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March 5, 1999

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Selectors lay a curate's egg

Harsha Bhogle

Two clangers out of 19, and both fringe cricketers at this stage, is not bad and so another selection process goes on expected lines.

That is a good sign for Indian cricket, for selectors who pull rabbits out of their hats tend to produce insecure cricketers. On the evidence so far, this is a fine committee for there is not a player outside the 19 picked who can stand up and produce a genuinely strong case for himself.

At the start of the season, the selectors had a core of 11 or 12 players, and with the final cut less than a month away that core retains itself. That means there is a certain measure of comfort within the team, and while that should not be allowed to slip into complacence, it is a good attribute to inculcate.

Nayan Mongia is one of those who falls into the comfort zone. There was never any doubt that he would be picked, given that he is by far the best in the land. And this committee, unlike the one immediately before, hasnít tried to disturb that state of affairs. One wicket keeper in a team of 19 is fine when you know who your man is going to be.

I am not as sure about the selectorsí choice of picking only four seamers in their list. By any reckoning, four will go to England -- and by naming exactly four, they have made a very strong statement of support. Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad and Ajit Agarkar are automatic choices, but do we know enough about Laxmi Ratan Shukla? There is little doubt that he is talented, has done very well at the Under 19 level and was impressive in the two zonal games he played against Pakistan. But where it matters, he is untested and I would have thought the selectors might have kept their options by picking another pace bowler and giving Shukla an opportunity in four one-day internationals later this month.

Instead, the selectors have preferred Virendra Sehwag, a strongly built young man who hits the ball extremely hard and bowls gentle off breaks. For a World Cup on the sub-continent, he might have been a good choice; might even have made a surprise selection. But when the requirement is for seam bowling all-rounders, this is a strange choice. Unless the selectors have opted to pursue a second objective; of encouraging talent!!

You canít help noticing, either, that with Madan Lal in the selection committee, Delhi is starting to get prominent again! Robin Singh (Junior) who was a poor selection, Ashish Nehra, who was a pretty good one and now Virendra Sehwag -- Delhi is in the process of producing a very good core, and I thought Amit Bhandari might have been an inspired selection as well provided the selectors were allowed to pick players from outside the 30 originally named. I wasnít aware of that, otherwise I would have picked him for Mohanty in my shortlist.

But the real clanger is the selection of Gyanendra Pandey ahead of either Sunil Joshi or a fifth seamer. When Pandeyís selection was announced, my first thought was that the selectors were making it easier for themselves to pick the final 15. Pandey used to be a very promising Under 19 cricketer; a lovely looking left arm spinner who really threw the ball up and batted strongly in the middle order. But all that was pretty long ago, and to pick him ahead of Sunil Joshi with a month and a half to go before the World Cup suggests there was a compromise somewhere.

As I see it now, the selectors have virtually picked 13, and it is a straight fight for the last two places. For an England tour, it is a better idea to pick a third opener rather than an extra middle order man, and so Sadagoppan Ramesh will almost certainly make the grade even though he is untested outside India. This will also allow Rahul Dravid to continue batting at number three in the event of a loss of form for either opener. And if Dravid himself struggles, Ganguly can take number three as well, with Ramesh going up the order. It allows India options at the top of the order, and that is a very good sign in limited overs cricket.

The only little problem I foresee with Ramesh opening in the limited overs game is that Sachin Tendulkar can sometimes be a demanding partner. When he is on song, he wants the strike like a baby chasing a rattle, and he likes his partners to run swiftly between wickets. But there is a lot of cricket to be played before the World Cup, and enough time to sort it out.

The list of 13 that I suggested above is Azharuddin, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Ramesh, Jadeja, Robin Singh, Mongia, Srinath, Prasad, Agarkar, Shukla and Kumble.

And the straight contest is now between Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Nikhil Chopra for the second spinnerís job, and between Vinod Kambli and Amay Khurasia for the reserve middle order batsman's slot.

Chopra is the better off spinner, Kanitkar the better batsman. And the selectors have to go for what they believe is the more vital skill. In 1983, India picked Ravi Shastri as the sole spinner and had Kirti Azad as the spin bowling all-rounder, which is what Kanitkar is. But Azad was a far better off-spinner, and India do not have that kind of luxury this time. I think the selectors will go for Chopra, because should Kumble have to miss a game, they might need the more pedigreed spinner and Chopra was impressive in New Zealand.

It might be a little more difficult to pick between Khurasiya and Kambli (why were so many readers so vehemant that I had got it wrong when I suggested Kambli would make the final 19?). Khurasiya is exciting but untested, Kambli has seen success and is an excellent team man. Both have a little question mark over fitness. I think this is one that will go down to the wire, and so it is essential that both play as much cricket as possible over the next couple of weeks and play all four matches in the triangular.

That also means India will try as many options as possible in that tournament. I believe Ramesh should get all four and alternate with Ganguly and Tendulkar. Dravid might get a break, so should Srinath and Kumble (that will allow Chopra and Kanitkar to fight it out) and Jadeja might have to miss the odd game because you canít drop Sehwag without even trying him out.

The sponsors will not love it, but having lost an opportunity in New Zealand, this is the last chance the selectors have. If, that is, they can compare performances in hot dry conditions to those required in wet, cold ones.

Related Story:
Agarkar, Kambli in World Cup shortlist

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