Those running Indian cricket should find time to watch Shahid Afridi address his first press conference as the interim selection committee chairman after picking Pakistan’s ODI squad this week. Afridi didn’t dodge questions, cleared the air on long-standing controversies, wasn’t sugary sweet or diplomatic. He even publicly acknowledged that Babar Azam needed to improve as captain and he wasn’t quite running a tight ship.
There are a couple of learnings for the BCCI here. A chief selector’s media interaction – now Indian cricket’s forgotten tradition – goes a long way in dispelling doubts and curbing speculations. Secondly, it is only selectors with exalted stature – an extinct breed in Indian cricket – that can guide, second-guess and, at times, over-rule the high-profile captains and coaches, those whose conduct isn’t always beyond reproach.
Since the implementation of Justice RM Lodha committee reforms – that ruled out commentators, IPL coaches from becoming selector because of their potential conflict of interest – BCCI has had to scrap the barrel to designate selectors.
The BCCI officials fought tooth and nail in court for their own tenure extension but never asked for a roll-back of the selectors’ conflict clause. Nor did they make a national selector the best-paid employee of the BCCI, a move that would have attracted the cream.
This has had consequences. Of late, in India, a country with 10 ex-cricketers with 100-plus Tests against their name; the all-important job of picking the national team has rested with those with not even a fraction of the experience of the stalwarts. The collective international experience of BCCI’s selection committee has been substantially less than the captain and coach they sit across to take important decisions.
MSK Prasad or Chetan Sharma, the two recent chairmen of selectors, aren’t by any stretch of imagination Indian cricket’s Hall of Famers. In their playing days, they didn’t shine through as outstanding leaders, grand visionaries or out-of-the box thinkers. Prasad was no Dhoni behind the stumps. Sharma will always be remembered as Kapil Dev’s understudy.
Prasad and Sharma, along with their teams of other modest cricketers, have been part of the meeting that also have giants of the game – Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid. So what are the chances that modestly successful international cricketers turned selectors would have over-ruled this starry team management?
Maybe, they could have. But on recent evidence the chances are dim. Recall the media reports about the erstwhile president and former India captain Sourav Ganguly’s unconstitutional presence at selection meetings and the alleged “bullying” of selectors. None of the undermined selectors walked out or went public with their grudge. They merely sulked silently. It wasn’t surprising at all, all they were doing was sticking to an old tradition.
Cricket, like most sports, has a deep-seated hierarchy. “How many Tests have you played?” – remains a favourite counter players use to confront journalists. Even within the “those who have played” circle, there is a pecking order. A 100-plus Test player is gold standard, the top floor occupant. The rest, depending on their international outings, settle in rows below.
As a rule, at a gathering of players, the one with the highest count of international games is heard the most. The only opinion that matters is the one that belongs to the one who has played the most. To verify this claim, listen to ex-players in the commentary box next time. If you keep your ears sharp, you can catch those subtle snubs and condescending put-downs when a junior attempts to contradict a senior.
So the selection committee needs well-travelled, seasoned pros, the unquestionable masters of the game. That’s because captains and coaches need to be questioned. Over a period of time, when captains get comfortable on the throne, they form coteries. Common agents, shared interests and friends can result in captains giving longer ropes to undeserving players and even hide their injuries.
This results in the deserving youngsters cooling their heels at home. It’s the job of the selectors to raise the flag, be the strong neutral voice of reason. They need to be the devil’s advocate and also the conscious keepers. They should intervene to break these cliques.
Afridi has gone about doing exactly that. At the press conference he revealed the circumstances of not including the team’s MVP, vice-captain and Babar’s Man Friday Shadab Khan. A day before the announcement, Afridi called the all-rounder to check his fitness.
“Shadab bola, Shahidbhai mai khel jaunga, koi maslaa nahi hai (Shadab said, Shahidbhai I will be able to play, no issues). But I refused, I told him to go to the ground the next morning and do some bowling. So today before the meeting he called me and we found out that there was discomfort in his finger,” Afridi had shared with the media. Had it not been a selector of Afridi’s aura and body of work, Shadab wouldn’t have been asked to bowl in the nets, the half-fit star might even have made the cut.
Only Lala could have done it. What about Chetan Sharma? Could he ask a captain’s pet to take a fitness test against his wish?
The change of guard in Pakistan cricket also saw Babar’s old mate, his opening partner and an all-format player till now, Mohammad Rizwan, sitting out for Tests. His place was taken by wicket-keeper batsman and former captain Sarfraz Ahmed.
In the past, conspiracy theorists have said that Babar didn’t want Sarfraz in the team since he feared that a parallel power centre would form around the veteran. Afridi articulated on the switch too. Sarfraz, he said, was there for Tests and he wasn’t to be considered for white-ball since that was Rizwan’s turf.
Only Lala could have done it. What about Chetan Sharma? Do we know who is India’s No.1 keeper in Tests, ODIs or T20?
Even on the controversial question about Sharjeel Khan’s return after match-fixing ban, Afridi was clear. He said the only reason Sharjeel was among 24 probables was his glowing performance in domestic cricket. But when PCB’s top brass objected, there was a change. “I’m very straight, we did not receive a green signal from the chairman regarding whatever had happened in Dubai,” he said.
Afridi also repeated the one line about Babar that he has been parroting since he was named the selector. “Babar is a great batsman, now we all have to support him to make him a great captain too,” he said. It was a matter-of-fact statement, a realistic assessment that Pakistan’s batting great was no all-knowing cricket God.
Only Lala could have done that. What about Chetan Sharma? The world doesn’t know the selection committee’s take on Kohli’s captaincy.
Afridi’s appointment is short-term since he is busy with the work of his foundation. It remains to be seen if a selector of stature replaces the mercurial all-rounder.
Both India and Pakistan need their best as selectors since many of their recent ICC event disasters have been because of wrong picks, faulty injury assessments and the team management’s inability to take bold calls.
The game is changing. India and Pakistan have been slow to realise that the selection criteria for each format needs to be different. Tough calls need to be taken. To displace those with reputation, first there should be selectors with reputation. Not appeasers and nodders, visionaries are needed for this decisive position. To be a chairman, you need to know the feel of the hot seat.