When Sunil Gavaskar took over as captain of the Indian cricket team in late 1978 from Bishan Singh Bedi, one of the first things that he announced to the cricketing world was his decision to inform a player who was dropped from the side the reasons for his removal.
Those were the days when there were no restrictions on the skipper meeting the press or writing columns and Gavaskar had made known his approach on the matter during one of his interactions with the media.
The significance of this action was not discussed much in the public arena except for some stray observations to the effect that such a move would be a decent gesture to the player concerned who would get to know about his axing from the captain rather than through news reports.
One does not know whether former Indian captain M A K Pataudi ever took the efforts to meet and explain to the axed players the reasons behind their removal. Erapalli Prasanna had complained that neither Ajit Wadekar, who was then leading the side, nor Hemu Adhikari, the manager, ever spoke to him when he found himself sidelined during the tour of England in 1971.
The first series that Gavaskar led the national side was the one played against Alvin Kallicharan's West Indies in 1978-79. It was during this series that two legends who had served the cause of Indian cricket very well - Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Bedi - were dropped from the team. It would not have been an easy decision for the selectors to remove these players from the squad, but it would have been far more difficult for Gavaskar to communicate this decision to them. Bedi was a former captain himself besides being one of the best exponents of the art of left-arm spin bowling. Both Gavaskar and Bedi had written about the manner in which the former went and explained to the latter the thinking that lay behind the decision of the selectors.
It is not on record whether Gavaskar continued with this practice during the entire duration of his captaincy. Neither he nor Kapil Dev have as yet opened up about the real reasons behind the dropping of India’s leading all-rounder from the squad during the series against England in 1984-85.
Curious case of Karun Nair
Communication among the players, team management and selectors has received media attention of late after Karun Nair was reported saying that he was not told by anyone why he was not part of the national side playing the West Indies in the ongoing series. Nair was in the squad that toured England this summer, but could not play in any one of the Test matches. He was forced to remain in the list of reserves despite a slot opening up in the middle order, for which the tour selection committee decided to draft in Hanuma Vihari who was not part of the original squad but was flown in subsequently.
It would have been extremely distressing and disheartening for this youngster, who has a Test triple century to his credit, to warm the benches for the entire duration of the tour. One would have expected either skipper Virat Kohli or coach Ravi Shastri to spend some time with him to explain why he was not a part of the team’s plans and what he should do to get a place in the playing eleven. Unfortunately neither of them chose to do so nor did M S K Prasad, the chief selector, and his colleagues in the committee, found it important to talk to the player when they decided not to include him in the side for the West Indies series. It was a bewildered and dismayed Nair who told the world that nobody had spoken to him about the reasons for being removed from the side.
Close on the heels of Nair’s words came the statement of Murli Vijay, who was sent back after failing in the first two Tests in England, that neither the team management nor the selectors had spoken to him either. Vijay’s case is different from that of Nair since he got opportunity to play in Test matches and was dropped based on poor performance with the bat. While one could understand that the team management possesses the authority to exclude cricketers who are not pulling their weight from the playing eleven, what shocked one was the decision to send him back to India when the tour was in progress. There cannot be two opinions about the propriety of sending back a player during the middle of a tour as it is well known that a public censure of this magnitude can be devastating for the individual. If Vijay was in such bad form or did not possess the technique required for playing in conditions prevailing in England, he should not have been chosen in the first place. But once selected, he should have been allowed to continue with the squad till the tour was over. And if Vijay was not to spoken to either by the selectors or the captain-coach duo, one can understand the angst that he would have felt as he boarded the flight back to India.
Why is this process of talking to players important? Gone are those days when cricketers used to be amateurs who played the game for the love of it. Players these days are professionals who have sacrificed everything else in life to move their cricketing career forwards. For every cricketer who dons the India cap there would be thousands who would have put in similar amount of effort but could not make the grade due to various reasons, which would range from sheer bad luck to absence of Godfathers to lack of mental strength and temperament required for making it to the highest level. A cricketer who regularly plays first class cricket in India would have started serious cricket by the time he was in class 8 leaving him little time to pursue his academic aspirations. When someone has invested so much in the sport it is only natural that his expectations would be high. Each failure adds to the pressure and absence of a guiding hand can play havoc with the career aspirations of a youngster.
It is the responsibility of the senior players and the team management comprising captain, coach and support staff to mentor young players and guide them in the right direction. The initial phase of a player’s career is the time he is plagued with doubts, apprehensions and insecurities and a good and considerate captain and coach can go a long way towards helping a cricketer find his feet in the new surroundings. Similarly if the youngster is not pulling his weight or is not focussing enough on the game the team management should not hesitate to rap him on his knuckles. Players and the team management should trust and instill confidence in each other and this should be backed up by effective communication at all levels.
In countries like Australia and England, at the beginning of every season, selectors discuss with the senior players their plans for that year as well as regarding the future. This type of communication helps both sides to know what is in the minds of the other and to plan for the future. The player would understand what the selectors are thinking about his prospects while the latter would get a clear picture of how much longer the former intends to continue playing the game. Unfortunately, we have not heard about such meetings taking place between selectors and senior players in India. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) should think in terms of making mandatory such discussions between the players and the selectors, not only at the national but also at the state level.
The only conclusion that one can arrive at after reading the media reports on the matter is that there exists a huge communication gap among the selectors, team management and the players. The BCCI has ensured that selectors are paid a hefty remuneration for the services rendered by them. Similarly the coach and his support staff also negotiate their terms and conditions. It is sad to note that when the BCCI treats selectors and coaches as professionals, the individuals who hold these posts do not display the expertise and rectitude that they are expected to bring to their jobs. One hopes that the Nair-Vijay saga forces the BCCI to awaken the selectors and team management from the deep slumber they have fallen into with regard to this vital aspect of communication with the players.
Shastri appears to have forgotten that when he came into the Indian side in 1981, Gavaskar, who was the skipper, had helped him settle down and find his groove within the team. As the coach of the national side, he is vested with the responsibility for ensuring that cricketers under his charge are in the best physical and mental fettle to give their best for the country. Shastri runs the risk of losing the respect of the cricket loving fraternity if he fails to do justice to his duty of mentoring the young players who break into the national squad.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)