Good horses in unfamiliar courses


In an earlier post, Sanjay Subrahmanyan writes about how Team India’s middle-order hopefuls have performed in recent years in the glories, chaos, catastrophes, and convulsions of Indian cricket.

One of these “hopefuls” is Yuvraj Singh. He is once again a Test middle-order “hopeful”. Fourteen years after making his First Class debut and some 8 yeas since making his international debut, Yuvraj Singh is still a “hopeful”. That is a story in itself and is cause for him to be the protagonist in this essay. But the larger plot is the rationale behind his selection in a Test side. The more important inquisition is about how T20 and ODI performance continues to influence selectors when they sit down to select a Test side.

India is, ironically, in a good situation. This moment in time represents a compelling opportunity to build for the future. It should be an opportunity to be clear and strategic in thought and action. Instead, what we are left with is an impression of a selection group that is chaotic, disorganized and muddled in its thinking.

India has been thoroughly embarrassed and humiliated in England in a tour in which nothing went right for the team. In a year from now, the team might have one or perhaps even two or three departures through retirement. For example, I cannot see VVS Laxman’s body last beyond mid-2012. Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid cannot be too far from hanging up their bats. Zaheer Khan is not going to be around for ever. This was, therefore, an opportunity to commence a definite freeing of the many strong Atlases that held the team aloft in an impressive journey. The time was ripe for strategic thinking.

Ironically, the situation that the team faces now has parallels with 2007.

The tour of Australia in 2007 was an important one for India. The team had had a captaincy change after the triumph in England, which wiped out a disastrous World Cup performance. The team had also unexpectedly lifted the inaugural World T20 Championship under the captaincy of MS Dhoni. India would play a series against Pakistan prior to embarking on a defining tour of Australia. Here was a team on the ascendancy; but she had to win in Australia.

Prior to this tour, Yuvraj Singh was selected in the India Test team. After all, how could you drop a player who had smashed Stuart Broad for 6 sixes in an over? Yuvraj Singh proceeded to hit a brilliant century in Bangalore against Pakistan. The selectors had no other choice. Yuvraj Singh’s name was etched in the team sheet for Australia in December 2007. In order to accommodate him in the middle-order, Rahul Dravid had to open the batting along with Wasim Jaffer in the first Test at the MCG. Yuvraj and India had a miserable Test match. The same mistake was repeated in that infamous Test in Sydney. Once again, Rahul Dravid was sacrificed in order to accommodate Yuvraj Singh in the middle-order. Yuvraj made an embarrassing 12 in the first innings and did not trouble the scorers in the 2nd innings. Good sense prevailed in the 3rd Test in Perth when Wasim Jaffer opened with Virender Sehwag.

Now I am not saying that Yuvraj Singh is a poor player. Not at all. He is one of the sweetest timers of the ball in world cricket. He has a lazy elegance about his stroke play that whispers “Brian Lara”. He burst onto the scene by hitting some of the best bowlers out of the park. He had the swagger, power, timing, hunger, attitude and charisma. At one stage, he was even talked of as a future captain of India. He looked like he wanted to belong. He belonged. He played a wonderful hand in India’s 2011 World Cup win. He seemed to be fit and hungry in the 2011 World Cup. After sulking and moping his way through the previous year — including, famously, in the IPL Edition 3 — it appeared as though Yuvraj Singh had arrived once again. He played like a team man. After a spate of sorry injuries, he was even throwing himself around on the cricket field once again.

But that was in the ODI arena. His exploits in 2007 were in the T20 arena. The question must be asked. Is Yuvraj Singh a Test batsman?

Since 2003, Yuvraj has played 35 Test matches, scoring 1709 runs at 35.60 with 3 centuries and a highest of 169! All of Yuvraj’s centuries have been made on the subcontinent. Indeed his average in ‘Home Tests’ is 45.31 against an average of 29.24 in Tests away from the ‘Home’.

Contrast this with a “contemporary” of his. Since his debut in 2000, Wasim Jaffer played 31 Test matches, scoring 1944 runs at 34.10 with 5 centuries and a highest score of 212. Three of Jaffers’ five Test centuries have been made overseas: how can we forget that brilliant 212 at St Johns’ in the West Indies and his fighting 116 in South Africa.

Alas! Jaffer only played 2 ODI games (in South Africa) and never played a T20 for India. So he wasn’t able to showcase his latent flamboyance and ability to “thump” the ball hard and far. We like that. We like opposition to be pummeled into submission. We like our batsmen to be in a Colosseum battling the opposition with a mace instead of a bat. So flair and flamboyance wins.

Mind you, I am not pushing for Jaffer’s inclusion in the Indian Test team. All I am saying is that Yuvraj Singh has a record that is on par with Wasim Jaffer as a player. I agree that such comparison fail at various levels. I am not advocating a StatsGuru based analysis of player worth. And as a person who is not heavily pro-StatsGuru, the last thing I would advocate is a StatsGuru compliant iPad for all members of the Team India selection committee!

My point here is that Yuvraj Singh’s massively significant ODI and T20 performances continually propel him into our peripheral vision when it comes to selecting Test teams. He is always there in our faces, asking to be selected in Test matches too; because he thumped 4 boundaries in an over in an ODI or pummeled India to victory in a T20 or took Kevin Pietersen’s wicket… Again! We do select him in Tests. He fails. We fail. We do not learn. Another IPL comes around. Another ODI series comes around. He performs well in these. We select him again.

I have shone the spotlight on Yuvraj Singh because we make the same mistake with other players too.

In the team that has been chosen to play West Indies in the forthcoming Test series (if we rule out quota-based selections as a plausible reason), we have Rahul Sharma and Varun Aaron who have got in on the basis of their T20 and ODI performances. The First Class records of the above two players makes shabby reading.

Rahul Sharma has played 10 First Class games and has taken 18 wickets at an average of 44.66 a piece! I am not joking. This is true! And the only good thing about Rahul Sharma’s selection is that he makes Varun Aaron’s selection look inspired! Varun Aaron has played just 12 First Class games and taken 26 wickets at 41.50 a piece!

Both of these players may well be the future of Indian cricket. I have nothing against them and hope that they have a brilliant career in whites as well as in the blue of the Team India ODI/T20 teams. That is not my point. My point is that they have found a place in the Indian Test Team through IPL/T20 and/or ODI routes. This is a selection process that has lost direction.

Another curious selection is that of Ajinka Rahane. And to explain why, our protagonist must make a reappearance!

Rahane is a fine player, mind you. I was always confident that he would play for India one day. That is not my issue. My concern is (a) the route the selectors have chosen for him and (b) the person he has displaced in the team.

Rahane has replaced Abhinav Mukund in the Test team mainly because of his domestic record but also because he played reasonably well in one ODI in England. He also had a reasonably good T20 gig.

Rahane is a class act. He was always marked for a Team India spot at some point of time in his career. In four Ranji seasons since 2007, he has played 49 First Class matches and scored 4838 runs at an average of 69.11 including 18 centuries. After opening in his first two seasons, he has been coming in at #3 in subsequent seasons, for reasons best known to him and the Mumbai team management. This a record to be proud of. Once a player accumulates as many runs as Rahane has in first class games, the real issue is one of “when” rather than “whether” — unless of course, Rahane also responds to the name “Badrinath”!

Abhinav Mukund was in Virat Kohli’s U19 Team that won the World Cup, although he played only one game in that particular journey. Since then he has had an impressive run in domestic cricket — Ranji and the Irani Trophy. Since his debut in 2007, he has played 47 First Class matches and scores 3880 runs at an average of 54.64 with 14 centuries and a high-score of 300*.

Clearly, players like Ajinkya Rahane, Abhinav Mukund and Cheteshwar Pujara are the future of Indian cricket. They are young. They have made plenty of runs in first class cricket and have also made big hundreds. I have always felt that more then hundreds, what matters most when you look at domestic records of players is the number of big hundreds a player has made. All three have made many big scores.

Now, let us look at Yuvraj Singh! In all the time since he made his debut (in the late 90s) Yuvraj has played a mere 97 first class games, scoring 6114 at an average of 44.62 and with just 18 centuries to his name.

So, essentially what has happened is that, on the back of a good World Cup ODI and a good IPL season, Yuvraj Singh has squeezed himself back into the India Test Team! The result of this is that the selectors may have wanted a player who could play in the middle-order in the event of a Yuvraj Singh failure or injury — both of which are equally likely — who would also double as an opener in an injury situation to one of Gambhir or Sehwag — also likely given trends in recent series.

Enter Ajinkya Rahane who edges out Abhinav Mukund, the incumbent in the openers’ slot! So one T20/IPL/ODI based shoehorning has resulted in the forced eviction of the future. It is clear that IPL/T20 performances have influenced Test selection. Surely, Varun Aaron and Rahul Sharma have been selected on that basis. Yuvraj Singh’s selection is reward for a stellar World Cup. These selections may pay off for Team India. But I do not see either clarity or consistency. There is much muddled thinking.

Part of the problem here is with communications. The selectors do not communicate with players. Younger players do not know what plans the committee has for them. Would it not be good (or indeed necessary), for the selectors to talk to Suresh Raina and set targets/goals for him? Would it not be necessary for them to talk to Abhinav Mukund to explain why he was dropped? But that does not happen, for it appears that the selectors job in India is to merely select; not to nurture talent. Even in selection, their job seems to me to be to select good horses for somewhat unfamiliar and uncomfortable courses.

A significant part of the problem here is that selectors are barred from communicating their decisions to you and me. It may not be necessary. But it would help identify how these decisions are thought through. The result, therefore, is an extremely unclear, hazy and murky environment in which no one is really sure what is going on.

Meanwhile, we have several other distractions like a dog on a race track and broken barricades in a rock concert and an array of similar goof ups to distract us from transparent and cogent decision making!

— Mohan (@mohank)

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2 responses to “Good horses in unfamiliar courses

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