After the latest World Test Championship final embarrassment, the time is now for changes, starting with a comprehensive introspection of how the red-ball game is run and played. India, despite its financial resources and playing pool, has failed to win the WTC mace for the second time in a row.
Here’s how they could create a blueprint to address their shortcomings in red-ball cricket.
1. Creating a pool of red-ball specialists
The divide in players between red and white-ball cricket is now more pronounced than ever. Results this year suggest that rather than rotating multi-format players, India would be better off ensuring that players are fresh for when they can make the best impact. One way of doing that is by identifying a pool of, say, 20 first-class players—seven specialist batters and bowlers each, and six all-rounders—so that the management is able to make the best use of the talents suited for a particular format. England has championed this concept. Jos Buttler is a marginal pick in the Test side but indispensable to England’s prospects in white-ball cricket.
A greater concentration of talent in the Ranji Trophy would help bridge the gap to the international game. If the first-class pool widens and deepens, it may also help address a common problem: appointing Test captains who have scarcely done the job for their State teams. Players these days have scant time to captain their domestic first-class sides while also playing international cricket. It is time for the selectors to encourage all but the elite few to specialise in a format when it comes to international cricket.
2. First-class priorities
In an age where the IPL has assumed greater significance in the landscape of Indian cricket, most first-choice Indian Test players, with the exceptions of Rahane and Pujara, tend to give Ranji Trophy cricket a miss, citing workload management as one of the chief reasons. They should be encouraged to turn up for their respective State units when an opportunity presents itself. The selectors must also consider making it a rule for players, especially those returning from injury, to prove their fitness in domestic cricket before making an international comeback.
3. Succession plan
Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, R. Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami and Rohit Sharma. Eight of India’s squad members who have formed the core of its Test side over the last decade are not getting younger. By the end of the next World Test Championship cycle, all of them would be in the 35-plus category. Add to that the topsy-turvy form of specialist batters and you will realise that it’s time for the succession cycle to kick in big time over the next year.
Soon after Rahul Dravid took over as the head coach, Ishant Sharma and Wriddhiman Saha were given an honourable exit from the Test set-up. Pujara and Rahane were dropped, having been given a long rope to their form around. The succession plan had been set in place.
But in the last few months, both Pujara and Rahane have made impressive comebacks to the team due to varied reasons. But where does that leave the likes of Hanuma Vihari, Shreyas Iyer and others once they are fit? It’s time for the BCCI — with the selectors at the forefront — to bell the cat and set the succession plan rolling.
4. Lack of vision
It’s been more than four months since the BCCI’s senior men’s selection panel became headless, with Chetan Sharma forced to resign after being caught in a sting operation. Since then, Shiv Sundar Das — the one with the most Test caps among the other four selectors — has been acting as interim head.
With little security for his job and lack of stature — a must in Indian psyche in general, Indian cricket’s ego-issues in particular — Das is unlikely to ring in huge changes on his own. Let alone kicking in the succession plan, the appointment of a fifth selector is critical with an eye on the 2023 ODI World Cup.
But the BCCI top brass and the team management seem to be happy with the status quo. For most of the last 18 months, the national selection committee has been managing with four members, instead of the prescribed five members. For the same Board that had vehemently opposed the Supreme Court-directed reforms cutting down the selection panel from five to three members not too long ago, it’s been business as usual despite a selector’s post lying vacant.
5. Bringing the focus back to India A cricket
Youth development and sustained success for the first team go hand in hand, as evidenced by India’s rapid turnaround in Test fortunes between 2018 and 2021. Mohammed Siraj has been one of the chief architects of that upswing. Siraj had played 16 first-class matches for India A, touring England, New Zealand, South Africa, and the West Indies before making his international debut.
No surprise then that he looked as sharp as a finished product in that Border-Gavaskar series against Australia. In fact, India used 20 players through that four-match series—the most any team had used in an away series in the history of Test cricket. The India bowling attack in the fourth Test at the Gabba had a combined experience of four Tests. It was a testament to the bench strength, furthered by an India A structure that not only identified talents but also developed them with targeted opportunities.
Between 2017 and 2019, India A played 24 unofficial Tests. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, they have played three unofficial Tests in South Africa in 2021 and two against Bangladesh and three against New Zealand in 2022. While there has understandably been a downward trend in the number of matches, making A-team cricket a priority once again will go a long way in bettering the red-ball future of India.
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