M. S. K. Prasad: Everything went right for us in Australia

The BCCI chairman of selectors M. S. K. Prasad opens up on the identification and grooming of players that contributed to India's historic Test series win in Australia.

M. S. K. Prasad...“It may not see so, but [India] played well from the beginning of [2018].”   -  PTI

On the sidelines of a Ranji Trophy contest that could well have been his last as a national selector — the final between Vidarbha and Saurashtra — M. S. K. Prasad opens up on the historic series win in Australia, the build-up to the World Cup, and more.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q. Finally, a Test series win outside the sub-continent and West Indies… Happy or relieved?

A. It’s a huge honour. Not just for me as [selection committee] chairman but my fellow colleagues as well. It’s such a big honour that we have achieved it after 71 years. I would also give credit to the planning that happened between the team management and the selectors for some time. Everything went right in the series. It’s not just a big relief, as you asked. Even if you see [the] South Africa and England series, though the results weren’t in our favour, that wasn’t the true reflection of what happened. Looking at the results, it may not seem so but we played very good cricket from the beginning of the year.

What were the lessons learnt in South Africa and England, be it in terms of picking the right men for the job or devising strategies?

If you really have to take something from [the] South Africa and England series, there were certain combinations which we thought would work but didn’t, at times. Trying to understand our strengths while playing abroad is also a key thing. I think those are the lessons that we learned from South Africa and England. I am sure we picked the best possible XI and the best possible combinations in Australia. And the results were there to see.

I personally feel [the] 7-4 combination worked much better for us playing abroad. [Sometime during] Rahul [Dravid’s] days when we played abroad, that combination [had] really worked. Three seamers and one spinner worked much better than four seamers and one spinner. Having said that, the way our seamers delivered also [helped].

How much has selection policy evolved in terms of coordination between team management and selectors?

With this selection team management, the selection committee shares a good rapport (sic). I am 100 percent sure of that. There were certain things that were sorted out and as per the Lodha recommendations, it’s very clear that the squad would be picked by the selectors and the playing XI by the team management. Having said that, from this Australia series, we all worked together and irrespective of what the recommendations were, we really gelled well.

Bowling has been the most improved unit obviously. How much planning has gone into it and, as chairman of selectors, what were your inputs?

Right from the beginning of the year, all our bowlers have bowled exceptionally well. Be it [the] South Africa series or England or this series. [However, it hadn’t] come to the fore [in the first two series]. I think there were some chases that we missed in Cape Town, Edgbaston and Southampton. But in this series [against Australia,] both batting and bowling came off well.

The bowlers have done exceptionally well. The trio of [Jasprit] Bumrah, [Mohammed] Shami and Ishant [Sharma] has taken more wickets together in a calendar year than any other bowling unit previously. Whenever given an opportunity, even our spinners have done exceptionally well — especially the way Ash (R. Ashwin) bowled in South Africa, and he started off brilliantly in England and even in Australia. Kuldeep [Yadav] also delivered when an opportunity was thrown at him in the Sydney Test. So [it was] with Jaddu (Ravindra Jadeja); he picked up six wickets in England (at the Oval) and scored runs as well. It’s a combination and our entire bowling was at its peak, but it was complemented by our batting also this time.

How much planning has gone into developing this pace battery? India has never had so many top pacers with as strong back-ups playing away from home.

It’s not just about Bumrah, Shami and Ishant. We had Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav also with us on the tour. Besides, we have someone like Mohammad Siraj, who has some six-seven five-wicket hauls for India A. And if you really see how we planned for this series...we were playing at home against West Indies and we rested Bumrah and Shami. We played Umesh, Shardul and others in that series. Credit should definitely go to the workload management [for] the training, rest and rehab that we have been following. Credit should also go to our physio Patrick [Farhart] and trainer [Shankar] Basu in that regard. After the England series, we sat and discussed [that] these were the guys who were going to be most important in the Australia series. We gave them substantial rest so that they were fresh and at their best in Australia. Undoubtedly, this has been a planning between team management and selectors that has helped our fast bowlers to be at their best in this series.

Terrific trio: Mohammed Shami (first from left), Jasprit Bumrah (second from left), and Ishant Sharma (third from left) were prolific in 2018 for India. Photo: AP

 

When did you realise Bumrah was ready for Test cricket? He hadn’t played red-ball cricket for exactly a year before his debut?

When we saw him bowl in the 2016-17 [Ranji Trophy] quarterfinal against Jharkhand here in Nagpur. We were convinced he is ready for Test cricket. He bowled at least 30 overs in both the innings put together. After Gujarat conceded the first-innings lead, the way he fought back and won them the game clearly told us that he was ready for Test cricket. Since he has this peculiar action, we were a bit worried that he would be prone to injuries. But to counter that, he has strictly followed the fitness regimen given to him and has become stronger.

If you [notice the difference between] Bumrah of a couple of years ago and Bumrah of now, he has become fitter, faster, he is more agile, he takes more catches, there’s a huge improvement in the way he fields. He is a thorough professional and he understands the dynamics of different formats better than anyone else. That’s why he has succeeded in [the] Test format. When we picked him for the South Africa Test series, not many people were in favour of it, but we were always very clear because the lengths he bowls, there’s always a chance of picking wickets. I am glad he has proved us right with the way he has bowled. He is among the top-ranked Test bowlers in the world as well now, so that’s a tribute to his hard-work and work ethic in all formats of the game.

How important is it for the selectors and the team management to be on the same page with regard to workload management?

There is absolutely no conflict with regard to that because we sit and discuss. [It is] not just about the senior team management, it involves junior team management which has Rahul Dravid in it. All of us sat together during the West Indies series in Hyderabad, and discussed who the players [were] that we [would] look up to, whether it’s the batsmen or fast bowlers or spinners. Who is it that we will be looking at for the Australia series? And we started planning for the series; if you see the way we groomed Mayank [Agarwal] or Prithvi [Shaw].

One more point is the shadow tours (where senior team players played for India A) that we planned. That was very crucial. The senior selectors and junior selectors sat and discussed what the away series were that we were going to have. Prior to [the] South Africa series, we had a shadow A tour there. We had one in England as well and that’s where [Hanuma] Vihari or Prithvi Shaw or Mayank Agarwal or Rishabh Pant have evolved from that A tour straight into the senior side. Unfortunately, we couldn’t have one in Australia due to their domestic cricket but we had the A tour in new Zealand. That was the planning that went behind the success of this tour.

More thrust on workload management means there is more workload on the selectors to keep communicating with the players, isn’t it?

Well, it’s very clearly defined and players know about it. There was a stage when Bumrah actually wanted to play those two Test matches against West Indies but we clearly told him how important his role would be in the Australia series. He was going to be the key and bowl many overs. He understood that and after the completion of the series he himself [said] that entire credit should go to workload management prior to the series.

Both batting and bowling appear settled and they will in all probability will be around for at least three-four years together. How important is it to ensure seamless transition and what are your plans to ensure the team doesn’t suffer in that transition period?

What I would say is that we should never be complacent [thinking that] we have enough guys and [that] they will deliver. Our stress, search and quest for succession should always be ready. In that regard, we have already quite a few players. If you see the pattern in which we are selecting the India A team, you will clearly understand. We are grooming them. Every player who is playing — Rishabh, Vihari or Mayank or Prithvi or Khaleel [Ahmed] — they were all part of our India A scheme for the last one-and-a-half years. That’s how we have groomed them so that they easily progress into the senior side.

We are already working on the next lot and we are going to focus on them [in domestic cricket], after which they will play one-two years for India A. I am sure, as and when there is a necessity, we will have enough replacements. I never want Indian cricket go to a stage where some of those countries who have dominated in different eras are going through a transition period. There is so much cricket, so much volume of cricketers we have, so much emphasis on quality of domestic cricket that we have, I am sure for generations to come we will never [face the problem].

With so much domestic cricket happening these days, how do you go about scouting the right talent? How do you coordinate with different stakeholders to ensure that a player gets his break at the right time?

Our selectors, if you see, we travel about 220-230 days in a year watching so much domestic cricket across the country. When we bring the players under the radar, the first and foremost thing is we look at his consistency factor. The players should have performed consistently for two years to come into our radar. Then we will pick them for Duleep Trophy, India A or Board President’s XI teams and [if] they perform there as well, then we ease them into the senior side. It’s very obvious now that whoever performs for two-three years, will get into [the] India A [side]. Then he has to perform for one or one-and-a-half years for India A before graduating to [the] next stage. Otherwise, our focus will be lost. Our most important thing for selectors is to identify those players and bring them into the radar.

How much did the selection committee being reduced to three members for a year-and-a-half affect the talent identification process? How did you cope with it?

Physically, if you have two more, then we would have seen more talent. See, looking physically at a player and going by stats are completely different things altogether. At that juncture, we had to rely on [feedback from] match referees who have played more than 25 first-class matches. We had given additional responsibility to them because they are the ones to watch each and every match, so it would help. But it’s an added strength with these two [Gagan Khoda and Jatin Paranjape] rejoining. It’s such a big country with so many first-class teams so it’s always better to have a bigger squad of selectors, that’s five selectors.

Kuldeep Yadav (right) and Yuzvendra Chahal were brought in keeping in mind the need for variety in India's spin attack. Photo: AP

 

Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal have been brilliant in the limited-overs cricket. How apprehensive were you when you decided to leave out established spinners likes Ashwin and Jadeja from the squad and how do you feel after their success?

[Not only were] questions asked, but the decision was blasted. What I can say is both of them (Ashwin and Jadeja) are phenomenal in Test cricket. They are No. 1 and No. 2 (in rankings). Even today, they are still in contention [for limited-over matches]. There are no two ways about it.

But after the Champions Trophy [in 2017], we wanted to increase the variety in our spin department. In that quest, we brought in these two spinners. We even brought in Jayant Yadav in between but unfortunately due to injuries he had to go out. So, these two bowlers whom we have identified added variety to our spin attack. And if you see, [in] 70 percent of the victories, their role was there. They have contributed so much. I am very happy that we have identified these two. Now we have so many spin options. We even have someone young like Washington Sundar. I think we have six-seven spinners in our country to choose from.

There was a lot of confusion about Ashwin’s fitness before the final Test in Sydney and this was the second time he has failed to complete an away Test series. How concerning is it that your senior spinner is struggling with fitness in key series?

If we are talking about Ashwin, we are talking about a current day legendary spinner. We have to accept that first and the number of victories that this person has given to us. It’s phenomenal. I am sure as a professional he knows the fitness level that [is] expected of him. Injuries are part and parcel of the game of every player. I don’t exactly question as to what happened (with his fitness in England and Australia). Someone who is exerting [himself is] prone to injuries if you really look at it. Someone who isn’t exerting will not get injured. So, I have no doubt about his commitment. It’s unfortunate, but he will come back strong. He has so much cricket left in him and he has so much to offer Indian cricket.

As chairman of selection committee, is he still your No. 1 Test bowler?

Undoubtedly. There are no two ways about it. Absolutely no two ways about it. Ashwin is our No. 1 spinner and he is one of the best spinners in the world. In fact, every country we play, they always plan against Ashwin first compared to other spinners. He is our premier spinner.

Looking ahead to the World Cup, do you think there are any holes to be filled in the squad composition or is it only about dealing with the problem of plenty and pruning?

To begin with, we have so many options to choose from but going to a mega event, we have quite a few things to consider, like the experience. Because this is a mega event that needs players of that kind of a mindset. We are very clear by now. We had one or two places that we were looking at and we have got a good idea about it versus New Zealand. We still have five more ODIs against Australia. Basically, in our mind, we are very clear about our team. The New Zealand series has brought in a bit of change in dynamics, not a major one, so it’s just one or two places that we are looking at.

India head coach Ravi Shastri recently said Virat Kohli may bat at No. 4 in the World Cup considering the top-heavy batting line-up in ODIs.

I think, end of the day, it is the team management which will be thinking on those lines. You never know, because…there’s some time to go for the event to begin and if that combination works best for the team, why not! I am sure that everybody in this team wants India to win the World Cup, so if that works out best for the team, why not!

Considering the top-heavy batting line-up, despite Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan being extremely consistent, how important is to to have strong back-up opener?

Of course, we need a strong back-up opener, no two ways about it, but who that opener is, we will let you know at an appropriate time.

Are the selectors clear about who you are looking at for that particular role?

Yes, of course. We are pretty sure.

With India A series clashing with the domestic cricket, how challenging has it been for the selectors to give exposure to deserving selectors and yet maintain the importance of the domestic calendar?

See, the New Zealand series was a shadow tour for the Australia series, so the likes of Parthiv Patel, Murali Vijay, Ajinkya Rahane, Mayank Agarwal...they all played in New Zealand before playing in Australia, so that’s how it was planned. And the current series against England Lions, it’s a part of the bilateral agreement between both the boards. The series started only when the Ranji [Trophy] quarterfinals were about to start. And some of the big teams like Mumbai and Delhi had anyway failed to make it to the quarterfinals. Few guys may have missed but it’s an opportunity for many others to be on the radar.

How do you look at K. L. Rahul? Do you think he has been carrying a baggage of the way he batted in Australia?

Everybody goes through those phases. Even the greatest of players have their ups and downs in their careers with regard to their form. We want K. L. to be among runs and that’s why we have included him in the few games against England Lions and there is [a] BP XI match also coming up and we still have some more games against Australia to come. I think when a player who has done extremely well is out of form, that’s when we need to back him. I am sure in time to come K. L. will definitely get back into form and get back into [the] Indian team as well.

K. L. Rahul (in picture) will soon be back in form, says Prasad. Photo: PTI

 

You said once in Sri Lanka he is too good a player to lose out...

I still stand by the statement that he is too good a player not to be playing. He is the only player who has two T20I centuries; we know the quality he has. Unfortunately, his form has dipped, there are no two ways about it. We really want him to make a strong comeback by getting runs in whatever matches he gets his opportunities. I am sure he will do so.

In the recent past, we have seen the trend of players playing only white-ball cricket. Do you see it on the rise and as a selector, what yardstick do you have when it comes to selecting such players?

All I can say is if a youngster is thinking of it, everybody should take Virat Kohli as an example. Today he is the No. 1 Test batsman in the world and we’re the No. 1 Test team in the world. A No. 1 batsman in three formats of the game is giving priority to Test cricket, so that clearly shows what Test cricket should mean for an aspiring cricketer. There might have been a few cases where they would have chosen white-ball cricket but end of the day, I can clearly say that getting run in red-ball cricket gives more satisfaction than scoring in white-ball cricketer for any cricketer. So I would suggest everybody take Virat as an example when it comes to giving priority to the highest form of the game, which is Test cricket or Ranji Trophy in domestic cricket.

How do you deal with picking players like Dhoni, Rayudu and possibly Dhawan, who could be heading the same way?

With regard to Rayudu, he has made up his mind that he is not going to play red-ball cricket any more. With regard to Shikhar, he has been playing continuously for two-and-a-half-years. That’s the reason we have given him a break and he was put on a certain fitness programme. That’s the only reason he didn’t play. Otherwise, I don’t see any threat to red-ball cricket. Our selection is clearly based on the format that a cricketer plays in and performance in that particular format.