When the new selection panel was announced two months ago, their less-than-formidable international experience was held up against them but in the brief tenure they have already made a few bold calls — selection of forgotten men like Gautam Gambhir and Parthiv Patel, elevation of Hardik Pandya to Test team, and blooding of young men like Jayant Yadav. Chairman of selectors, MSK Prasad, speaks to The Indian Express about how his ‘lightweight’ committee deals with the challenge of dealing with senior cricketers and new-age stars while introducing new channels of communication across the board.
How do you define communication from a selector’s standpoint?
What I heard from some of the cricketers, some even with legendary status, who aren’t part of the Indian team presently, is that they don’t know where they stand. Whether they are still being considered or not. So firstly we made it very clear that until the day they retire, never say never. For a youngster, you can always say you are just on the threshold of getting into the team.
But it is a very sensitive issue to deal with the seniors. At the same time, I believe it helps if you can explain what our line of thinking is. Say they are performing consistently in domestic cricket but aren’t getting picked, you tell them where they fit with the current-day competition. So that either they can make an extra effort to improve upon that or think of other options. When you talk about those cricketers who have won matches for the country in the past, you have to keep talking to them. Suddenly because they aren’t part of the team they shouldn’t be made to feel unwanted.
So we decided to communicate as a committee, and talk to players of the level of Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh or a Shikhar Dhawan. To tell them the reasons why they have been dropped, which they might be unaware of. Of course performance is the foremost parameter. So if they have failed, they’ll know anyway. But if there are other reasons, say lack of fitness or slowing down on the field or their fielding doesn’t match up to the current standards, we tell them, instead of keeping them in the dark or keep them guessing.You need experience to perform under that pressure at that level. They have all done that in the past. Then they deserve to know why they aren’t being considered. We made it a policy to speak, and for which we took permission from the board.
The secretary was also very happy with it, and now we even go down and speak to the Ranji Trophy players.
So how do you approach a Gambhir, say at the start of the New Zealand series at which point it didn’t look like he’ll play for India again?
We keep it very simple. You need to confront the fundamental things that let him down or are the reasons for him not being selected. What are we looking at and what are the efforts he needs to put in, be it fitness, performance and the availability of the slot. Then he is clear in his mind, how much he has to score and which is the direction he has to look at. They know if they work on those weaknesses, there is a chance to get selected. A good word or two, will definitely ease their anxiety.
See if the selectors are coming and telling them that they are on the lookout for them, that is the biggest inspiration. It’s as good as scoring a big century, the satisfaction that you get, knowing that your runs and wickets are being acknowledged by the apex committee that finally decides whether you’re in or not. We missed that as players, and we don’t want the current generation to suffer the same way. When I got dropped, I came back and scored 750 runs in a season as a wicket-keeper batsman but I didn’t know where I stood. And next season I went to India A, and after that they never considered me. If someone had told me that listen you are fifth or sixth in the pecking order presently, I could have worked harder to come to that first position. There used to be zero communication. But it is tough to deal with seniors. There might be things that they might not like. But if you are very clear in your content, then they will definitely respect you.
Then there is someone like Rishabh Pant, who’s had a major breakthrough season.
I had a long discussion with Rishabh Pant and I explained the roadmap to him, and I have shown him the picture that lies ahead of him, where he is, where he should be heading, how he can get there. It’s the same with any youngster like Priyank Panchal or a Deepak Hooda, the selectors need to draw the roadmap for them.
How different is it with someone like Suresh Raina, who’s in and out?
With someone like that, we tell him this is what is lacking and this is what we expect. I don’t want to name anyone. In general, what we discuss as a committee about them, they need to know. No point of it staying within four walls.
Some things might be harsh but we need to put it in a constructive way tell him about his shortcomings and weaknesses. And they are all mature enough to understand. It’s about being supportive, and a pat on the back will only help them. If you have the right intention to improve as a player and you are pushing hard to come back to the team, then definitely what we say will help them.
How receptive have the players have been?
They were initially taken by surprise when we started talking to them. It was heartwarming for them, and they appreciated our efforts to come forward. It is also a two-way channel. Anybody can approach us too. But the only thing is if we say something they should also take it constructively. Some things, even if we put it in a right way, might hurt but it’s for their own good.
Parthiv Patel has come back having scored a lot of domestic runs. Is it a new outlook to selection?
It’s 100 per cent a strong message to those scoring at domestic level. I have been talking to Parthiv for the past one year or so. Parthiv has raised the bar and has reached new levels. It’s not that he did it only because of me or some other selector. But he’s improved his own cause with his performances. Exactly a year ago, I showed him this is where you stand, and this is where you’ll get your chances. You have to be prepared when it comes your way. He was eagerly waiting for it. He has really earned it. It’s very tough for a wicket-keeper. There’s always only one slot up for grabs. The way he batted, it looked like he was just ‘knocking’ or in practice. It was phenomenal the comfort with which he batted for a guy who’s come back after eight years. It speaks volumes about his mental toughness. For Parthiv, apart from keeping his motivational levels high, things like IPL have really helped.
The IPL as a yardstick is always debated..
What we look for in the IPL is how players adapt from performing there and then when they play domestic cricket. Hardik Pandya has adapted wonderfully. Now Parthiv. Jasprit Bumrah, nobody knew about him. And suddenly he’s in India colours and going about his work like he belongs to the big league. Another crucial factor are the India A tours, especially now with Rahul Dravid at the helm. The board has done a fantastic job by roping him in. That is the level where the seed is planted in a player’s mind, which they will carry for the rest of their career. I saw Rahul in action live in Australia, and the way he works and communicates with each player is phenomenal. So communication is at an all-time high with Indian cricket, be it with Virat and the team management, or Rahul and the India A players, or the selection committee and the team management.
What lines of communication between you guys and the team management?
The beautiful thing is that the selectors are finally part of the group selecting the playing XI. Otherwise we select one team and then have no say. So the board has done a good job. That way it really helping the boys. More importantly, Dhoni, Virat and Anil understand each other, and we gel much better now that we are all sitting together while picking the squad as well as the playing XI.
What about the injured players?
We take account of every player. We are looking at opportunities to be in constant touch with the injured players. For now, we are monitoring all the guys recuperating at the NCA. Or we get inputs about them from Anil, Rahul or the physios. Being injured is when you feel your loneliest. That’s when you need an arm around you. Frankly speaking we haven’t quite got the time to interact with the injured players. We are just two months into our tenure after all.
The communication between Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid, that direct line between India A and senior team…
Undoubtedly. But they are also so professional. They don’t interfere at all with the selection process. They might give suggestions on and off. But it’s the selectors who keep moving from match to match. It’s we who prepare a succession chart. Whenever there is a requirement, we fill in that slot with players who we have identified. There is a clear line that neither the coaches or Virat and MS ever cross. We are allowed to do our job.
It’s been rather easy for you so far with India playing at home. Next year there’s a Champions Trophy and a lot of cricket overseas.
We are looking ahead already. We are making our backup plans. Since we are only playing in India for now, we are relatively relaxed but we are aware of the challenges that lie abroad, and we have already identified players who will serve us well in foreign climes. We are playing only three ODIs before the Champions Trophy. But we are not concerned at all. Because the boys will have 14-15 IPL games each before the tournament. I feel IPL is as good as the Champions Trophy in terms of quality, looking at the kind of players who play.
Most of the guys like Gambhir, and Parthiv and even Jayant Yadav have come up the ranks. Then there’s the punt on Hardik Pandya.
The committee believes that players should come through a certain system. There has to be a systematic process, like what I’ve said about Rishabh Pant. But there will be a one-odd talent like Hardik who will stand out. In the case of Hardik, I should say that he is no way related to any of the selectors. None of us were close to him. But he’s got that X-factor in him, and we all felt that. And there is also a slot that is available, and we felt he’s the best. He selects himself for that slot.
‘Every cricketer deserves to know where he stands… so we decided to communicate’
Has there been a situation so far where you have had to go and tell a player you’re done with him?
No. In fact we have made it clear to everyone till a player decides to hang up his boots, there is always scope for him. We cannot write off anybody. Imagine how Ashish Nehra came from nowhere. He was bowling well, of course, but nobody thought at the time. It’s the drive of the player that keeps him there. But at the same time, we can never feel sorry for anybody, and we are not supposed to also. We are selecting the Indian team, expected to pick the best team in the country. None of our decisions are personal. At the end of the day, it’s about what’s best for the team.
There’s always been this ‘lightweight’ tag about this committee. You personally get compared to other chairmans. How do you react to it?
To begin with, we were disturbed by that tag. We are humans at the end of the day. But let me tell you, lightweight is more comfortable but still powerful (laughs). By the end of our tenures, we will definitely leave a mark for others to emulate. I assure you. I do agree that we might not have played as much as some other committees, but at the end of the day, what matters is honesty, integrity. What if somebody who’s played more than 100 Tests is not able to deliver? What if his integrity is questioned? It’s not about how much you’ve played, it’s about what you give back to the game. How honest and sincere are you? Can you develop a good bench-strength and set good protocols in place? That is what is more important.
I personally don’t follow media reports much. But at the beginning, some of my co-selectors brought it to my attention and they were very disturbed. I told them very clearly, players will respect you for the work you do, not the baggage you carry or how much of a heavyweight you are or were as a cricketer.
For example, one lament was how can they walk up to say a MS Dhoni and say we want to move on?
What is wrong in telling him, if it’s meant to be said. We are not here to survive. We are here to deliver the best possible results, so we will take every decision based on that. Like a player we will also be evaluated by our efforts and results. Let me tell you, if somebody is trying to call us lightweight, after three years they will have to change their opinion.
How are the newer members like Jatin Paranjape and Sarandeep Singh dealing with it?
There is less focus on us, and we are thriving on it. The new selectors who have come on board have hardly spent any time at home since being selected. They’ve been out since the first week of their tenures. They are so exuberant and enthusiastic. I have to ask them to relax at times. It is a huge honour for them. We have all played a lot of first-class cricket, close to 100 games each. But we were all unfortunate that we didn’t have big international careers. As players we missed big international cricket, but as selectors we want to work hard and select those players who will go on to have a fantastic international career. What we missed, we want the boys to have it.