Is it advisable to look back in order to go forward? It is a question that periodically crops up in the world of sports and selectors have to come up with an answer and live with the consequences.
The new Indian cricket selection committee, headed by Sandip Patil, seems to think the answer is yes, going by the decisions it made when it met in Mumbai on Monday to pick a Test squad. The recall of cancer survivor Yuvraj Singh, who turns 31 in December, Harbhajan Singh, 32, and Murali Vijay, 28, in the 15 for the the first two Tests of the four-match home series against England starting in Ahmedabad on 15 November, clearly shows Patil and co. would rather gamble on experience than youth as India try to claw back up the International Cricket Council (ICC) Test ranking table.
The team is currently down at No. 5 following a rapid slide that began when it lost the top spot to England after a 4-0 whitewash away in the middle of last year.
Former chief selector Kiran More believes revival must begin against Alastair Cook’s England. “The first two Tests against England will show which way India is headed and who will be the important players for the future,” More says.
The former wicketkeeper feels Patil’s committee, which includes Roger Binny, Syed Saba Karim, Vikram Rathour and Rajinder Hans, is trying to ease into its job. “Everyone is new and they need time to settle down.”
The recent retirement of two stalwart batsmen could have also inflenced the selectors’ decision. “We need experience in the team right now because we no longer have Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman,” More says. Dravid quit after a poor series in Australia, where India were again whitewashed 4-0, and Laxman announced his surprise retirement just before the two Test home series against New Zealand in August.
Virat Kohli, who is increasingly looking like a future India captain, and Cheteshwar Pujara, who scored a maiden Test century against New Zealand, have grabbed the two batting slots either side of Sachin Tendulkar at No. 4. The No. 6 slot has remained a problem ever since Sourav Ganguly was forced into retirement four years ago. Suresh Raina, S. Badrinath and Yuvraj have all been tried but none has managed to establish himself in the longest format.
Last year, around the same time, Yuvraj was the selectors’ choice at No. 6 before he took a break from the game ahead of the third and final home Test against the West Indies. He was subsequently diagnosed with a rare germ cell cancer and had to undergo treatment in the US.
He has since made a remarkable recovery and returned to the Indian Twenty20 team, taking part in India’s doomed campaign in the ICC World T20 in Sri Lanka last month.
A double century in the Duleep Trophy and a half-century and five wickets for India A against England now see the left-handed batsman back in the Test squad, ready to rebuild a stop-start career that has yielded 1,775 runs at an average of 34.80 in 37 matches.
Captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni had earlier said he would reserve judgement until Yuvraj proved he was fit enough to field for two days. Dhoni must be convinced now because he was present at the selection meeting.
More thinks it is the right decision. “Yuvraj’s comeback is a good thing. He is a good option if you are playing with two pacers and two spinners (because he can bowl handy left-arm spin),” he says.
“Since his return, Yuvraj has looked composed. His body language has been good. He looks like he is in a good mental frame. He and (wicketkeeper-batsman) Dhoni, the two all-rounders in the side, can be crucial at Nos. 6 and 7.”
Performance vs reputation
Some of the other selections, particularly that of Harbhajan as a backup to fellow off-spinner R. Ashwin and left-armer Pragyan Ojha, have not been greeted with such enthusiasm.
“The new selectors have to make it clear what is important, current form or reputation,” former India opener W.V. Raman says. “On the one hand, they have sent out a clear message to (out-of-form openers) Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir by selecting Vijay as a reserve opener. On the other, they have picked Harbhajan.”
As the current coach of Bengal, Raman has seen two of his wards, middle-order batsman Manoj Tiwary (who scored 93 for India A against England) and pacer Ashok Dinda, miss out on a Test berth despite being in good form. Harbhajan, ignored for Tests ever since he returned midway through last year’s England tour with an abdominal strain, has not done much in first-class cricket recently. The off-spinner played five first-class matches for Essex in county cricket this summer but took only 13 wickets at 33.15. He did scalp three to lead Punjab to victory in a recent Ranji Trophy match but the wickets came after the Test squad was announced.
At least one member of the last selection committee, which dropped Harbhajan and promoted Ashwin to the Test squad, is clearly disappointed with the decisions taken at Monday’s meeting. “The idea that we tried to establish was that if you are dropped, you have to come back through performances. That has clearly not been the case here,” says the selector, who did not want to be named because of the sensitive nature of the subject.
“What Harbhajan’s selection means is that there are no new spinners available,” former spin great Erapalli Prasanna says. This despite The Board Of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) now having a spin academy in Chennai.
He says a big reason for the dearth of spinners is the change in modern cricket, where, thanks to T20s, the accent is on scoring quickly, which in turn forces bowlers to become restrictive. “One sacrifices a lot of skills when one becomes restrictive,” Prasanna adds.
It is ironic that in the end, Harbhajan’s four cheap wickets against England in the recent World T20 may have swayed the selectors.
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