Indian Premier League (IPL) 2023, which entered the second phase during the week that went by, will conclude on May 28. The national side has to fly out immediately thereafter to London to play the final of the World Test Championships (WTC) scheduled to start at the Oval from 7 June onwards. One can be certain that Australia, their opponent in the finals, will be keen to win the trophy that will officially designate the winners of the contest as the best side in the longest duration version of the game.
Given the tight timelines involved, it was only in the fitness of things that the selectors named the 15-man squad for this game even while the IPL was in progress. With the domestic cricket season having come to an end with the final of the Ranji Trophy, there were no more matches to be played with the red-ball for the selectors to watch and decide whether any new player deserved to be given a chance. They chose to play it safe and nominated the squad based more on reputation than current form or performances in the domestic first-class cricket. One can say without any exaggeration that 14 out of the 15 members of the side chose themselves!
The odd man whose selection came as a surprise was Ajinkya Rahane, former skipper and middle order batsman, who last played for the country in January, 2022. Rahane went back to the grind of domestic cricket and scored 634 runs for his side Mumbai from 11 outings during 2022-23, ending with a respectable average of 57.34. But it was his performance in IPL that caught the attention of the country as he displayed a new facet of his batsmanship, scoring runs at a brisk pace and hitting boundaries and sixes at will. His aggregate of 224 runs with two half-centuries at a strike rate of 189.94 at the time of penning this article shows the impact that he has made with the bat in the ongoing edition of the IPL.
Selectors were forced to bring back Rahane as a spot opened up in the Indian middle order following the injury suffered by Shreyas Iyer. which has warranted surgical intervention. It is not in dispute that Iyer would have been an automatic choice for a place in the squad had he been fit. In fact, Iyer could play in only three of the four Tests against Australia in early 2023 and even there he could not bat in the last game due to his injury. Suryakumar Yadav was tried out in Iyer’s place in the first Test but it soon became evident that the “Lord of T20 cricket” was not a good fit in Test matches.
Not surprisingly, Rahane’s selection drew some amount of criticism as many felt that he is over the hill and bringing him back is a retrograde step. It is true that Rahane, who celebrates his 35th birthday on the day before the commencement of the WTC final, is no spring chicken. But he is batsman with close to 5,000 runs in Test cricket and has made centuries in Australia, New Zealand and England in difficult conditions. Besides he is in terrific form at the moment and displays a hunger for runs that bodes well for the side. He is a veteran, possessing a cool head that carries a shrewd cricketing brain. Further, in a one-off Test of this nature, it is always better to play a tried and tested battle horse than blood a rookie. It should also not be forgotten that he remains one of the best catchers in the slip cordon, where his record of eight catches in a Test has not yet been bettered. Hence, the selectors did not err in choosing him in place of Iyer.
However, at this juncture, one should not forget the fact that selection of Rahane is also an admission about the paucity of talent available in the country for filling the slot of a middle order batsman in the national squad. One look at the top performers in the domestic circuit will make this evident. The highest scorer in 2022-23 was Mayank Agarwal of Karnataka with 1,198 runs, followed by Sachin Baby of Kerala with 971 runs. Rahane figures at the 14th place while Sarfaraz Khan, who is mentioned as a prospective national player stands at the 35th position with 556 runs.
There are two main reasons for this situation. The first is the obvious neglect of domestic first-class competition in the country due to which top run-scorers and wicket-takers therein are ignored by the national selectors. None of the players who figure in the squad for WTC finals as batsmen figure in the top 80 run-scorers in domestic cricket, with the exception of Rahane. The same is true for bowlers as well with none of the top 80 wicket-takers in domestic circuit being part of the national squad. In other words, players who don national colors do not play first-class matches in the country, thus taking away not merely the sheen associated with the matches but also the quality of cricket played therein.
The second reason is the surfeit of T20 cricket. Unlike the 50 overs-a -side game, T20 matches do not give much scope for a middle order batsman to display his prowess. The few overs available makes it difficult for anyone to think in terms of building an innings or dropping anchor to see off hostile bowlers. The concept of 360 degree batting that has found proponents like Suryakumar Yadav, does not make any allowances for playing in the “V” or waiting for the loose ball. Since the focus of most up and coming batsmen is on winning the eyeballs of the talent scouts from IPL franchisees, it is not surprising that they place focus on improving their strike rates and capacity for hitting sixes rather than grinding out half-centuries and centuries before empty stadia.
This is a very serious matter warranting prompt action form the mandarins of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). One can understand that the attention of the BCCI would be on successful conduct of the International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup which is scheduled to be hosted by India in October- November, 2023. Once this event is over, the BCCI should start focusing more on domestic cricket and, in particular, on the red-ball version of the game. Unless this happens, we will find ourselves facing a huge vacuum once the present set of players - Virat Kohli, Cheteswar Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja - leave the scene. There should be a concerted effort to guide and nurture players who show the potential at the first-class level on the domestic circuit and mould them into full-fledged members of the national side, rather than being guided solely by the shotgun shows in IPL.
Indian cricket and the cricketers need both the IPL and the domestic cricket circuit. It would be perilous to neglect one and concentrate solely on the other. While wishing Rahane good luck for a splendid performance in WTC final, one also hopes that selectors will soon unearth talented players who can take over the mantle from the present lot and carry it forward to the next decade in an equally capable manner.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)