Wednesday, 28 September 2016

The tyranny of numbers can often stymie selectors

Suresh Menon in The Hindu

Selectors must make inspired choices relying on instinct rather than the calculator.

In an essay, The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the hierarchical nature of Korean society that might have led to a plane crash. The junior pilot was so deferential to his senior that when the latter made a mistake, he didn’t point it out. Hierarchy in Indian society is well-established too.

Also, numbers slot people. Hence, the highest tax payer versus average payer, 100 Tests versus 10 Tests. It is the last that concerns us here.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India is being criticised for picking a five-man selection committee with a combined playing experience of 13 Tests and 31 one-dayers. The argument here is that only those who have played a large number of Tests are qualified to choose a national team (or perhaps even write about it!). The Cardusian counter is that one need not have laid an egg to be able to tell a good one from the bad.

If that sounds too cute, there is the empirical evidence available to those who have followed Indian cricket for long. A player with 50 or 60 Tests is not automatically qualified to recognise talent at an early stage or see a world in a grain of sand as it were.

Not all international cricketers are students of the game. I would rather talk cricket with someone like Vasu Paranjpe, the legendary coach, than with some players. To be able to play is a wonderful thing and admirable. Many players can demonstrate, but few can explain. Often the experience of 50 Tests is merely the experience of one Test multiplied 50 times.

Selectors must make inspired choices relying on instinct rather than the calculator. There are spinners or batsmen lurking in the thicket of Indian cricket who may not have the record but who are long-term prospects.

Retrospective judging

The successful selector can only be judged retrospectively. Often former players, conscious of how corrosive criticism can be, would rather be praised for sticking to the straight and narrow than invite censure for taking a chance or two.

I have advocated for years that the best selectors should pick the junior sides. Most intelligent watchers of the game can pick 20 national team players without too much effort. Ideal selectors are special people. They bring to the table an instinct for the job which is independent of the number of internationals they have played.

After all, if it were all down only to scores and stats, a computer would do the job just as well. I have no idea how the current committee will function, but the five-man team should not be dismissed out of hand merely because they haven’t played 100 Tests.

Vasu Paranjpe who didn’t play a Test would have made a wonderful selector. In fact, off the top of my head, I can think of many without Test experience who would have. From Mumbai, Raj Singh Dungarpur, Kailash Gattani, Makarand Waingankar, from Delhi Akash Lal, from Kolkata Karthik Bose, from Chennai A.G. Ramsingh, V. Ramnarayan, Abdul Jabbar and from Karnataka V.S. Vijaykumar, Sanjay Desai. Dungarpur and Lal were National selectors in the old days. The list is by no means exhaustive.

Temperament matters

It has often been argued that only someone who has played a bunch of Tests can understand the off-field pressures a young debutant may be subjected to. Hence the call for those who have experienced that. But a good selector will take temperament into account too.

Some of the heaviest scorers and highest wicket takers in the national championship have not played for India; clearly the selection committee has worked out that runs and wickets alone are not enough.

The question of hierarchy, however, is a valid one. At least two recent selectors, Mohinder Amarnath and Sandip Patil, respected internationals both, have admitted that dealing with the senior players with more Tests than they played is no picnic.

Within a committee too, if there is a big gap in experience or popular stature, those who may have better ideas but fewer Tests have been forced to go with the flow. Lala Amarnath, for example, was known to browbeat the panel.

I remember a respected former player, when he was manager of the national side being asked, “How many Tests have you played?” in a nasty sort of way. This is the hierarchy of numbers.

If M.S.K. Prasad (Chairman), Sarandeep Singh, Devang Gandhi, Gagan Khoda and Jatin Paranjpe bring to their job a professionalism, integrity and an instinct for the right pick, they would have rendered irrelevant numbers pertaining to their international experience. All this is, of course, assuming the Supreme Court endorses the BCCI’s stand.

There will be criticism — that is part of the job description of a selector. But if the BCCI is throwing its net wider to include those with the skill, but without the record, then there’s a hint for the selectors here. Sometimes you must take a punt on perceived skill regardless of record.

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