Those who run Indian cricket should find time to watch Shahid Afridi address his first press conference as chairman of the interim selection committee after choosing Pakistan’s ODI side this week. Afridi didn’t shy away from questions, cleared the air on longstanding controversies, wasn’t sugary or diplomatic. He even publicly acknowledged that Babar Azam needed to improve as a captain and that he didn’t really have a tight ship.
There are some lessons here for the BCCI. The media interaction of a lead selector – now the forgotten tradition of Indian cricket – helps dispel doubts and curb speculation. Secondly, it is only selectors of lofty stature – an extinct breed in Indian cricket – who can lead, question and sometimes dominate the high-profile captains and coaches, those whose conduct is not always impeccable.
Since the implementation of Justice RM Lodha’s commission reforms – which barred commentators and IPL coaches from becoming selectors due to their potential conflict of interest – BCCI had to scrap the barrel to appoint selectors.
The BCCI officials fought tooth and nail in court for their own term extension, but never asked for the selectors’ conflict clause to be reversed. Nor have they made a national selector the highest-paid employee of the BCCI, a move that would have attracted the crème de la crème.
This has had consequences. Lately, in India, a country with 10 ex-cricketers with more than 100 Tests against their name; the all-important task of choosing the national team rests with those with not even a fraction of the experience of the stalwarts. The collective international experience of BCCI’s selection committee has been significantly less than the captain and coach they sit in front of to make key decisions.
MSK Prasad or Chetan Sharma, the two recent presidents of selectors, are not exactly the Hall of Famers of Indian cricket. In their playing days, they didn’t shine as outstanding leaders, grand visionaries or out-of-the-box thinkers. Prasad was not Dhoni behind the stumps. Sharma will always be remembered as Kapil Dev’s understudy.
Prasad and Sharma, along with their teams of other humble cricketers, were part of the gathering which also saw giants of the game: Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid. So what are the chances that modestly successful international cricketers turned selectors would have dominated this star team management?
Maybe they could have. But based on recent evidence, the chances are slim. Consider the media reports of former president and former Indian captain Sourav Ganguly’s unconstitutional presence at selection meetings and the alleged “bullying” of selectors. None of the undermined selectors walked away or went public with their grudges. They just sulk silently. It was not surprising at all, all they did was stick to an old tradition.
Cricket, like most sports, has an entrenched hierarchy. “How many Tests have you played?” – remains a favorite counter that players use to confront journalists. Even within the circle of “those who have played” there is a pecking order. A 100-plus Test player is the gold standard, the top floor dweller. The rest, depending on their international forays, settle in rows below.
As a rule, at a gathering of players, the one with the highest number of international matches is heard the most. The only opinion that matters is that of the one who played the most. Listen to ex-players in the comment box next time to verify this claim. If you keep your ears sharp, you can catch those subtle disapproving comments and condescending comments when a junior tries to contradict a senior.
So the selection committee needs well-travelled, seasoned professionals, the undisputed masters of the game. That’s because captains and coaches need to be questioned. Over time, when captains feel comfortable on the throne, they form cliques. Common agents, shared interests and friends can lead captains to pull longer ropes on undeserving players and even hide their injuries.
This is how the deserving young people cool down at home. The selectors’ job is to raise the flag, to be the strong neutral voice of reason. They must be the devil’s advocate and also the sentient guardians. They should step in to break these cliques.
Afridi set out to do just that. During the press conference, he revealed the circumstances of not including the team’s MVP, Vice-Captain and Babar’s Man Friday Shadab Khan. A day before the announcement, Afridi called the all-rounder to check his condition.
“Shadab bola, Shahidbhai mai khel jaunga, koi maslaa nahi hai (Shadab said Shahidbhai can I play, no problem). But I refused, I told him to go down to the ground and bowl the next morning. So today he called me before the meeting and we found out that he had a pain in his finger,” Afridi had shared with the media. Had it not been for Afridi’s aura and body of work, Shadab would not have been asked to bowl in the nets, the half-fit star might even have made the cut.
Only Lala could have done it. What about Chetan Sharma? Could he ask a captain’s pet to take a fitness test against his will?
The changing of the guard in Pakistani cricket also saw Babar’s old friend, his opening partner and an all-format player to date, Mohammad Rizwan sit out for Tests. His place was taken by wicket-keeper batsman and former captain Sarfraz Ahmed.
In the past, conspiracy theorists have said that Babar did not want Sarfraz on the team, fearing a parallel power center would form around the veteran. Afridi also articulated on the switch. Sarfraz, he said, was there for Tests and he was ineligible for white-ball as that was Rizwan’s turf.
Only Lala could have done it. What about Chetan Sharma? Do we know who is India’s number 1 goalkeeper in Tests, ODIs or T20?
Even on the controversial question of Sharjeel Khan’s return after a match-fixing suspension, Afridi was clear. He said the only reason Sharjeel was among the 24 likely candidates was his outstanding performance in domestic cricket. But when PCB’s top buyer objected, things changed. “I’m very honest, we didn’t get a green signal from the chairman about what happened in Dubai,” he said.
Afridi also repeated the one line about Babar that he has echoed since being called the selector. “Babar is a great batsman, now we all have to support him to make him a great captain too,” he said. It was a sober statement, a realistic assessment that Pakistan’s best batsman was not an omniscient cricket god.
Only Lala could have done that. What about Chetan Sharma? The world doesn’t know what the selection committee thinks of Kohli’s captaincy.
Afridi’s appointment is short-lived as he is busy with his foundation’s work. It remains to be seen whether a selector of stature replaces the Mercurial all-rounder.
Both India and Pakistan need the best of themselves as selectors as many of their recent ICC disasters have been due to wrong picks, misjudgment of injuries and team management’s inability to make bold decisions.
The game is changing. India and Pakistan are slowly realizing that the selection criteria must be different for each format. Difficult calls have to be made. To displace those with reputations, there must first be selectors with reputations. This decisive position does not require appeasers and marbles, but visionaries. To be chairman, you have to know the feeling of the hot seat.