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Friday, September 7, 2018

Test Cricket: Team India Where Only The Captain Performs And Selects!


There was a lot of hue and cry about the humiliating loss suffered by India at Lords in London against England in the second Test match during 9-13 August 2018. Tremendous expressions of anguish surfaced at every possible public platform and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) even threatened to take the team captain and coach to task. However, it was much ado about nothing. It was just a loss like many other such losses over the decades due to absolute team failure, more pertinently batting failure. Furthermore, the match was severely affected by rains with the first day and few other sessions washed out. India was put into bat under heavy overcast conditions that hastened the end of an already battered batting line-up. Curiously when England in reply started their first innings it was bright sunshine, and with an impossible target when India replied in their second innings it was again heavy overcast conditions. So, it was an aberration or rather a freakish match not likely to repeat soon, I thought. And, it was proved in the third Test during 18-22 August at Trent Bridge that India won convincingly. But again, in the fourth Test at Southampton during 30th August-3rd September India took England out of the woods twice to lose by mere 60 runs and to enable the hosts seal the Test Series 3-1. In India people including cricket experts make a huge outpour of joy at an Indian victory and make a defeaning outcry at a loss never bothering about the problems inherent. The more serious problems lay somewhere else.

The first Test at Edgbaston should in fact be the real area of concern that India lost by mere 31 runs. It was a failure due entirely to an inept Indian batting performance except of course the captain Virat Kohli. The Indian bowlers performed quite brilliantly giving India a real chance to win the match. This match has a familiar ring to the Series against South Africa where Team India lost the Test Series 2-1, but had ample opportunities to reverse the verdict in its favour. Again, it was due to dismal batting performance, except of course the captain. This scenario has been consistently unfolding itself in all the away Test series against tough teams, and this in extreme contrast to the domestic circuit where Team India has been winning hands down against all tough rivals, perhaps thanks to the 'spinning' tracks purportedly prepared here in India.

Why? This cannot be answered in direct and simple terms. This is a complex issue plaguing a team said to be the best ever in an away series. We can make a guess taking a purview of various factors that could contribute to this perplexing phenomenon, setting aside the normal perception about the ‘swinging ball in fast-paced pitches’ or the ‘moving ball outside the off stump on green tops’. Most of the factors do veer around the selection blues. However, the crux of the matter is that ‘with little more cricket application from the Indian batsmen the away series including against South Africa could have been won’.

We must mention the unpredictability of the selection process. The marketability quotient of players seems to influence selection. This quotient is essentially derived from the most popular ODI and T20 formats including the IPL. This time in England Team India was fresh from the IPL and therefore the quotient factors of star IPL performers seemed to have influenced team selection immediately. Dropping Dinesh Karthik and selecting Rishav Pant for wicket keeping-batting was the direct result of IPL-2018. The point to be noted here is that Test match is the highest form of the game and players who excel in this format are fit for all formats, and not vice versa at all. Unfortunately, this basic principle gets ignored most of the times.

Granted that some players cannot adapt to the fast-scoring needs of the shorter formats these players constitute the section of specialized Test cricketers who are normally air lifted prior to the start of the matches. Since they are recognized as ‘specialized Test cricketers’, they need to be respected and trusted. Ajinkya Rahane is the supreme example of ‘frequent lack of trust’ in him leading to unpredictability and non-performance. For the Test series against England Cheteswar Pujara was air lifted, but not selected for the first Test. Shikhar Dhawan got in entirely thanks to his ‘marketability quotient’. Murali Vijay was included, but was dropped later without giving him enough opportunity and trust. The height of ‘selection uncertainty’ was reached when India decided to take two spinners in the Lords Test despite the pitch and the weather. Although Lokesh Rahul continued to play in the Tests his place in the team was constantly fraught with lurking dangers which had to affect his performance.

In the context of ‘giving respect to specialized cricketers’ the phenomenon of Hardik Pandya comes in too. No doubt he has been the most promising all-rounder of future, but he does not yet deserve a fully secure place in the team, at least in the Tests, due to his limited experience while most experienced ones are getting axed, taken, axed and so on. Thanks to a mostly inspired performance the bowling front was spared from selection hassles, except for continuous resting of Umesh Yadav and the spinning around of the spinners.

Virat Kohli is known for his emotions and impulsive actions. If these psychological attributes are allowed to influence the selection process too then all is not well for India. Some experts have already pointed out that Virat had never kept the same Test team for more than two matches at a stretch. The coach-cum-team manager and the national selectors need to come in strongly instead of being stooges of a ‘too powerful’ captain. Virat Kohli is a cricketer of exceptional brilliance, and just for keeping the captaincy we wouldn’t want him to perform only for himself and not for the team. As a captain he must be dexterous enough to be able to motivate and inspire all his team mates. If he fails in this, management must allow him to do his best as a batsman only. His solitary brilliance as a captain would further aggravate the distance already created between him and other batsmen of the team.

As the inconsequential fifth and final Test match starts today at the Oval in London, India would only hope for precious lessons in team building and for more insights into ‘how to win a series in foreign soil’. Indian teams of yore did it several times embedding those unforgettable moments in our memories, and Virat Kohli should desist from seeing himself as the only captain with the best possible team ever to achieve those heights. Perhaps it was because of his approach that he lost all the five tosses of the Test Series.
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