At 11:17 a.m. on Saturday, a media release from the BCCI popped up in my inbox with names of 30 probables for the Champions Trophy in England. As journalists are trained to do, I scoured the list for the big headline. Virender Sehwag's exclusion was the obvious one. And with Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan also missing, one message was loud and clear. Reputations no longer mattered. In India's one-day scheme of things, time had run out for players who were once certainties.
While seemingly putting a full-stop on the one-day careers of these three players was a significant statement, it wasn't entirely unexpected. It was the decision to not include Cheteshwar Pujara among the probables that was more perplexing.
Here is a player with an impressive record at domestic one-day level, has barely put a foot wrong in his Test career so far and has been complimented widely for his water-tight technique. The Champions Trophy is in the first half of the English summer, when the ball swings and seams, so to have the solidity of Pujara in the top order was a no-brainer. He was also part of India's last ODI squad for the series against England in January. So why had he gone from being on the verge of a debut to being out of the mix altogether? In the absence of an answer, that question prompted a swirl of conspiracy theories and a raging debate across platforms.
It was credibly reported that Pujara was kept out as he will be asked to captain India 'A' to South Africa at about the same time as the Champions trophy. Apparently, if the dates of that series didn't clash with the tournament, he could yet be included in the 15-man squad as there is no compulsion to pick from the 30 originally chosen. But even if Pujara has been identified for that job, how does that stop him from being named in this long list of probables? Aren't there several others among the 30 in the Champions trophy probables who are likely to be on that plane to South Africa with the 'A' team?- Manoj Tiwary, Shami Ahmed, Dinesh Karthik, Rohit Sharma, Unmukt Chand, Ishwar Pandey, Sidharth Kaul to name a few - if they can be among the 30, why not Pujara? If a player can be picked anyway from outside these 30 in the final 15, what stopped Pujara from being named? This list in any case is largely a formality fulfilled to meet the requirements of an ICC event.
Out of curiosity, I spoke to an informed and reliable source in the BCCI who told me Pujara had been kept out due to 'fitness issues'. Pujara's knee problems are well-documented so if this was part of a considered strategy to preserve him for Test cricket, no right thinking Indian cricket follower will quibble. I asked my source if that meant Pujara has been instructed to sit out of the entire IPL season? 'That is up to the franchise', he replied. I was also told to expect a formal communication from the BCCI on why Pujara was kept out. I waited in vain, that communication never came.
Now what do we have here? Two completely divergent bits of information from two sources in the same organisation. I can vouch for the solidity of my source and have no reason to doubt the veracity of the other, who divulged the India 'A' angle to another reporter. In an alternative universe, neither of us or any news journalist for that matter would have needed to rely on this unnamed source. If only a couple of lines accompanied the media release with the list 30 probables. Something like this- "Cheteshwar Pujara has been excluded from the probables as he will be leading India's 'A' team to South Africa at the same time as the Champions Trophy. The rest of that squad will be named in due course."
That communication would have ignited another debate on whether Pujara is more valuable to the senior team in a marquee one-day tournament or better off preparing for the Test challenge in South Africa later in the year. But that would have been an informed debate. Followers of Indian cricket would have argued the merits of the decision not having to read between the lines of a story strewn with 'maybes' or relying on 'sources'. The BCCI has an officialdom seasoned enough to recognise that Pujara's exclusion would cause more than a ripple. Yet chose not to communicate what might well have been a carefully considered move, far from the sinister shape it went on to take.
None of this is new of course. By being as opaque as it is, the BCCI does a great disservice not just to its largest stakeholders but also to its own work. In my experience, most selectors and even board officials aren't as devious and conniving as they are often painted out to be. A large proportion of them have a deep love for cricket and enjoy serving the game. But I find it incredibly hard to fathom why they see no reason to change the way they communicate. Why they refuse to acknowledge that the world around them has changed. Why they fail to understand that in this era of rapidly flowing information and opinion, veils of secrecy can no longer exist without question.
It can be no one's case that all matters discussed in selection committee meetings are made public. The idea of televising selection meetings as some sort of reality TV show has no merit to my mind as sensitive issues of fitness; attitude and commitment can lead to unfair prejudices against players. But for decisions that are sure to confound, is it too much to expect a degree of clarity?
For instance, did Ajinkya Rahane really request the selectors to consider him only for the middle order? I am told chairman Sandeep Patil made a grand announcement to that effect on a flight recently that included members of the broadcasting crew. But some insiders insist Rahane made no such request and was eager just for the opportunity to play after nearly a year and half on the fringe of the Test team.
So before the young man made an accidental debut at Delhi, could a short statement not have lifted the suspense? Along these lines perhaps- "Ajinkya Rahane will bat in the middle order for the Kotla Test against Australia as the team management feels he is better suited in that role. Cheteshwar Pujara has been asked to open the batting as a temporary measure". Again it wouldn't have settled the debate, but triggered an informed one. Instead, in the days leading up to the game acres of media space was dedicated to conspiracy theories about how Suresh Raina will sneak his way back into the XI at Rahane's expense. Come match day, none of those came true but neither was it clear who would open the innings, till Pujara actually walked out!
At the best of times, selecting India's cricket team is an exercise in thanklessness. I can understand keeping the selectors from engaging with the media in great detail. No good can come of being relentlessly probed about each marginal selection. They are entrusted with the task of making considered choices and as in most such jobs, occasionally a wrong decision is made. But when they take a call that baffles the cricket watching public, must they be allowed to share the thought process and logic behind the decision? Or hung out to dry in this manner? Who gains from a discourse muddled with supposed intrigue, imagined villainy and perceived deceit? Not the selectors, not the players, not board officials and certainly not the fans. Can the media be accused of 'speculation' and 'sensationalism' when all they have to go by is selective leaks and 'off the record' conversations?
For all its fault-lines, Indian cricket is a robust success story. Built on the support of a devoted and massive fan base and carefully nurtured by an ambitious and sharp board. The engagement between these two vital organs is being increasingly ruptured. The BCCI doesn't need to break down the formidable walls that guard its imposing structure. But it is now time to start opening a little window from time to time for the followers of Indian cricket to peek in.