The Indian selectors will meet on Saturday to select the India A team for the tours of Zimbabwe and Kenya. This incidentally, is the first A tour in over a year, not a happy reflection on the BCCI's stated intent to develop the game in the country.
After all, if you do not create opportunities and organise tours for India A, a team comprising people either on the verge of an India comeback or youngsters looking to win an India cap, then what hope for the rest of the lot.
This tour apparently, has happened because the selectors had a private chat with BCCI vice-president Shashank Manohar and asked that an urgent reemphasis be placed on India A tours because otherwise, there was no immediate platform to find out how the fringe players would do.
"Mr Manohar agreed with us and a plan is being drawn up to try and organise A tours with South Africa, Australia, Sri Lanka," a national selector told HT. However, all that is hypothetical till it actually materialises, for the moment, the players have to settle for Zimbabwe and Kenya.
Before going into the merits of playing the superpowers of world cricket though, we must give the BCCI credit where it's due, at least for making an announcement, if not doing much else so far.
After the World Cup debacle, the board announced that more A tours were the need of the hour (though this next one really happened only because the West Indies A pulled out of touring Zimbabwe at the last minute).
No planning ahead
Ideally, though, most pundits feel that an A tour should run almost parallel to the senior team's schedule. For instance, the last time India A toured England was in 2003. Had they toured more recently, it would've given the selectors more options to choose from, on the basis of how certain players performed in previous A tours.
Unfortunately however, the BCCI rarely seems to plan ahead. They could take a cue from Sri Lanka, who have a proper system in place, one that is already paying dividends. Sri Lanka A participated in India's premier domestic event (the Duleep Trophy).
They came here with a very strong outfit with people like Chamara Silva (who went on to do well in the World Cup), Thilan Samaraweera (who's averaging 40+ in Test cricket) and Michael Vandort (who has an average of 50+ in eight Tests).
Despite that, the competition for senior team spots is so fierce that both Samaraweera and Vandort are back in the A squad and will be hoping to get some big runs in England, which is where Lanka A will be travelling while India A probably run through the minnows.
The Cricinfo website quoted Sri Lankan selection committee sources as saying that for Samaraweera, the tour was a chance to press his claims for an international recall.
"The selectors are assessing their options ahead of the tour of Australia in November, and a home Test series against England in December," it said. "We are looking at Thilan as a Test player. He is still our best No. 5 batsman and we hope to give him every opportunity to get enough runs behind him before the England series," a selector told the website.
"We have picked this team with a look at the future, both short term and long term."
Finding talent on a non-zonal basis
Logically, as selectors, you need to identify a pool of players apart from the top 10 and then, they should keep shuffling these players on different India A ventures. Unfortunately in India, apart from the selection of the senior team, other selections are often ruined by zonal biases and selectors (senior and junior) have often got away with pleasing different associations because there's little public or media scrutiny over these selections.
In former India coach John Wright's Indian Summers, there is a chapter called "Unnatural Selection", which obviously details problems in selections in India. Read this from that chapter, remembering that the Indian coach is actually present at top selection committee meetings.
"I saw the system really exposed when the panel had to choose the Indian team and an A team at the same meeting. It took three hours to pick the top side; everyone had a plane to catch and it was an hour's drive to the airport, so India A was selected in about thirty minutes. They just went around the zones: two from here, three from there, and so on. It was just a divvy-up; you couldn't even call it horse-trading."
A glance through previous A or under-19 squads would tell you that there would be a lot of players who never appeared on the national scene after that one-off tour. The reason - they simply didn't deserve to be there. Generally, no questions are asked and no answers given.
Have tours that will actually help
Again logically, it is important to identify India's areas of weakness and then schedule the tours accordingly. Touring countries like Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, England and Sri Lanka should be on the priority list and not Kenya and Zimbabwe.
The last time an India A team toured the African minnows in 2004, they won almost everything. The standard was nothing to write home about (except the tri-nation one-day event in Nairobi, also involving Pakistan A). Most four day games got over with over a day to spare.
On the other hand, though under-19 cricket has been given a lot of importance (which is fine to an extent) given the number of overseas tours these teenagers are having, they are not delivering the same results. There are hardly any people coming straight out of under-19s tour into the senior side (the most famous example in recent times would probably be Irfan Pathan nearly four years ago).
If that is generally the trend, why not invest in slightly more senior players who have a realistic chance of playing for the country in the coming years.
Incidentally, the under-19s are touring Sri Lanka when India A will be playing against substandard cricketing nations. But this is not an exception, when England under-19 toured India a couple of years ago, India had to actually select a second string under-19 side to have a contest as the opposition wasn't good enough!
Basically, other than India and Pakistan and perhaps the other subcontinental countries to some extent, under-19 tours are for the very young. The top cricketing nations lay much more emphasis on the A tours. We get to see some India u-19 kids setting the world on fire but reason dictates that it shouldn't be something to get carried away with and the boy be declared a hero.
A regular schedule
In any continually successful cricketing nation, first-class cricket is never ignored and for good reason - it gives a player some grounding in higher-level cricket, prepares him for quality opposition and settles the nerves.
There hasn't been a regular schedule for India A but the last couple of tours have presented a sorry picture. The tour to Abu Dhabi a couple of years ago had India A playing A sides from Namibia, Holland and Pakistan. Needless to say, the matches against Pakistan were the only ones of any significance.
The second tour was a much better one in terms of the opposition and the hosts. India A toured Australia , where they played a quadrangular involving A sides from Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan but even there, they got it wrong, conceptually.
For the sake of giving everyone an opportunity, no one really played the entire series which meant that there was no outstanding performer or a find of the tour. Everyone returned with a couple of half-centuries, maybe an odd ton and a few wickets.
Another major problem that plagues the India A structure is that there's invariably some kind of guideline in place for every tour to promote a certain player/s. Since there's rarely proper media coverage or scrutiny (this time should be the aberration and hopefully, this group of selectors is taking it seriously), it's generally easy to get away with it.
For the concept to be a success, post the identifying of a pool, there has to be some consistency in the frequency of good A tours and in the team selection. Like Lanka, the team should logically consist of a healthy mix of players looking for a recall to the India side and the under-25s waiting in the wings.
An India A side should really boast of three openers, four middle order bats, a couple of keepers and so on who can be invested in/stuck with, so that at any given moment, someone in the senior squad can have a ready replacement. A regular coach will also help. But as the India seniors themselves do not have one, this might be somewhat difficult.