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Captain's Knockout

Sachin's outburst over team selection opens a Pandora's box

Captain's Knockout
THE first signs that all was not well were clear soon enough. At noon on July 7, Ramakant Desai, chairman of the national selectors, went into the conference room of the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore after promising a reporter that he would come out in less than an hour. "Ten of the players pick themselves. The real competition is for the other four slots," Desai told Prem Panicker of

Rediff-on-the-Net before joining his four colleagues, and the new BCCI secretary J.Y. Lele, Madan Lal and Sachin Tendulkar to pick the squad for the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka.

Desai and his fellow selectors—Kishen Rungta, Sambaran Banerjee, M.P. Pandove, Shivlal Yadav—had already seen the 27 probables at the conditioning camp. Picking a side of 14 for the four-nation tourney, it was reckoned, would be easy. But 12 o' clock stretched to one; one to two.

Meanwhile, four chairs—for Lele, Desai, Madan and Sachin—had been placed for the media conference where the team was to be announced. At 2.15 pm, Sachin stepped out. But instead of addressing the press, Sachin sped off. Ditto Madan Lal.

Clearly, there had been a lot of haggling, and it was not just about the last four slots. It was left to Desai and Lele to tell the world who was in (Mohammed Azharuddin, Saba Karim, Navjot Sidhu, Nilesh Kulkarni and Debashis Mohanty) and who was out (Vinod Kambli and Nayan Mongia).

Questioner: "Are you happy with the deliberations?" Desai: "I think so."

The response revealed as much as it concealed. One of the selectors told

Outlook that Sachin and Desai had lost their cool at the other selectors "at least twice" during the meeting. But there was no truth in the rumour that the two had very nearly walked out and had to be pulled back in by Lele.

What's more, UNI quoted Desai (who later denied it) saying Sachin and he were overruled on retaining Kambli and Mongia. Worse, Sachin's captaincy had been discussed in his presence and his wishes ignored.

This was sensational stuff. If BCCI wanted to start live telecast of selection committee proceedings—Rungta's fond wish to ensure transparency—this would have been the ideal one. But no one was willing to bell the cat. Madan Lal was coming up with the usual cliches: "This is the best team available, a blend of youth and experience." But Sachin had decided enough was enough, that he was sick and tired of carrying the can for the mess left behind by below-par teams. En route to London, he took off his gloves and delivered a knockout blow to the credibility of the selectors.

The Bengali newspaper

Aaj Kal front-paged a report from Bangalore by its correspondent Debashish Dutta, and the Sachin it showcased was a Sachin no one knew. Among other things, the usually monosyllabic Sachin (favourite response: "most definitely") was quoted as saying: l "I've been given a B-grade team. It's not the best. It was imposed on me." l "I will not be a scapegoat anymore. Why shouldn't the captain get the team he wants when he receives the flak?"

  •  "I won't be used any longer. I'm going to speak the truth."

  •  "I'm not enamoured of the captaincy. They can take it away if they want. The Indian skipper is powerless."

  •  "It's my prerogative what I do on the field. I'm not answerable."

    Close friends of Sachin were baffled that he chose to air his feelings to a low-circulation regional paper. But given Dutta's proximity to Sunil Gavaskar's Professional Management Group (PMG), which a fortnight earlier had syndicated a column by Sachin on the day selectors were discussing his captaincy, it was probably in order.

    Lele was certain, as BCCI bosses usually are, that Sachin would deny the report. But in London ( see interview ), Sachin not only con-firmed what he told Aaj Kal but also expressed unhappiness over Kambli and Mongia's omission. "This frequent shuffling of the team robs it of continuity," PTI quoted him. "The skipper should get a team of his choice as it's his head which is on the chopping block each time there is a reverse." The selectors dropped Kambli despite his innings of character in the Independence Cup in Chennai. Mongia despite his growing reputation as the best keeper today alongside Ian Healy. South Zone's Azhar, in the eyes of many, had toppled West's Kambli; East's Karim had pipped West's Mongia. Finally, it was all about quota, really. But the selector told Outlook : "These Bombaywallahs think only they can play cricket and that all the rest of us are gulli-danda cricketers. OK, talk of the quota system is justified in the case of Karim, but it's Sidhu who has replaced Kambli, not Azhar." An opener in place of a middleorder bat? Desai says Sidhu will bat down the order in the one-dayers. But what about V.V.S. Laxman. Did nobody champion his cause? Barodaman Lele's first big move at the BCCI: announcing the axeing of townsman Mongia. Everybody agrees that Sachin is justified in cribbing about the team. But the other reason he chose to speak out now, they feel, is because he perceives a threat to his captaincy. Now that he's made his problems public, they feel there is no way the selectors can sack him for non-performance without it being construed as 'revenge'. Tendulkar's captaincy has been under scrutiny for a while now. The West lobby feels that "a South block" is projecting vice-captain Anil Kumble, who's older than Sachin, for the post following Sachin's failure in South Africa and West Indies and, worryingly, his rather inept handling of resources. "Was Sachin ever asked if he wanted Kumble as vice-captain? It's OK if he doesn't have the team he wants, but Sachin would be better off if he had a deputy of his choice," says journalist Rajan Bala. The West lobby believes the 'coup' to displace Sachin has come temporarily unstuck because of Kumble's recent 'failures'. Quips a former Mumbai Test star: "The question with Sachin is, is he good enough to be captain? The question with Kumble however is, is he good enough to be in the team?" But the perception of threat is there. After the West Indies tour, Tendulkar said he was pining for a spinner who would turn the ball, a clear jibe at Kumble. Last fortnight, Sachin wasn't invited to the meeting where probables were picked to enable the selectors to discuss his performance dispassionately. Sachin responded with the PMG column explaining his position. The selectors retained Sachin but evidently still aren't convinced that his "reticence and boyish looks" hide a captain's brains. A selector told Outlook that Sachin's captaincy was discussed for more than an hour in Bangalore: "We had a vote. It was 3-2 in Sachin's favour. What saved the day for him was probably the fact that there's nobody to take over from him immediately." WHAT'S more, Azhar's return was preceded by talk of his replacing Sachin. Although the handover of charge was smooth, things have not been the same between Azhar and Sachin. Azhar's enthralling batting has become an embarrassment for Sachin. Also, Azhar has stayed away from the brains trust. Then, there was St Vincent. After India collapsed from 210 for 3 to airy-fairy shots by the middle-order—Karim, Ajay Jadeja and Robin Singh—despite Sachin's instructions to play for singles, one of them reportedly squealed that he was asked to hit out by his partner. An enraged Sachin, according to a team-mate, said: "If anybody wants to become captain, it's OK by me. But as long as I'm in charge, my writ should run." Azhar was dropped for the Independence Cup on cricketing grounds, but has returned. How? Desai says: "We monitored his performance in the conditioning camp." On why Rajesh Chauhan wasn't picked despite his action being 'cleared' by Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, he says: "Oh, he hasn't bowled in international cricket lately." Ironically, the day the team was picked, Tendulkar was dismissed four times while facing Venkatesh Prasad, Dodda Ganesh, Venkatapathy Raju and Chauhan at the nets: all four times it was off Chauhan's bowling, twice stumped, ironically by Mongia, once bowled, and once played-on. Sachin wanted Chauhan (who bagged 55 wickets in the last Ranji season) in the West Indies; he was given Noel David because the Madhya Pradesh offspinner's suspect action was first brought to the notice of the ICC by the West Indies. Ditto Ganesh. In Sachin's words, he showed the promise of developing into another Srinath. As did Madan Lal. Yet, Desai says: "He has been given two tours and has not improved one bit." Mohanty, who replaces Ganesh, is all of six first-class matches old against heavyduty teams in the East. Delhi's Atul Wassan who bagged 41 wickets is ignored. Ditto all-rounders. Six members of the tribe were picked for the Bangalore camp. But none got picked. The "B-grade team" has six batsmen, three spinners (Kumble, Kulkarni, David), three mediumpacers (Prasad, Kuruvilla, Mohanty), one wicket-keeper (Karim) and one all-rounder (Singh). Sachin is justified in complaining aboutthe balance, because if he and Ganguly open, and are followed by Sidhu, Dravid, Azhar, Jadeja and Karim, it means India will again be going in with seven batsman and four bowlers—Kumble, Prasad, Kuru-villa and Kulkarni/David. Having picked Azhar and Sidhu, they cannot be dropped. If Singh is to be picked, who goes? The selectors now say that Mongia might make the Test team. Madan Lal says Kambli and Ganesh are still young and can make a comeback. But it begs the point: why were they dropped in the first place? As Allan Border, who moulded a bunch of no-hopers into a world-class side, says: "Consistency in selection is a prerequisite. The players need to know that selectors believe in them." Sachin's comments will perk up the debate to dissolve the five-member selection committee and install a smaller non-zonal panel. It will also raise the clamour for former cricketers who have played a minimum number of Tests to take over. As if these cosmetic changes will solve the problem. If only ex-players can make good selectors, is only a sheep the best judge of mutton? Did Leonardo da Vinci paint The Last Supper so well because he attended it? What Indian cricket needs is a band of unselfish people in high posts who can rise above region and quota. The question is: is it time, in this age of neutral umpires, neutral pitches, netural this, neutral that, to think of neutral selectors? With Y.P. Rajesh in Bangalore

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