India’s selectors have done the right thing in rebuffing a request from the Indian team management in England to send a couple of openers as backup for the 5-Test series against England. Young Shubman Gill had been ruled out from at least the first three matches, possibly the entire rubber, because of a leg injury that prompted the request.
From the buzz going around, two other young openers Prithvi Shaw and Devdutt Padikkal were in demand by the team management. Both Shaw and Padikkal are touring Sri Lanka for the white ball series’ due soon, under Shikhar Dhawan as captain and Rahul Dravid as coach. Shaw has played for India in Tests earlier, while Padikkal is very much on the radar of the selectors after two impressive IPL seasons.
Who exactly from the team management put in this request is unclear. Some whispers suggest it was chief coach Ravi Shastri, some others skipper Virat Kohli. In my experience and understanding, the `team management’ is a collective group comprising captain, vice captain, chief coach, and nowadays increasingly the support staff. So, while the request may well have come from an individual, the decision would have been taken after much confabulation between all those in this group.
At least a couple of them – Kohli and Shastri certainly – are too high-powered to be ignored, which is where the selectors, deserve plaudits for holding their ground. Headed by former fast bowler Chetan Sharma, the team management was told politely but firmly that with three back-up openers already in the jumbo squad, there was no need to add more members.
Mind you, anxiety in the team management was not entirely ill-founded. With barely any practice matches available before the Test series and the top order, the team management is hard pressed for assessing form and match-fitness of players. The ECB has deigned to fit in a first-class match after the BCCI pushed for it, but just one match preceding the series is still inadequate and highlights the laxity of the BCCI in planning the itinerary.
The Covid pandemic situation remains bumpy and capable of throwing up unexpected challenges, which is also the reason why touring teams since the last year and a half have added several more players than usual to squads. In case a player is hurt or gets afflicted by Covid, replacements will not be easily available. Even if a player is free to travel, mandatory health protocols demand extended quarantine periods (in England it is currently10 days), making it virtually impossible to meet urgent needs.
But while such extraordinary times will steer team managers and captains on tour to build up as many safeguards as possible for a series or tournament, this cannot extend to a level where it makes selection policy look shallow, whimsical, inconsequential. A certain decorum that adheres must be maintained to keep matters from flipping out of control.
There are two very good reasons why the selectors were justified in not being indulgent towards the team management.
One, the squad in England already has three openers Mayank Agarwal, KL Rahul and stand-by Abhimanyu Easwaran - drafted into the side after Gill’s injury — to share the job with Rohit Sharma. Four openers was the original figure reached at by the selectors when the team flew to England. The number’s still four, so what’s the dire need?
Simply adding more players – and this argument extends beyond just openers – would create rather than solve issues. With no first class games barring one, there is little scope to try out the different options except in the Test matches itself, hardly conducive to thoughtful selection. If anything, it will create needless tension among the many claimants, which can sully the atmosphere in the dressing room.
There is another, and equally important dimension to be considered. By inducting more openers in the squad, the signal going out to those who were originally picked is that the team management is not entirely convinced about their calibre to cope with the challenge.
This can be extremely dejecting to the four openers (including Rohit Sharma) in the squad. It would put needless pressure on them. More than that, it would demean the selectors. If the team management shows a preference for Shaw and Padikkal, it makes Easwaran’s place on the tour, even if as stand-by to start with, as flawed thinking on the part of the selectors. Once that line of thinking sets in, it could make the job of selectors superfluous.
True, Gill’s injury is a setback. But injuries, illness and other events which force some players to miss out are part and parcel of sport. Historically teams have learnt to cope with this. Not just that, such situations throw up opportunities for other players in the squad to gain a place and prove their credentials.
On the last tour of Australia, Mohamed Siraj and even Rishabh Pant were not in the original scheme of things for the Indian team in the Test series, A spate of injuries to key players opened up places for them, which they seized with both handsand helped India pull off a historic win.
If anything, the Indian team looks better placed in England than it was in Australia, certainly after the first Test. Barring Gill, there is no other breakdown or injury scare. The only real issue is who to pick from Mayank Agarwal and K L Rahul as Rohit Sharma’s opening partner. This seems like a toss up at the moment
But the onus is also on Rahul and Agarwal to reiterate their credentials. Both got into the Indian team on the back of splendid performances in first class cricket, made early impact and them lost their place in the playing XI. It is not often that rejected players get the chance to make a comeback so quickly. They have a lot to play for as this could be a make or break situation in the five day format for both.