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March 4, 1999

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Playing fast and loose

Rohan Chandran

"The only thing constant in life, is change." So said seventeenth century French moralist Francois de la Rochefoucauld. Little did he know, though, that India's hunt for a third seamer would mirror that observation to the letter.

For three years now, particularly after the retirement (should that read eviction?) of Manoj Prabhakar, India has been looking for a seamer to serve as backup for Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad. That Prasad himself is more a third seamer than a world-class opening bowler is of little consequence, given that the cupboard is not exactly overflowing with raw talent. And yet, in that period of time, no less than 25 bowlers have emerged as contenders for that role.

Their nature has been varied. There have been some who have earned the right to be considered through sheer hard labour on the domestic circuit. There have been some who have been plucked out of nowhere, without much of a proven track record. And then there have been those who have toiled for years, have never quite merited consideration at the highest level, but have been tossed into the pot on a selectorial whim anyway.

A quick run through of some of the names will give even the most casual of readers a clear idea of the lack of focus which has been seen in this department. Arindam Sarkar, Pudiyangam Kesavadaar Krishnakumar, Sandeep Sharma came and went, giving way to Sukhbir Singh, Zakir Hussain and Obaid Kamal, and the list goes on. Most were given a single chance to impress, be it in an A game against a touring side or a game in the Challengers, if that much. That done, they were sent back to the Ranjis to ply their trade.

Occasionally, a promising bowler has been given a Test tour. Paras Mhambrey, Abey Kuruvilla, Dodda Ganesh and others have all had a whiff of the big time. And then, like the rest of them, that was that - back to the scrap heap as the search continued. When the selectors will ever be satisfied is anyone's guess, but it's safe to say that as long as the rotation policy (sic) continues, the merry-go-round will never quite come to a halt.

One can only feel sorry for the likes of Ashish Nehra, elevated to Test status after being a complete nobody the previous night, and unlikely to ever play Test cricket again, if history is anything to go by. Robin Singh Junior can probably tell him what it's like. And what of the perennial drinks waiters Debashish Mohanty, Laxmi Ratan Shukla, and before them, Salil Ankola? What must they make of things, always being next-in-line, and yet being bypassed whenever the need arose? None of this can be inspiring for young medium pacers in their quest for national honours.

Criticism of the selectors is of course the easiest thing in the world, seeing as there's always a better way. So the question which arises is, where should India go from this point on?

The names on everyone's lips are much the same Ajit Agarkar and Laxmi Ratan Shukla. Even Ashish Nehra merits mention these days, but that can be put down to him having just had his 15 minutes. Throw in Debashish Mohanty, and also Dodda Ganesh, who is now back in relative favour, and suddenly India seems to have four contenders for the one, or perhaps two, pace bowling slots.

What is imperative now, is that the selectors back these bowlers, and in doing so, back themselves. Having identified, be it rightly or wrongly, that Agarkar, Shukla, Mohanty and Ganesh are the bowlers with the potential to support, and ultimately replace, Srinath and Prasad, they need to stand by their choices. Agarkar is 21, and already a veteran of the one day game. Mohanty is just a year older than Agarkar, and with Shukla still in his teens, Ganesh at 25 is the old man of the quartet. Age is on their sides, and an investment in youth and talent will equate to an investment in India's future.

There is little reason for the selectors to start calling up the Robin Singh Juniors and Ashish Nehras. Give these four youngsters all the exposure they can get. When India is playing at home, with just Srinath and Prasad in the Tests we should be testing Mohanty and Shukla for India-A; Ganesh and Agarkar for the Board President's XI. The handling of Shukla during the Friendship Series was a pleasure to see, although his exclusion in both Calcutta and Colombo was mystifying. The jump from domestic cricket to international cricket is a big one, but with the proper exposure and grooming, faith placed in quality will reap rewards.

For all that, however, it is this writer's opinion that the selectors are missing out on perhaps the most promising talent of the lot, Harvinder Singh. It wasn't long ago that Harvinder was opening the bowling alongside Javagal Srinath, in the home victory over Australia. He didn't have a glamorous debut series he bowled well at Chennai, but strayed far too often in Bangalore, clearly suffering from the nerves involved in being asked to lead the attack against the best side in the business. He ended up with 2 wickets, at 49 apiece, in his 2 Tests, and has since been completely out of sight at the national level.

Eight years ago, another young bowler took 3 wickets, at a cost of 55 runs apiece, in his first two Tests, also against Australia. His name Javagal Srinath. The rest has been history.

That statistic alone is meaningless, naturally. What it serves to highlight, however, is that to give up hope in a 21 year old fast bowler on the basis of his first two Tests, both played on spinning tracks at home, is quite possibly an over-reaction. There are more statistics too, one of which really stands out. The case for Ajit Agarkar at the Test level has been made largely on the basis of his phenomenal strike rate in ODI cricket. While I'm not one for extrapolating performances from one form of the game to the other, I do wonder how many people realise that Harvinder actually has a better strike rate than Agarkar!

All that said and done, the case for Harvinder does not even need to be made on a statistical basis, and therein lies its beauty. Just watching him bowl, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the youngster is one of those rare few who genuinely has what it takes to make it at Test level. He looks a potential Test-class bowler, which is more than can be said for the majority of his 25 or so rivals for the role. He has a hint of pace, he can move the ball in the air, he has a nice action, and a big heart.

Beyond that, it's hard to really qualify the look and feel of raw talent. That's where the selectors are supposed to step in. Anybody can select a team of 11 on the basis of statistics -- statistics which armchair fans have in the past used to prove, for example, that Rahul Dravid has a weakness against bowling above medium pace.

What the selectors ought to be doing, and I hope they are, is watching players in action, looking beyond the facts and figures, and grooming those who really have what it takes.

It's hard to see Harvinder remaining out of the picture if that happens, but if the selectors deem that someone else possesses greater promise, then so be it. For India's sake though, let's hope they stick with those they choose. It reaped rich rewards with Srinath.

Contrary to what Rochefoucauld said, change does not have to be constant.

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