Gulu's 10th book! The Best New Cricket Writing - The New Ball IV - Imperial Bedrooms; Edited by Rob Steen.
The 10th book Gulu has either written, co-authored or contributed to. The chapter is titled Unnatural Selection.
Inspired to take up sports journalism after spreading out the morning's papers the day after England won the World Cup in 1966. I was in London, I was seven and I was hooked.
By Gulu Ezekiel
David would play a couple of one-day internationals on that trip and thus join the ranks of 31 Indian cricketers to play ODIs but no Tests. And it is doubtful he will ever get the chance to break out of that rather unfortunate club. The man nicknamed Mrs K by his (ex-) teammates - Vinod Kambli's wife's name is Noella - has since emigrated to the United States after eloping with former national tennis champion and fellow Hyderabadi Uzma Khan. He now plies his trade in the semi-pro league in Los Angeles.
Nearly one in every five Indian Test cricketers has played a solitary Test before being dumped by the wayside. That's 44 in all. Perhaps only Pakistan has a higher ratio of forgotten men. Some have an interesting history. Who is the only Test cricketer to own a nightclub in Paris? Malaysia-born (another unique record) Lall Singh who played in India's maiden Test at Lord's in 1932. And the only batsman to be stumped off the bowling of Ray Lindwall? Man Mohan Sood in 1959.
Behind some of the more unusual and undeserving selections lies the zonal system that has been the subject of much debate over the decades. The logic of the Board of Control for Cricket in India is simple. India is a vast country - then again, Australia is even vaster - and it is considered impractical for the selectors to go flying all over the country to watch matches and pick out players. Thus the BCCI has divided the country into five zones - North, South, East, West and Central - with each zone being represented by one selector. Heading the panel is the chairman of selectors.
The English format is much more random with no particular area being represented on a regular basis. Some years back English cricket had a scouting system with Alan Knott for example travelling the counties to pick out wicketkeeping talent. Nothing of the sort exists in our set-up. One of our finest wicketkeepers, Syed Kirmani - he of the Kojak pate - expressed a desire to me for a similar role for himself, but the BCCI is not known for innovative, let alone radical, thinking.
SO, DOES THE INDIAN SYSTEM WORK? Yes and no. There is no doubt that a zonal selector will have had the time and inclination to better study players from his own state and those surrounding. One inspired selection - or rather, re-selection - was that of Sourav Ganguly for the tour of England in 1996. It was almost five years since the current captain had last toured with the Indian team. His visit to Australia in 1991-92 turned out to be disaster for the teenager as allegations flew thick and fast about his regal attitude to work and discipline. He promptly earned the tag of "bad tourist." But fellow-Bengali Sambaran Bannerjee had observed Ganguly from the start and noted how the left-hander had matured. He pushed Ganguly's inclusion in 1996, only to be met by a wall of media outrage. The same media was singing a different tune when Ganguly cracked a ton on debut and another in the next Test. Along the way, he picked up a few handy wickets too. Bannerjee's pick turned out to be a winner.
But another debate has been whipped up: should only those cricketers with Test experience be allowed to choose the national side? (Bannerjee, incidentally, never did play a Test, though he served Bengal behind the stumps with distinction.) Until recently the selection committee was served by a number of officials who had played at no higher level than the Ranji Trophy. These included the former chairman of selectors Raj Singh, the erstwhile ruler of Dungarpur. The Indian media had been pretty critical of some of these appointees and former Test players also weighed in with their opinion. Yet there have never been any question marks over the cricketing wisdom of Raj Singh, a useful medium-pacer at first-class level.
Even in the choice of national coach, the general opinion has been that the candidate must have a good Test record. All that may change now after the failure and resignation, shrouded in allegations of bribery, of Kapil Dev, one of India's greatest players and arguably the worst coach of all. Even Madan Lal, who played 39 Tests for India, had his Test record (not particularly distinguished) pinned up in derision in the dressing room at Bridgetown three years ago after he had lambasted the team for a particularly miserable batting collapse.
There does not appear to be much room for the likes of a John Buchanan in the Indian set-up. I doubt very much if there has been much comment over the lack of Test experience on the part of England's chairman of selectors, David Graveney. Certainly I have not read any adverse comments. On the contrary, in the recent past a former captain and one of England's best postwar batsmen, Ted Dexter, came in for fierce criticism from the media and the public. In India the chairman faces a pretty tough grilling from the media each time a team is announced. The questions themselves often have a regional slant. A journalist from Bengal will want to - demand to - know why a particular player from his region has not been chosen. The man in the firing line must have his wits about him and as all the questioning is done in English, a good working knowledge of the language is an asset.
This is where poor Ramakant Desai failed. Known as "Tiny" during his playing days, he was one of India's quickest medium-pacers in an era when spin ruled supreme. Desai had a mean bouncer (many were of the opinion that he chucked this particular delivery) and he made a habit of dismissing the great Hanif Mohammed time and again. But while Tiny (he really was) had a big heart on the field of play, facing the volley of questions, comments and criticism proved too much for the man with the faltering English. He died of a heart attack in 1998 and I am convinced this was brought on by the stress of the job.
Although this was a tragic result of the interaction with the media, there can be some pretty amusing moments too, though I suspect neither side sees it that way, at least at the time. Journalist: "What about Mr. X, why was he not selected?" Chairman of Selectors: "His name came up for discussion among others. But we feel he is better suited to Test/one-day cricket." One former selector mooted the idea a couple of years back that the meetings should be telecast live in order to have "greater transparency" (Indian cricket's favourite catchphrase at the moment). Mind you, the idea popped up rather conveniently once his term had expired.
For some time now the board has been talking of having a spokesman-cum-press liaison officer. Back in 1996 when I asked Raj Singh (then the board President) if there was any move in that direction, his response was: "But why do we need such a person? Our relationship with the media is excellent." That is certainly not the case now with the board accused of first sweeping under the carpet and then trying to cover up the match-fixing issue. Now every journalist has assumed an adversarial role in his pursuit of that elusive "scoop" and the board has become ultra-defensive in its response.
Recently, the board was seen speaking in numerous voices, and not for the first time. The latest instance followed the dropping of three players, Nikhil Chopra, Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja from the list of 23 probables for the ICC mini-World Cup in Nairobi in October 2000. All three were questioned by the CBI over match-fixing allegations and had their premises raided by the Income Tax department to search for unaccounted-for wealth. Since those raids, the government, led by Union Sports Minister SS Dhindsa, had been putting the heat on the board to drop the "tainted" players. And though the BCCI publicly flew the flag of autonomy from governmental control, in private it was deeply concerned that all future international cricket commitments could be in jeopardy.
BCCI President AC Muthiah, secretary JY Lele and chairman of selectors Chandu Borde had different versions over the dropping. Version One: "They have been dropped on lack of form" - valid since none of the three have been doing well of late. Version Two: "They have been given a break as they will be mentally disturbed until their names are cleared." Version Three: "They are tainted, therefore they have been dropped." Who to believe?
THERE ARE some obvious flaws in the regional system. Once a former player (Test or non-Test) is chosen by his state association to be on the panel - each association gets its chance on a rotation basis - he is under pressure to push for players from his state alone, rather than from the entire zone. Thus a selector from Tamil Nadu will be canvassing from players from his own state rather than from the other southern states of Karnataka, Hyderabad, Andhra, Goa and Kerala. A case perhaps of ultra-regionalism at its worst.
Even more worrying have been the persistent rumours of money changing hands to influence the selection of a player. A magazine last year named former Test off-spinner Shivlal Yadav of being one of the chief culprits in this particular scam. It is said that, after every international match for which he is selected, the player is forced to give a percentage of his fee to "his" selector or even state association. Orissa medium-pacer Debashish Mohanty, who played in the 1999 World Cup but has since flitted in and out of favour, is said to be one such victim. Though these rumours have never been proven conclusively, I am inclined to believe there is more than a grain of truth to them.
The role of the captain in selection has never been clearly defined and this can cause all sorts of misunderstandings and bad blood. The first Indian captain to resign on the question of selection was Polly Umrigar, who quit on the eve of a Test match in the early Sixties as he wanted a batsman rather than a bowler in his team. The chairman of selectors at the time was the strong-willed Lala Amarnath, who had insisted in 1959 on the inclusion of Jasu Patel for the Kanpur Test against Australia much against the wishes of his colleagues and captain. Patel promptly grabbed nine wickets in an innings to spin India to their maiden Test win against Australia.
Another chairman who brooked no opposition was Vijay Merchant, one of India's finest opening batsmen and the only player after Bradman to average 70-plus in his first-class career. Merchant once replaced medium-pacer Subroto Guha with a spinner on the morning of a Test match after having a look at the surface minutes before the toss. It was his casting vote that turned the course of Indian cricket history.
When the parties for the 1970-71 tours of West Indies and England were being selected, four of the selectors were split down the middle in their choice of captain while one abstained. Two wanted to persist with the Nawab of Pataudi (Junior), Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who had led India without a break from 1962 - a remarkable time-span considering the fate of his predecessors and those that followed. The other two felt it was time for a change and their choice was the left-hander from Bombay, Ajit Wadekar. It was finally Merchant who cast his vote in favour of Wadekar, who went on to lead India to both their first success against West Indies and the first in a Test on English soil in 39 years of trying.
But there was a story behind this selection, as there has been behind virtually every captain's appointment in the intrigue-filled world that is Indian cricket. Merchant is known to have been furious at being passed over as captain for the 1946 tour of England in favour of Pataudi Sr. As it happened, Pataudi was plagued by poor health throughout the tour while Merchant had a phenomenal time, scoring over 2,000 runs and topping the averages. Was the son paying the price for this?
For years the story did the rounds in Indian cricket circles that Merchant had exacted his revenge after 25 years.
Another case of the son paying for the "sins" of his father was that of Mohinder Amarnath, who staged more comebacks than Muhammed Ali in a Test career that extended from 1969 to 1987, one that effectively came to an end when he called a press conference in Madras and condemned the selectors as "a bunch of jokers". (It was not the first time such a phrase had been used. Sunil Gavaskar had originally coined the term in a magazine article more than 10 years earlier. But then Gavaskar could get away with anything during his heydays.)
Mohinder's father Lala was as sharp-tongued as they come. Though revered as our first Test centurymaker (like another son Surinder, who also received a raw deal, this, too, was made on debut and never repeated), Lala was the original rebel and always rubbed the cricket establishment up the wrong way. He was perhaps the first cricketer to be sent home from tour on "disciplinary" grounds after directing a volley of abuse in the direction of his captain, the regal Maharaj of Vizianagram ("Vizzy") on the 1936 tour of England. Mohinder played his first Test against Australia in 1969 and his next in New Zealand in 1976. For the next 10 years he would not have known whether he was coming or going.
IF THE Pataudi-Wadekar intrigue was the talk of the Seventies (Pataudi declined to tour under Wadekar but was brought back for one series at home in 1974-75 after Wadekar was sacked following a disastrous tour of England), it was the Azharuddin-Sachin Tendulkar musical-chairs charade that has more recently held Indian cricket agog.
After bringing back a demoralised team from England in 1996, the long reign of Azharuddin appeared to have come to an end with Tendulkar being handed the reins. Azhar's own captaincy career had begun in 1990 when Raj Singh approached him with the question: "Meeya (a term of respect and affection in Urdu), captain banogey?" ("will you become captain?"). Azhar must have been as surprised as anyone to be asked to take over. But he went on to break Pataudi's national record of 41Tests in charge and proved unbeatable at home at least.
The choice of Tendulkar was generally well received, though there was a feeling that, at 23, he was a bit too raw. That proved to be the case and in 1998 Azhar was back. But while Azhar appeared disinterested and out of sorts under Tendulkar's command, India's master batsman had perhaps his finest season in 1998 when Azhar took back the captaincy. Azhar's attitude was to leave a bad taste in Tendulkar's mouth and would come back to haunt the relationship.
Azhar hung on for a year, but after India failed to make the semi-finals at the 1999 World Cup, the axe fell on him again and this time it looked curtains for his playing career as well. The captaincy, though, was the last thing Tendulkar wanted back. His first stint had proved too much for him. He had admitted to having sleepless nights before a big game. And considering India's unending international calendar, that would work out to plenty lack of sleep.
One cause of frustration for Tendulkar was that, traditionally, the captain has little or no say in the selection of the team he is saddled with. To make things worse, the selectors even dictated the batting order. This was too much for Tendulkar and he wanted nothing more to do with it. When it came time to pick a captain for the 1999-2000 tour of Australia, Tendulkar had made it clear to Wadekar, now chairman of selectors, that he was not interested. Yet Wadekar went ahead and announced that he would be back in the saddle.
For 48 hours only his immediate family knew Tendulkar's whereabouts. The media was in a frenzy, trying to track him down amid speculation that he had gone to Bangalore to consult his spiritual "guru". Finally, Tendulkar surfaced on the advice of his agents and gave a press conference during which he made it clear he would accept, but under duress. It was hardly the kind of preparation for the toughest tour of all and the results were predictable, with Indian cricket suffering its first whitewash in a Test series since that tour of England more than a quarter of a century past.
That humiliation cost Wadekar the captaincy and on his return Tendulkar announced he would be stepping down after the two Tests at home against South Africa and pass the baton on for the ensuing one-day series India would lose the Test series 2-0, their first home defeat since being beaten by Pakistan in 1987, and by now Azhar was back in the team. Tendulkar and Kapil Dev, the newly-appointed coach, had joined hands in a determined bid to ensure that Azhar would not be in the team to tour Australia.
There was no love lost between Kapil and Azhar either. Their antipathy dated back to the 1991-92 tour of South Africa, where Azhar suspected a conspiracy to have Kapil replace him after another poor performance. Azhar was back with a bang for the home series against South Africa and scored a century in his comeback Test, the second in Bangalore, his 99th. It could have been his 100th, but an injury forced him to miss the opener in Bombay. Now he is unlikely to get another opportunity. The BCCI was none-too pleased with the Kapil-Tendulkar bond and was looking to break it. Azhar turned out to be the ideal pawn.
ANOTHER PLAYER THE KAPIL-TENDULKAR combine was determined to see the back of was wicketkeeper Nayan Mongia, who had also been suspected of not pulling his weight in the team when it counted.India went to Australia with the unknown MSK Prasad behind the stumps. An injury midway through the series saw Mongia flying in. He managed one minor game, by which time Prasad's injury miraculously healed and Mongia was left cooling his heels before being sent back home.
This time round, after the announcement of the probables for Nairobi, it was the turn of the captain, Ganguly, to cry foul, all the way from England where he was playing for Lancashire. He said he was not consulted over selection, a familiar cry. The only exception in modern times has been Gavaskar. This led to some pretty quixotic choices during his reign, including a number of one-Test men.
For the 1980-81 twin tour of Australia and New Zealand the nod went to middle-order batsman TE Srinivasan, then in his thirties; he managed only one Test out of six despite his warning on arrival: "Tell Dennis (Lillee), TE is here." Yograj Singh was a contemporary of Kapil Dev's but lacked both the direction and control. He, too, got in one Test in New Zealand. The next year it was the turn of England to get a taste of opener Ghulam Parkar, a veritable cat on a hot tin roof while facing a rampant Bob Willis in his lone Test. Suru Nayak was a bits-and-pieces player, a left-hand batsman who could also bowl the occasional leg-spinner. Neither was heard of before or since.
Tendulkar himself has been accused of looking no further than the shores of Bombay in picking his favourites. His leaning towards Kambli has actually had an adverse effect on the career of his old school chum. Wicketkeeper Sameer Dighe and left-arm spinner Nilesh Kulkarni (the only Indian bowler to take a wicket with his first ball in Test cricket) are two other Bombay boys who have perhaps got more chances than they would normally deserve.
"If I was to pick only my favourites," retorted Tendulkar when questioned recently about these fleeting shows of faith, "then my brother would be in the team." With Indian cricket, you never know.
"There is a vibrancy and freshness...Recommended for those who can appreciate a leg glance, but prefer to see a short one thumped away through the covers."
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"A book every sports journalist will wish he or she had worked on"
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