy. In the past this has been referred to as “experimentation”. In fact, in a recent interview, Greg Chappell refused to use the word “experimentation”. He called it “opportunity taking”. It is unfortunate that the “experimentation” word has been abused by an agenda-ridden Indian media. It is also unfortunate — although understandable — that Greg Chappell and Rahul Dravid have rejected the use of that term. Indeed, the full text of the recent Greg Chappell interview — and some of his other interviews with other media outlets — makes for fascinaing reading. It shows that he fully understands the extent of agenda-politics, regional-politics, jingoism-nationalism, opinion-driven-observations and factionalism that drives the Indian cricket media — I have often called this lot the “braying mediocrity of Indian cricket” in the past. But that is another topic for another day!
Back to the Greg Chappell interview and the “experimentation” game that has been played out recently. Chappell says (in the context of Suresh Raina and the return of seniors to the fold), “I think RP Singh is in the same boat. I think he’s won 4-5 Man of the Match awards in a very short career. None of this – [smiles] I was going to use a word that’s become a swear word in India – but none of this opportunity-taking is going to be wasted for Indian cricket. The same goes for Raina and some of the other guys whom I’ve overlooked. Much of the critical comment is made with other agendas attached to it. The cricket logic behind all the things we’ve done is very strong. It’s based on history (my own experience) and the history of international cricket. The kind of players who do well in matches are the types we’re looking for. If you don’t give such opportunities, the future is going to bleak.”
Strong words. Sane words.
It is clear that, since the reign of Kiran More as selection committee chair, there has been a strong bond between coach-selection-captain. This vision sharing and vision shaping has been an important part of the journey. India has returned to its seniors to take the team to the World Cup. But the journey has also identified and thrown up capable alternatives in the form of Suresh Raina, Mohammed Kaif, R. P. Singh, V. R. V. Singh, Venugopal Rao, Joginder Sharma, Piyush Chawla, Gautam Gambhir, Wasim Jaffer, Dinesh Mongia and a few others. Consider the above alongwith some exciting exisitng “young talent” in the current team like Robin Uthappa, Irfan Pathan, Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh, Dinesh Karthik, Munaf Patel and Sree Sreesanth. Then throw in some young talent who are in the sidelines, like Ishant Sharma, Rajesh Pawar, Manoj Tiwary, S. Badrinath, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma, et al, who haven’t been given recent opportunities, but have been identified. When you consider all of these in unison a Team-India fan may begin to raise hopes for a bright future for Indian cricket. (And perhaps that is a topic for another article on another day too.)
As we know, there is much more to winning than merely having the system throw up good/talented players. Talented players will be thrown up by the Indian maidans. Some of them will fall by the wayside. Some will not be allowed to progress beyond a minor representative level because of other socio-cultural pressures — after all, despite the rhetoric, even today there is still greater career-certainty in IT, call-centres, engineering, medicine and other professions. Some of the talent will be crushed by the mid-level politics that sometimes does not allow players to blossom. These are existing evils that the Indian grass-roots has to work with. However, player-identification, player-nurturing and player-development are important cogs in the wheel. And the selection committee wears some of this responsibility. In recent years, it has worn this with remarkable aplomb. This has to be carried out in an environment where long-term strategy marries short-term realities. And this is where I believe the selection-coach-captain nexus has performed well. They have performed well not only in the selection of the team for the World Cup. They have also identifed, along the way, some players who will be able to step in when the seniors leave.
In the selection of the World Cup team, longer-term strategy rightly gave way to the short term pragmatism of taking a team that had the best chances of delivering the best World Cup result. I strongly believe that barring Anil Kumble — and this is my view — this Indian team is close to the best that could have been selected from the available players. This is a commonly shared view. There is a seemingly disturbing agreement amongst all the media pundits on the sagacity of this World Cup 2007 team selection. It is almost an eerily uncomfortable feeling that the Indian cricket media almost unanimously approves anything the team does! Surely, that can’t be right! But it is right. It is true. I have not heard/read much dissent in the media regarding this team and that is perhaps a World Cup first for Team India! Clearly, the selectors have done well.
And this is where the selectors’ job ends. It is now upto the players and the coach.
In getting there, the selectors, coach and captain have wandered down a path of “experimentation” — ok, here is that dreaded and misunderstood “swear word” that Greg Chappell refers to. In this context, I am really not really sure what the Indian media’s issue is with “experimentation”. It is an inherent part of strategy. The team needed a vision. One was developed. It needed to focus on the basics (“process more important than outcomes”). It also needed an environment where “thorough exploration, managed experimentation and careful adoption” would be the mantra that took it forward. And that is exactly what has happened. I do hope that the coach, captain and selectors do not lose the “experimentation” mindset. I hope they do not sugar coat the approach with weasel words like “opportunity taking”. Experimentation is an inherent part of tactical-operational decision making. Period.
Even after the World Cup team-selection was made, the selectors have, either by design or by player-availability or luck, performed well by playing almost everyone from the XV, barring Irfan Pathan, in the lead-up games. There is already talk of Irfan Pathan using a Deodhar Trophy match to work himself into match fitness. Almost everyone in the team, including Yuvraj Singh, Munaf Patel and Virender Sehwag, have been played into some sort of form. This augurs well for the teams’ prospects.
There is no doubt in my mind that the result — at least temporarily, the World Cup team — has been good. Yes, agility on the field has been compromised. But sound decision making is about making the right trade-offs correctly. The selectors could have taken Suresh Raina and Mohammed Kaif along, but they are probably better off taking Virender Sehwag and Dinesh Karthik. Apart from dealing cruel, early blows to Joginder Sharma and R. P. Singh, the selection process has been quite direction-led, focussed and transparent.
And for this, we must acknowledge the work of Kiran More (in the early stages) and Dilip Vengsarkar (more lately) and their respective selection teams.