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Bombay lobby up in arms against "biased selection"

Prem Panicker

Time was when every selection exercise for the national cricket team would be followed by allegations that the Bombay lobby, which during the seventies and eighties and, in fact, early nineties had maximum clout in Indian cricket, had struck again.

Times change. And so drastic has been the change in Bombay's cricketing fortunes that come Wednesday February 19, several hundred cricket lovers, led by former India stars based in BOmbay, will march in procession from Eros Cinema to the Cricket Club of India, protesting what they believe is a deliberate discrimination against Bombay players on the part of the national selection committee.

Interestingly, even as the procession wends its way towards the venue, the five member selection committee comprising chairman Ramakant Desai, Shivlal Yadav, Kishen Rungta, Sambaran Bannerjee and M Pandove will be meeting, in an inner room of the CCI, to pick the team for the West Indies tour beginning later this month.

In that sense, perhaps, the timing of the protest march could not have been bettered.

Basically, the case put forward by the Bombay lobby is simple - that in the original team for South Africa, no local player with the exception of skipper Sachin Tendulkar figured. And though Salil Ankola, another Bombay player, did go to South Africa for the one day series, other deserving candidates such as Abey Kuruvilla, Sairaj Bahatule, Sanjay Manjrekar and Vinod Kambli have been ignored.

What added fuel to the raging fire was a recent statement by Sambaran Bannerjee, to the effect that he did not want to hear the name of a single Bombay player spoken in his presence - a singularly ill-judged statement and one calculated to set off a zonal war just when Indian cricket needs it the least.

Interestingly, though chairman of the national selection committee Ramakant Desai is also a vice president of the Bombay Cricket Association, he is yet to take up the issue with his colleague, Bannerjee.

Likely to head the protest march are the likes of Naren Tamhane, Madhav Mantri, Dilip Sardesai and Nari Contractor, all of whom have very clearly indicated that they believe the selectors are biased against Bombay players.

Interestingly, former India manager Ajit Wadekar has also lent his voice to the dissenting chorus. "I have no idea what the problem is, but I must say I was shocked when only one player from Bombay was considered good enough for the Indian team to South Africa," said the former India captain.

One thing cannot be gainsaid - there is, among at least some members of the national selection committee, a very obvious antipathy to players from Bombay. And nothing exemplified this so much as the behaviour of Kishen Runtta, who hit the headlines recently when he threw out former Bombay stumper Chandrakant Pandit from the Madhya Pradesh side, for whom he now plays as a professional, alleging that Pandit was not a team man.

Rungta in fact demanded that Pandit tell the media he was unfit and hence unavailable to play for the MP Ranji team and when the glove-man refused to oblige, sacked him from the side alleging incompetence and attitudinal problems.

The resulting furore caused the Bombay cricket association, taking up the cudgels for the former Bombay keeper and captain, to take up the issue with the BCCI.

It is this action of Rungta's, seen in tandem with Bannerjee's recent statements, that is being interpreted as indicative of the anti-Bombay bias of the national selectors.

It is commendable that former India stars and fans alike have decided on this morcha. Contrast this attitude with that of the past, when various national committees would go their ways, indulging in their biases, zonal and personal preferences to their heart's content and always to the detriement of Indian cricket, with nary a murmur from the media, the former Test stars and indeed the fans.

I believe - and have advocated all along - that it is high time the national selection committee, along with the team coach and team captain, is held accountable for results. Too often have we sent sub-standard teams abroad, and when said teams came back with pathetic results, appeased resultant ire by sacking either the captain (vide Mohammad Azharuddin as the most recent case) or even the manager (again, vide Sandeep Patil as the most recent instance). However, never has there been an instance of the sacking of an obviously incompetent selection committee - and if Indian cricket is not to continue wasting the enormous talent at the disposal of this country, selectors should begin to face the music for their own misdeeds.

In this sense, the morcha planned for Wednesday is to be hailed as a step in the correct direction.

But frankly, one aspect of it fills me with intense regret. In Sardesai, Wadekar, Tamhane, Contractor, Mantri, Vengsarkar and the like, we have a galaxy of former Test stars of stature sufficient enough for their voices to be heard and taken note of. In the fans - who by their patronage of the game and the money they pour into the BCCI coffers end up paying the wages of the national selection committee and indeed the administrative network of Indian cricket - we have a fiscal and numerical force sufficiently strong to compel the selectors to listen to reason.

What pains me, then, is that these two powerful forces - with support, what is worse, from the media - have used as subject for their protest march merely the case of the Bombay players.

How much more heartening it would have been, how much more appropriate, how much more calculated to improve the health of Indian cricket, if these stars, these fans, this media had coordinated a national protest march - not protesting the bias against Bombay players alone, but protesting the whole skewed, zone-dominated process by which the selectors pick teams to represent this country at the highest level.

The point has been made before, but is worth reiterating. If the selectors are biased, are Messers Wadekar, Contractor, Sardesai and the others, who appear to have eyes, time and energy only for the players from their own state, any less biased?

And if former greats themselves reveal themselves publicly as biased, then what hope is there for the future of Indian cricket?

You tell me...