There are a few phrases that jump gleefully into our cricket banter every now and then. Raj Singh Dungarpur's "Miyan, captain banoge" to the laconic Mohammad Azharuddin is the stuff of legend. Tendulkar's "When people throw stones at you, you turn them into milestones" is equally memorable. But the gold medal has been the sole preserve of Mohinder Amarnath's "bunch of jokers" tirade aimed at the national selectors on learning of his axe. Those three devastating words have had an indelible impact on our cricket discourse!
Ironically, the same Amarnath is a selector these days. He sits on a five-man panel that reminds Indian cricket followers with monotonous regularity that while the 'bunch' may have changed, the 'jokers' are still very much around. 'Jimmy' as they endearingly call him in Indian cricket circles, is the latest inductee into an empowered group of men who have done precious little to justify their positions as India's first 'professional' selectors - who earn a handsome pay cheque for making the tough calls.
While Indian teams have imploded over these past few months in England and Australia, the national selectors have been feeble and directionless. Neither have they offered vision, nor have they appeared capable of doing their bit to stem the rot. Selectors aren't merely meant to select, they are also meant to drop. If after a dismal one-day series where the world champions in the format finish third out of three teams the panel's chairman "assures" you that no one has been dropped, you know a critical function is in the hands of circus clowns.
The fourth Test against Australia at Adelaide was the greatest disservice to Indian cricket by this bunch of men. Having chosen a squad that carried ready replacements in case the occupants of certain spots failed, the selectors were unable to exert any authority on an adamant management. The series was already lost and the team was trailing 0-3. It was only logical for the riot act to be read out; so Indian cricket supporters could learn if Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane had anything to offer as Test batsmen. Yet a batting line-up that had failed spectacularly in three straight Tests was allowed to front up again...and embarrass itself again. Rahane was packed off on a plane headed home, possibly scratching his head through the journey about where he went wrong without even getting a go!
Along came the one-day series and the team management's devotion to a set pattern was allowed to continue unchallenged. In game after game Suresh Raina and Ravindra Jadeja were brutally exposed as inadequate for local conditions. Yet Manoj Tiwary sat on the bench. Not once getting his opportunity to fail. The same Tiwary had made a hundred in his last one-day international appearance, yet was found unworthy of even a chance to test his skills. The selectors watched this farce unfold yet stayed mum, leaving the top brass of the team to pretty much do as they wished.
Bizarre selections have become a permanent feature with this panel and some have slipped under the radar because the scorecard has read the right result. Rahul Sharma spent virtually the entire home season polishing his drinks carrying talent. No one was quite sure how the leggie was part of India's Test squad having taken all of 25 first-class cricket at nearly 45 runs apiece. Yet Sharma sat merrily on the sidelines, watching his team-mates wallop England 5-0 in a one-day series and then decimate a pitiable West Indies in the Tests. Finally, into the fourth game of the one-day series against the West Indies, he was handed the cap. Two months had passed since he was originally called up. In the time Sharma could have been on the domestic grind, he was merely serving up a few in the nets and acquiring a taste for the five-star life. The selection committee saw nothing unusual as a young cricketer of promise did everything but play cricket.
The decision to 'rest' Umesh Yadav from the third Test against the West Indies in Mumbai last November was just as diabolical. In the previous Test at Kolkata, only the second of his career, Yadav had set pulses racing with a 7-wicket match haul. He had bowled all of 24 overs in the two innings. Yet Yadav was 'rested' when all he probably wanted to do was run in and let it rip. Why, we never quite understood. There was a full month before the first Test at Melbourne and enough time was available to wrap him up in cotton wool. At the peak of his bowling form Yadav made way for another tear-away in Varun Aaron. An opportunity to field two genuine fast bowlers was squandered. Not one murmur emerged from the selectors on what prompted this astounding call.
Towards the end of October, the BCCI released a list of 37 centrally contracted players, divided into three grades. The national selectors play a key role in this process of identifying the men who form the elite group of Indian cricket. Missing from the list was Yusuf Pathan, considered unworthy of even a 'Grade C' deal. A privilege bestowed on the likes of Shikhar Dhawan, Jaydev Unadkat and Dinesh Karthik among others.
The same Yusuf Pathan was part of the squad that won the world cup just months ago, had made two astonishing one-day hundreds over the past year and was universally acknowledged as a devastating middle order batsman. Not one selector thought it fitting to offer a rationale on why Yusuf was suddenly not even among the country's top 37 cricketers. Suddenly Yusuf finds himself back into the national squad for the Asia Cup. If he wasn't good enough to be among the top 37 four months ago, how has he catapulted back among the top 15? If he was always in the plans, then why did he not have a contract in the first place? Ludicrous as that sounds, the 'wise men' never did really care to explain.
In-fact the shambolic Asia cup selection, where we have been 'assured' no one has been 'dropped' presents only a litany of gnawing questions. Is Sachin Tendulkar available now for all one-day cricket India will play? Is there any clarity on his plans for the future - in the long or the short run? Is that an invalid question for the selection committee to ask of a player as they re-build from the ruins of defeats in England and Australia?
If Virat Kohli is seen as 'future' leader has Gautam Gambhir been demoted permanently? What prevented MS Dhoni from a few weeks of 'rest' after a draining tour of Australia? Could a leadership group of Gambhir and Kohli not have offered a glimpse into this mythical 'future'? Will poor Manoj Tiwary be a bench-warmer again with 'sub-continent' specialists Raina and Jadeja retaining their spots despite their horrors in Australia? Is Sehwag's shoulder hurting or has been laid low by back spasms? Has Zaheer Khan been told to 'rest' or did he want to?
Selectors often complain privately that it is only in defeat that they become the focus of attention. Picking cricket teams is apparently a 'thankless job'. Win and the boys get the accolades, lose and the selectors have to share the flak. Surely that is a superfluous argument. Strong-willed men don't live for appreciation or to win popularity contests. Their quest is not one of constant validation from the fans or the media or even the players. They rely purely on judgment, logic and a streak of ruthlessness. This panel of selectors has forsaken all of those and will leave little by way of legacy. Perhaps it is best for the supporters just to 'shut-up' since the questions are anyway getting far too annoying.