Cricket: Team India review meeting shows intent but in its execution lies the key
The first day of the New Year sparked a significant development in Indian cricket with the long-awaited review meeting involving primary stakeholders of the sport in the country triggering crucial decisions which appear steeped in logic and common sense.
India’s prolonged drought in global tournaments and the prospect of a 50-over World Cup at home later this year were the catalysts for the meeting helmed by Roger Binny and Jay Shah, the president and secretary, respectively, of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), all-format skipper Rohit Sharma, national head coach Rahul Dravid, NCA boss VVS Laxman and Chetan Sharma, the chairman of the outgoing senior national selection panel.
The core of the team
Among the more noteworthy outcomes was the decision to longlist a group of 20 which will primarily be the core from which the final World Cup 15 will be picked, and a return to uncompromising fitness parameters of the past which had been given the go-by in the last year or so. Both of them are welcome developments, considering the events leading up to the T20 World Cup in Australia last October-November when India’s campaign came to an embarrassing halt following the ten-wicket hammering at the hands of England in the semi-final.
In the year between the T20 world cups in the UAE in 2021 and in Australia 12 months later, India had fielded no fewer than 29 players in nearly 40 games. While the desire was to try out options and ensure that no base was left uncovered, this vast pool created confusion and threw up way too many choices, several of which had to be jettisoned when it came to the time of the final call. The bravehearts who had translated the clarion call for positivity and aggression were sacrificed at the altar of pedigreed superstars batting from poor memory; notwithstanding the tricky conditions up front against the new ball in Australia, India’s openers – Rohit and his deputy KL Rahul – hardly made an impact, which meant the middle order was forced to play catch-up.
By limiting the larger group to 20 – which is not to say that only these 20 will play all 50-over internationals between now and October, but that the first-choice 15 will be selected from this set, all other things being equal – an effort is being made to encourage cohesion and greater understanding; to highlight constancy and consistency in selection; and, to apportion roles that can often be misunderstood or lost in translation, given the constant inflow and outflow. As of now, there is no official word on who those 20 are; that will become clear by the end of the month, one presumes, by which time India would have seen three ODIs each against Sri Lanka and New Zealand. But whichever lot is picked will at least know where it stands with respect to the larger picture.
An eye on fitness levels
The return of the Yo-Yo and Dexa tests (which measures bone density) can’t but be a positive, given how much they had contributed to making India one of the fittest units in the world in the Virat Kohli-Ravi Shastri era. The Yo-Yo test in itself isn’t a fitness exercise; it merely measures what the level of fitness of each athlete is, and while that level isn’t daunting by any stretch of the imagination, a number of 16.5 (the minimum score to ‘pass’ the test) was deemed respectable enough to come unscathed from the rigours of an international game.
Given that there was a tangible number to be achieved, players knew that any transgression would attract summary punishment. In the past, the likes of Ambati Rayudu and Sanju Samson, among others, have been withdrawn from the national squad after having been picked because they failed to meet the minimum requirement. Once the Yo-Yo test went out of circulation, it was obvious that there was a visible decline in standards, a fact that was ruthlessly exposed on the big grounds in Australia when India’s fielding generally resembled a stately vintage car having accidentally stumbled into a Formula One circuit.
These weren’t the only highlights from the review meeting. In an attempt to ensure that the BCCI and the franchises in the Indian Premier League (IPL) are on the same page when it comes to workload management and player fitness, the NCA has been empowered to work with the franchises to monitor ‘the targeted Indian players’ at IPL 2023. Whether that entails suggestions (it really can’t be anything more than that, can it?) that certain players be rested at certain times of the IPL remains to be seen, but for too long now, players have been unquestioned properties of their respective franchises for more than two months in the lead-up to and during the IPL, and there has been a distinct lack of official synergy between the BCCI and the franchises when it comes to fitness management and the like.
It will be naïve, given the stakes involved and the investments made, to expect the franchises to put the interests of the national team above their own, but in attempting to find a common middle ground and by authorising the affable Laxman to undertake this tricky balancing act, the BCCI can at least be seen to be making the right moves. By also making it mandatory for those aspiring to break into the Indian team to play ‘a substantial domestic season’ to be eligible for selection, the message is clear – ignore the domestic calendar and hope for a free pass to an India cap through the IPL route at your own peril. Too many cricketers have embraced this route, conveniently ‘injured’ when it comes to being available to play for their states but chomping at the bit when the IPL circus storms into town and pitches tent.
Laudable and pat-worthy as these recommendations are, it is imperative that there is no laxity in implementation; that this doesn’t become another exercise whose intent isn’t matched by the willingness to execute without compromise. That’s the least the decision-makers owe to the biggest and most uncomplaining stakeholder of the sport in the country, the lay fan.