There were no surprises when national selection committee chairman Ajit Agarkar announced the Indian team for the ICC World Cup. Fifteen out of the 17 players who form part of the squad currently doing duty in the Asia found themselves in the list announced by Agarkar. Tilak Varma, who has not yet played in a One-Day International (ODI), and Prasidh Krishna, returning to international cricket after an injury, were the unfortunate ones who did not make it to the World Cup.
The constitution of the squad was so much on predictable lines that one was was forced to comment that the only surprise was the decision of the selectors not to announce a list of reserves. The ICC allows participating teams to change their squads without prior intimation up to September 28; thereafter, changes can be made only with its approval. It is not mandated either that all squads should announce the list of reserve players nor is it stipulated that replacements, if needed, should be drafted from such players notified as reserves. However, it is the practice for all sides to announce a set of players who can be drafted into the squad at short notice either during the run up to the tournament or while it is in progress. There does not appear to be anything intriguing or sinister behind the decision of the selectors in not naming reserves other than the need to keep the list open ended so that, should the situation arise, they can cast the net far and wide while considering the replacement and not be bound by the names submitted to the ICC.
The only selection which aroused some amount of discussion was that of Suryakumar Yadav (SKY), who pipped Tilak Varma and Sanju Samson for the last slot in the middle order. Observers have been divided over the selection of SKY for the World Cup squad. Some like Sanjay Manjrekar felt that SKY was lucky to make it to the side given his mediocre performances in the ODI’s while Harbhajan Singh stated that he should be an integral part of the playing eleven given his ability to change the course of the game in a matter of 30 balls. When experts have such serious differences of opinion, the lay follower of the game tends to get confused. Hence we need to analyse the potential of SKY and his performances till date.
It is not in dispute that SKY is one of the best batsmen in the world in T20 cricket. He is an authentic 360 degrees batsman who possesses the finesse and firepower to decimate any attack. It was a combination of cricketing acumen combined with sheer hard work and intense application that helped him to attain this status. These fundamentals were impressive enough for the selection committee to believe that SKY would be able to beget similar success in other formats as well. Hence he suddenly found himself in the team for Test matches against Australia, besides becoming a regular presence in the national squad for ODIs.
SKY found success hard to come by in formats other than the shortest duration version of the game. His single appearance in a Test match was nothing to speak about but the bigger disappointment was his repeated failure in ODIs. Despite being given numerous opportunities in the ODIs during the last one year, SKY could not find the magic that made him such a potent force in T20 cricket. Even worse, the Australian bowlers found a chink in his armour which they exploited with relentless enthusiasm, which resulted in three consecutive ducks against his name during the ODI series held at home in March. This led to his confidence hitting rock bottom so much so that he found runs hard to come by even in T20 matches for a short span of time. A tally of 511 runs from 26 ODIs at an average of 24.33 and strike rate of 101.38, with only two knocks over 50, is nothing much to write home about and stands more as a testimony of his inability to find his feet in this format.
Why is it that a batsman who terrorises bowlers in one format of white-ball cricket gets reduced to the level of an absolute novice in a version with similar features but having a longer duration? Is it on account of deficient skillsets or is the problem caused by a shortage of confidence? A look at the top batsmen in international cricket during the last two decades would tell us that only the best and most exemplary like Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson etc could adapt to the demands of all three formats with ease and panache. But willow-wielders who found success in the world of ODIs could easily come to terms to the requirements of T20 cricket and vice versa. This led to the emergence of a new class of “white-ball specialists” who straddle the world of OD’s and T20 cricket, while making little impact in Test cricket. The long and short of this is that a batsman who does well in one form of white-ball cricket usually possesses the required technical caliber to do well in the other version as well.
This brings us to the question as to whether SKY’s run of low scores in ODI’s is solely due to reasons of temperament. The team management and the national selectors believe that this is the case as can be seen from the number of opportunities he has been given to come good. It is an accepted fact that mind plays as important a role as ability in determining success at the highest level. This is the reason why even the best of players find it difficult to get out of a run of bad form as even after the minor glitches in technique are rectified as it takes time confidence to get restored to the same levels. But in the case of SKY, that one big score or match-winning knock, which could redefine his ODI career, has not yet materialised.
This has left the selectors in a quandary. They had put all their eggs in the “SKY basket” with no positive results emerging from his blade. It will not only be unfair to Tilak Varma but even foolhardy as well to throw this inexperienced youngster at the deep end during a high-voltage World Cup campaign at home. And going back to Sanju, who was repeatedly sidelined despite his better averages and strike rate in ODI’s, would tantamount to an admission that their faith in SKY was misplaced. Having invested so heavily and exclusively on SKY during the entire period of build-up to the World Cup, the selectors were left with no other option but to include SKY in the squad despite the diminishing returns from his blade.
The selection of SKY is more a gamble by the selectors than an act of sapience or sagacity. It should not be forgotten that when a gamble succeeds, it is hailed as wisdom. The selection committee will be waiting with “hopes in their hearts and prayer in their lips” when SKY strides to the middle to take guard during the matches in World Cup.
In the interests of the Indian team, let us hope that the gamble with SKY succeeds. But in the larger interests of Indian cricket, the wise men entrusted with the task of choosing the team should be advised not to allow a repeat of this scenario, Cricket, after all, is a game of skills where selection should be based on potential, performance and present form. It is not a game of chance nor should it be brought down to that level.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)