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An eye on young blood

By Ashish Magotra
March 07, 2005 16:20 IST
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During a recent chat, Sunil Joshi -- normally soft-spoken, and not much given to acerbic criticism -- took off on an aspect of national team selection that, he said, was causing him considerable angst.

How is it, he asked, that despite impressive performances on the domestic circuit, selectors routinely cold-shoulder senior players? He is one example; Robin Singh, still fit enough to give most members of the current side a complex, is another.

Focusing on youth is a good thing, Joshi argued -- but should it be at the expense of talent married to expertise? Should we pick on form, or on age?

The person best placed to answer such questions is Kiran More, chairman of the national selectors -- so I told him what Sunil had to say, and asked him whether he thought the criticism had merit.

"We look towards the future, we do not want to look back," More replied. "There is no individual here; it's all about the team. We have to see the balance of the team. If somebody is good enough, I don't think he will get dropped. There are cricketers who have played for India for a number of years, and they are still playing."

It was not about age, More explained; it was simply, and purely, about performance, and about how each player slotted into the team.

"Even the senior players have to perform," More said. "Take Anil Kumble as an example – he continues to perform, and we know he has a lot of cricket left in him, that he will win more games for the team, so he continues to get picked."

Given that, however, there is no denying that the committee has its eye on young blood – thus, if there are two players, one young, one older, who fulfill the same function, the selectors are apt to prefer youth and raw talent over age and its concomitant, experience.

The results of this policy are clearly in evidence. For instance, during the 2003 World Cup, the average age of the Indian squad was 26.

The average age of the Australian squad in the same tournament was 30.

And that average age would have become even lower, if it were not for the senior core of the side -- Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, whose combined age tends to lift the average a bit.

Thus, in the current squad, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir, (Mohammad Kaif, who has been left out of the side for the first Test against Pakistan), Yuvraj Singh, Dinesh Karthik, Irfan Pathan, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Laxmipathy Balaji and Harbhajan Singh are all below that average age of 26.

Does that mean performance plays second fiddle to the birth certificate? Sunil Joshi had argued that his 31 wickets (at 30.87) and 287 runs (at 26.09) during the 2004-'05 Ranji Trophy season make him a genuine option for the Indian team.

Kiran More, who by virtue of having been a member of the selection committee for nearly three years now, disagrees.

"In the end, it's not a question of statistics," the chairman of selectors argues. "The number of wickets you take doesn't really matter; what does matter is the way you bowled, the number of quality batsmen you dismissed. We give domestic cricket (read Ranji Trophy) importance -- but it is lesser than, say, the Duleep Trophy and the India 'A' tours."

The emphasis, he points out, is on team building, with the future in mind -- and to do that, you have to catch them young and push them big.

"We have to keep pushing the youngsters. We have to create opportunities for them. We just can't sit and wait for new talent to emerge; sometimes you need to create talent too, and for that you need to provide lots of opportunities," he opined.

More believes that the Board of Control for Cricket in India is getting it right, when it comes to unearthing talent, and providing opportunities.

"The BCCI is doing a good job. A lot of players are now coming from the cricket academies set up by the state associations. Almost all states have their own academies now. The Elite and Plate divisions in the Ranji Trophy have ensured quality contests as well, making the job of a selector much easier.

"A lot of exposure is given to the youngsters, and India has a fantastic set-up for junior cricket. Nobody in the world has this sort of set-up," he believes.

While that last bit might be a bit of a reach, it is increasingly evident that the BCCI is doing something right – we have never seen such a plethora of young talent infuse the team before.

Besides the sub-26 players who have already made the cut, there is a long waiting list of talented players looking to make the grade. Kaif heads the list, which contains the likes of Shikhar Dhiwan, Ambati Rayudu, R P Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, to name just a few.

And, says More, as long as we can continue to produce quality players who are young, fit and hungry, the future of the team is safe.

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Ashish Magotra

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