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5 blind men: India's cricket tragedy

November 19, 2003

The final image said it all: Aavishkar Salvi, front foot plonked down the road to perdition, swiping wildly at a delivery that was not even in the same pin code as his bat to finish off the Indian innings.

As a cricketing shot, it would have drawn hoots had it been attempted in the gullies of Mumbai; as a slap in the face of selectors, though, it found its mark to perfection.

Throw your mind back to a news report of five days vintage. Board secretary S K Nair, November 13, announced that Salvi would replace Ashish Nehra in the squad; if India make the final, he added, Salvi would figure in that team as well.

Since the selection committee does not, these days, have to explain its acts, we don't know just why a player who was in the side for the first three games, and who was not considered worth a playing berth in any of those games, was suddenly reinstated for the all-important final, with the assurance that he would play.

The committee got its wish. Salvi played -- at the expense of a batsman, what is more. He bowled three overs and gave away 23 runs before his captain decided enough was enough and banished him to the outfield; he ended the innings with a shot that deserves immediate inclusion in the hall of shame.

The scoreboard says India lost; there is, unfortunately, no column in there for the follies of selectors.

Ricky Ponting, in a masterly display of understatement, says he found India's team selection 'strange'. Ponting's amusement is understandable -- living in Australia as he does, he only occasionally finds himself vis-a-vis the bizarre doings of our five wise men.

We, on the other hand, have endured it for years. We live with the selection committee, as if with a dread disease, all the time; little wonder, then, that we have become immune to the ravages of their deeds.

It's not just us; even players, past and present, show symptoms of battle fatigue. Ask them what they think of their prospects and they -- unless their names are Tendulkar, Ganguly or Dravid -- shrug; they look at the heavens and then down at their feet; they grin the sort of sickly grin you see only in intensive care units of hospitals specialising in terminal diseases.

I could quote current players' comments about the selectors; to do so, though, would effectively ensure the cricketing death of the poor guy(s) -- so, a sound byte from the past, to give you an idea of how the selection committee impacts on the minds, and morale, of our cricketers.

Close to two months ago, I was attending the Michigan Cricket Association's annual event that celebrated a cricket tournament between teams of the three big motor companies based in those parts.

Invited guests included Wasim Akram and Robin Singh. In the course of a casual chat before the event proper, Robin -- who had earlier coached India's A team on its tour of England -- was giving me his considered opinion of the various young talents; he was especially profuse in praising Irfan Pathan, Jr, and Ambati Rayudu.

So will you be coaching the A team again, I asked him. I don't know, was his response. Huh? Oh, there is no contract or anything -- if they feel like it, they call, just before a tour, and that is when I know.

I must have looked startled, because Robin laughed. "Come on," he said, "you should know -- even as players we didn't have a clue whether we would be picked or not, you think coaches fare any better?"

Some ten years down the line, I confidently expect to have a conversation, on similar lines, with Murli Kartik.

When the team for Australia was announced, I was tempted to write a piece on what it must feel like to be a cricketing leper. I even started to write the piece -- and had this feeling of déjà vu. Sure enough, on going through clips from the past, I found this -- from a piece written on the first day of 2003:

'Compare two bowlers, competing for the same slot, bowling in identical conditions against the same set of batsmen: The first goes for 7-0-48-1 and 6-0-33-0 in the two games he gets. In both, he is the most expensive bowler going, so much so the captain does not even feel confident of giving him his full quota.

'The second bowler goes 10-0-46-0 in his first outing -- the only bowler to go under five in a game when his mates were massacred as the opposition piled up 324. He then turns in spells of 10-0-38-1 and 10-0-36-3, before an aberrant spell of 9-0-69-0 in the last game he played (the opposition total here, incidentally, was 315).

'Purely on the basis of performance, whom would you have picked?

'The first was Anil Kumble, the second Murli Kartik, the series in question was the seven-game ODI series against the West Indies and by any yardstick, Murli was outstanding in three out of four games he played in. To then take him to New Zealand, to not play him in a single game, to drop him from the one-day squad and replace him with the very player whose place he took through sheer dint of performance, is unjust.    

'It is cruel, it is criminal, it is the sheer, cold-blooded murder of an emerging talent. There was for the selectors the opportunity to team an attacking off-spinner and an attacking, classical left-arm spinner together in a tournament where all the leading contenders are clueless against quality spin. They blew it.'

That was then. Eleven months later, nothing has changed. Again, Kartik is the most outstanding bowler on view -- the only one with an economy rate under 4 in a tournament played on docile batting wickets; the only one to command consistent respect even from the best batting side in the world.

Again, he doesn't make the cut.

The selectors, we are told, discussed Kartik's case for the better part of three hours. Five men, putting their combined brains to such intensive use, could have cracked Einstein's Theory of Relativity in half that time.

It is frightening, is it not, how the Kartik story keeps repeating itself? You haven't seen anything yet -- as a sort of delayed Halloween gift from me to you, here is this column, written in March 2002. For Shiv Sundar Das, please substitute Akash Chopra or Sadagopan Ramesh; for Javagal Srinath, please pencil Ajit Agarkar or Ashish Nehra; you won't have to change a word of the rest.

Thanks to Murli Kartik, I have finally discovered the ideal way to make a living. Just before a tour, dig out the article written before the previous tour, change a name or two, and serve it up. After the match, dig out the previous match report, warm it over, make marginal adjustments to the score sheet, and there you go. End of tour analysis, likewise -- recycle the appropriate column.

Waste not, want not, my late father always said.

PS: It is still not too late. Already, the selectors have replaced Salvi, conveniently out through 'shoulder injury', with L Balaji -- who will not, despite his enthusiastic reaction to the news, ever get to play a Test Down Under. What stops the selectors from having similar second thoughts about Murli Kartik, and including him in the side?

While on this, a friend wrote in the other day from San Francisco. A group of guys there, he said, believe that Rayudu should go to Australia; they are even prepared to foot the bill for all his expenses, if the board will allow Rayudu to be with the team, and practise with it.

Do I, this friend writes, think it is a good idea?

No. I do not. After all, if you start underwriting the expenses of all the players who should be on tour, but are not simply because of the selection committee's myopia, you will go bankrupt -- and the five wise men still will not learn.

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