MS Dhoni turned up a little late for the selection meeting and left early. He was around for long enough though to get the assurance from the Sandeep Patil-led committee that his job has been safe till the upcoming World T20 in March-April next year.
Not that the long-standing Indian ODI-T20 captain had an ominous sword hanging over his head. But following the convincing losses in the shorter formats against South Africa on home soil and the subsequent success of the Virat Kohli-led Test outfit, there were murmurs rather than rumours that Dhoni’s immediate future at the helm might come in for scrutiny. The selectors, without really handing him a rope of any significant length, did decide, however, to provide the multiple-trophy winning skipper with a safety cushion at least till the next mega-event on the cricket calendar.
“BCCI doesn’t discuss players’ future. Selectors do that with players. He’s the most successful Indian captain. He has won two World Cups for India, taken India to No. 1 Test rankings. It’s only fair that we name him captain till World T20,” BCCI secretary Anurag Thakur said after the selection meeting in Delhi on Saturday. “We named Mahendra Singh Dhoni as the captain as we wanted to end the speculations in the media. Not only media but players in general should know who will be their leader,” said Patil. The message was loud, and it was pretty clear. That they still trusted Dhoni to lead India into yet another ICC event and also maybe to keep a check on Kohli’s soaring ambitions on the back of the Protean rout he orchestrated in the Tests.
To be honest, that clarity was discernable in most decisions that Patil & Co took in Delhi on Saturday. And they clearly seemed to demarcate and distinguish their short-term and long-term goals markedly through the criteria utilized in picking the personnel for the ODI and T20 formats respectively.
With the World T20 just three months away—and India scheduled to play three matches in Australia and a handful during the Asia Cup in Bangladesh in February—the selectors went with the tried-and-tested, even opting to hand recalls to a couple of seemingly yesteryear heroes in Yuvraj Singh and Ashish Nehra. The T20 squad in fact is heavily populated with those who are quite significantly on the wrong side of 30—26 per cent of the 15-member party for the record.
The ODI squad on the other hand has a largely experimental feel to it, and not just because of the ouster of Suresh Raina. The outfit is well represented by the shining lights of the reserve talent pool with left-arm seamer Brainder Sran and all-rounder Rishi Dhawan both making the cut.
Manish Pandey continues to remain the prodigal enigma that Indian cricket has long waited to unleash on the world while Gurkeerat Singh Mann has already come in for rave reviews from his soon-to-be Indian teammates despite not having donned national colours yet. That the next 50-over World Cup isn’t on the horizon till 2019, the squad that shall be flying out on January 5 is one that India would like to build on largely over the next three years.
But for all the excitement regarding the new faces, it wasn’t surprising that Yuvraj and Nehra were the biggest stories to emerge out of the selection meeting—some 15 years after they first burst on to the scene.
Indian cricket hasn’t always shown patience with its aging lot. Little wonder then that Yuvraj was unceremoniously dropped after the last World T20 final in April 2014. The left-hander had struggled to get going, scoring 11 off 21. Many singled out his untoward knock to be the reason for the team’s slip at the final hurdle. It looked like Yuvraj’s international career was over, notwithstanding the fact that he had been the outstanding performer during India’s 2011 World Cup-winning campaign.
There was a hint though that the selectors might fall back on Yuvraj after India’s limited-overs struggles of late. Middle-order vulnerabilities had been exposed during the team’s failures against Bangladesh and South Africa. Even Sunil Gavaskar had batted for the southpaw. The 34-year-old has kept on performing in domestic cricket – a match-winning 83-ball 98 against Services in the Vijay Hazare Trophy on the eve of the selection meeting was a timely reminder of his current form.
Nehra, however, has been a surprise pick. His last tryst with international cricket came with much fanfare as he led the Indians to a famous World Cup semifinal victory over Pakistan. But a hand injury prevented him from playing the final, and just like that he faded away.
The 36-year-old left-arm fast bowler continued to prove his worth in the IPL. His tally of 22 wickets in 16 matches (economy 7.24) in the last edition of the tournament was instrumental in taking Chennai Super Kings to the final. But still calls for a dramatic comeback for Nehra seemed more optimistic and they too had been reduced to whispers as the months rolled by post the IPL.
Interestingly, Nehra has appeared in only one competitive fixture since – a Vijay Hazare Trophy game against Maharashtra on December 17. The panel felt he should be given another opportunity. “Nehra has been discussed in the previous meetings as well. He has been consistent in the T20 format. This is the time to see whether he can deliver, rather than waiting for World T20. He will be useful in this format,” Patil said.
The chairman of selectors also insisted that the seniors hadn’t been brought in as a “stopgap” arrangement.
“This game is not only for youngsters, we need some experience. And the Australia tour is a perfect chance to give them a shot,” he said. These returns will ensure that young Hardik Pandya, who made a name for himself with his late-hitting exploits for Mumbai Indians last year, will enter an Indian dressing-room for the first time and share it with some who he grew up idolizing. But he too will surely have the World T20 in his sights.