Selection blues

Syed Kirmani and ‘livid’ don’t usually go together — the ace stumper who at various times has headed the KSCA and national selection committees is as jovial as they come.

On one occasion, though, I saw him lose his cool in course of a casual chat. We were discussing the dramatic decline in wicket-keeping standards and Kiri argued that politics was killing the standards of glove-men in the country.

The example he used was of Somasekhar Siriguppi, the first choice keeper for Karnataka. Kiri argued — and from watching him keep and bat, I had to agree — that Tilak Naidu was streets ahead of Siriguppi both behind and in front of the stumps, but Brijesh Patel, Karnataka’s chief selector at the time, repeatedly plumped for SS, arguing to his mates on the committee that he believed Siriguppi had a good chance of making the national team, and hence should be persisted with. The denouement to that story, of course, was that Siriguppi never did make the national team, and an increasingly frustrated Naidu went off the rails.

I was reminded of that conversation, and similar others revolving on acts of omission and commission in team selection, while reading this story of Shantakumaran Sreesanth and the Kerala Ranji squad.

Even though Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) today decided to reprimand S Sreesanth “for regularly violating the players code of conduct”, the pacer was retained as the captain of the state`s Ranji team.

Although the KCA chairman D Gopakumar recommended Sreesanth`s removal from captaincy for his misdemeanor in the field, an emergency meeting of the selection committee here decided against the severe action as he is the only international quality cricketer from the state and still has the potential to make a comeback in the national team.

How screwed up is it, when a selection committee sees fit to confer the captaincy on a player who ‘regularly’ violates the code of conduct? And what message does this send to the player in question — that it is okay to be the perennial enfant terrible as long as he has ‘potential’? Not so long ago, I had in a post argued that much of Sreesanth’s troubles stem from the fact that discipline has rarely if ever been enforced in his case — and this act of the Kerala Ranji selection committee seems IMHO to be more of the same.

Another, more telling clip from that news story:

The committee discussed in detail Sreesanth`s code of conduct and unanimously decided to reprimand him and convey the message that recurrence of such behaviour would be viewed seriously by the KCA, its secretary T C Mathew told reporters.

Mathew said Sreesanth has been abstaining from the coaching camp without prior permission for `non-cricketing reasons`.

“He was appointed captain of the Kerala Ranji side with a clear intention to support his comeback to the national team,” he said.

Ignore for the moment the KCA’s statement that SS has been retained captain with a ‘clear intention’ of supporting his possible comeback to the side — which is a daft reason to pick a player, much less a state captain.

Consider instead this: Despite Sreesanth ‘regularly violating’ the code of conduct, the KCA sees fit to retain him as captain of the squad — and Sree’s response is to absent himself from the coaching camp without permission, and for non-cricketing reasons.

If the KCA really wanted to facilitate the bowler’s rehabilitation, it could have dropped him from the state squad, called him in for a meeting, read him the riot act and asked him to decide whether he wants to play cricket, or play the fool. Seriously, isn’t it time someone gave this young man the kick up the backside he has been asking for?

[Link via Ipatil on Twitter]

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The quick and the dead

The Indian bowling at the start was a bit lacklustre. Praveen Kumar has had a bad day in office. He is a swing bowler with not much of pace and he will find it difficult in these conditions where the ball doesn’t swing much and one will require a bit of pace to be successful on flat wickets. Praveen doesn’t have that and he will have to find out a way to be useful in these conditions.

That clip, from Sourav Ganguly’s column in the Times of India this morning, encapsulates a thought I had while watching Praveen bowl in the first one-dayer between India and Australia. Two contrasting moments in the play underlined the thought: the first came in the 49th over of the Australian innings, when Mike Hussey walked down the track and with consummate ease, lofted a PK slower ball onto the roof of the stadium; the second came in the 37th over of the Indian chase when Suresh Raina took strike after a Dhoni single and was totally fooled by a Mitch Johnson slower ball into popping up a return catch.

A ‘slower ball’ is a deceptive weapon in the hands of a bowler who has pace. Johnson had set Raina up for the deception in the previous over when he bowled a quick bouncer as the first ball the batsman received, and followed it up later in the over with another short, quick ball. Praveen, by contrast, bowls in the low 130s — the sort of speed where the “slower ball”, especially over used by a batsman who finds his stock ball not working, is a misnomer. [In the 41st over, Ishant Sharma started with a good slower ball to Mike Hussey — a delivery that found Hussey back in his crease, scrambling to push it away; the difference in the batsman’s approach to the two bowlers stemmed clearly from the appreciation that Ishant possesses pace].

It might seem churlish to pick on Praveen after his heroics with the bat — but the fact is India lost the game with the ball and in the field, and it is in these two departments that the team will continue to struggle in the remaining six games. On a recent occasion, while watching cricket at Rahul Bhatia’s home, Amit Varma tellingly commented that Praveen was opening the bowling because he was too slow to come on as first change.

He has a point — and that in turn leads to another. There were many oohs and aahs in the commentary box at the start of the Australian innings when Praveen seamed the ball around and either missed the edge, or found it dropping short of slips. Meanwhile, Ishant Sharma — the one bowler we have who has the pace to take advantage of good bowling conditions early on — languished in the outfield.

Ishant got the ball when the mandatory power play was over, and the field was being spread — an increasingly frequent practice for MS Dhoni and one that, IMHO, is a major contributor to the bowler’s effectiveness being reduced. The move is akin to reducing a race horse to a carthorse — coming in after the PPs, Ishant is in no position to attack; this forces him to cut down his pace and rely on line and length in a containing mode, and the more the team forces this role on him, the more his confidence to bowl quick will erode and he will, over time, be reduced to a medium pace stock bowler.

[While on Ishant, it was interesting to see Viru Sehwag take over mentoring duties when the young quick was in operation. Repeatedly, Viru was seen walking up to the bowler with a few words of advice; the most notable intervention saw Sharma switch to round the wicket against Hussey, tightening the angle and ensuring the batsman had no real room to work with.]

Fine tuning the bowling options is going to be critical in a series where India’s fielding will effectively function as a 12th batsman for Australia. By the most conservative of yardsticks, the team surrendered a good 30 runs in the field; acerbating this is the fact that Australia, throughout the Indian chase [including in the batting power play] kept five swift fielders inside the ring to block the singles and thus turn the screws on the batsmen.

One other point occurred to me while watching the game. As early as the second over of the Indian innings, Sunil Gavaskar in the commentary box was moved to remark that Sachin Tendulkar had “set out his stall for a big innings”. Maybe — SRT’s game has changed over time, and in the latter half of his career the batsman once known for flat out attack has has developed a tendency to pre-plan his innings. Unlike Sehwag, whose game plan revolves around the merits of the particular ball he is facing, SRT is increasingly prone to determining ahead of time what his approach to the entire innings will be.

Fair enough. India could use a batsman who can bat long, rotate the strike and let others bat around him — but the place for such a batsman is not the top of the order. 22 dot balls in an innings of 29 deliveries that ends in the 9th over is bad news on a big chase, and with the Australian batting lineup in the form it is in, big totals could be the norm this series.

Thus, if the brief for SRT — or more likely, the brief he has prescribed for himself — is to bat long, he needs to come in at number three, ceding the opening slot to Gautam Gambhir, who works well with Sehwag, is tuned to turning the strike over rapidly, and is temperamentally tuned to using the power play overs to optimum. One of the odd faults of SRT, among many good qualities, is his insistence on picking his slot in the batting order; IMHO, that will need to change if the team is to fire as a batting unit.

Related, Sidharth Monga has a piece in Cricinfo on how both sides made a mess of their batting power plays. I actually thought India called for the PPs at the perfect point in the game — immediately after the mandatory ball change. After 34 overs, Australia had been 169/3; India was 167/3, and five good batting overs at that point would have made the job considerably easier as the game headed into the slog phase. It is a different matter that the batsmen then muffed it up — but on balance, I thought India called the PPs better than Australia did.

It looks set to be a fairly interesting series; not for the first time, I find myself wishing its length was five games, not seven.

On an unrelated note, back at my desk after four days away; swamped with stuff, back here much later in my day.