One big plus of having Dilip Vengsarkar as the chairman of the selection panel is that he brings a lot of authority to the position because of his vast experience as a player and his performances in both Test and One-day cricket. Only Dilip could have taken the initiative to ensure that India got to play a two-day warm-up game when there was none scheduled, so that the fringe players as well as those out of form could get some action out in the middle. It may not have been against a top class opposition, but it was still a proper game of cricket, which is a lot better than endless sessions in the nets which can be counterproductive after a time.
That game against a KwaZulu Natal Invitational XI showed that there is an option available for the opening slot — Gautam Gambhir, who got a 79, and with the openers failing in the second Test too, Gambhir could well play in the third Test.
The bowlers also had a good workout, especially Munaf Patel and Irfan Pathan, and it was at the conclusion of that game that Dilip took another big decision, of sending Irfan back to play in the Ranji Trophy and try and recapture the rhythm that made him such a promising cricketer, made him the ICC's most promising cricketer last year.
For far too long have India allowed a squad of 15 to travel even in India when it is quite clear that there will be three who will not play in a Test or an ODI. The better option in such a scenario is to send the player back to play for his state team, for that will help him stay in form and have confidence, rather than having him sit in the dressing room doing nothing better than watching TV or just lazing about.
There is a school of thought that would have a player spend time in the dressing room so that he can learn something but that's more a myth than anything else, as international cricket is too tough a learning school and there is no apprenticeship that helps, as it may in other careers. There, realising that Irfan was wasting his time as he was not in serious consideration for the last two Tests, Dilip decided to have him go back and play Ranji cricket, rather than waste time getting frustrated on not being part of the action.
Why and how a player rated as the most promising youngster in international cricket by an ICC panel of experts has descended down to the level of being sent back to domestic cricket is a sad story and though the truth will never really come out, it is clear that the player is not the only one to be blamed. He has been messed about and that's why he is such a confused player at the moment. Sending him back will get him into a more amenable environment than is there for him in the dressing room at present.
He began the year with a hat-trick against Pakistan, that too in the first over of the Test match at Karachi, and now at the end of the year he is not even in the frame for selection to the Test side. That's a big fall and needs to be analysed at some stage as to how and why it has happened, if only to ensure that the lessons are learnt and it does not happen to another youngster in the future.
Irfan, on his first tour to Australia in 2003-04, had his jaw hanging open when he spotted his hero Wasim Akram at breakfast in the hotel where the team and the TV crew were staying, and he wasted no time in approaching the great man through another teammate to talk about swing bowling and all the tricks needed to get batsmen out. He was a terrific student too as he showed that he could put into practice what the master was telling him.
He also showed the initiative to develop new skills and new deliveries as he progressed through international cricket and that's what makes him such an exciting prospect for India. The ability to do things with the ball new or old sets him apart as a bowler to be watched at all times. There was no occasion when he did not seek Akram's counsel whenever and wherever they bumped into each other and that too was an aspect that made the master want to pass on more of his knowledge to him — so much so that some sections in Pakistan began to question the patriotism of Akram!
But in cricket there are no boundaries of countries and while it is never done to pass on information about your teammates or team, when it comes to helping a player become a better batsman or bowler, there is no reason to doubt anybody's patriotism. Even while he was in Zimbabwe, Irfan used to go to Akram, even though the opposition wasn't exactly Test class.
Then things changed. Not only was he shunted up and down the batting order in the name of flexibility, but the bio-mechanism of bowling was applied to his natural talent. The swing is gone now and thus the descent into Ranji cricket.
Akram once again expressed his willingness to talk to his favourite pupil, one in whom he takes great pride, but the statement from the Indian coach was, "We are grateful for Wasim’s offer of assistance. I spoke with him in Durban during the ODI series. Then I read of his interest in assisting Irfan and told him that I was happy for him to speak to Irfan as long as Irfan agreed. Irfan said he was happy to speak with Wasim away from match time. At the end of the ODI series, Wasim left South Africa, and has only just returned. So to my knowledge, no conversation has taken place. If any discussion is to take place, it will only be at a time and a place that suits Irfan.”
Irfan did not play in the first Test in Johannesburg so there was all the time in the world for him to talk to Akram.
Akram did not get a call from anyone in the team, even though the teams were staying in the same hotel as the TV crew. Irfan is back home in India. Was he stopped from talking to Akram or did he simply not have the time or place that suited him? Or the inclination?
A Happy New Year to all of you!