MSK Prasad’s tenure as the chief national selector saw many highs. A nearly four-year tenure ended in March this year leaving behind a bench wider than any side has seen in their cricketing generation. He got down for a chat about his tenure and the WTC final.
Are you delighted that this Indian team has made it to the prestigious WTC final which is largely due to the last couple of years’ performance?
Prasad: There are no two ways about it. The amount of satisfaction and happiness you get from this (development). From the selection point of view, we did our best. We played our little part in helping this Indian team play the final of the World Test championship. This team thoroughly deserves it since they have been number one for the last four years. Now, I can’t wait to watch the final (on TV).
Do you sometimes feel a bit disappointed that because of you and your team’s (previous committee) low-profile nature, people don’t appreciate your contribution?
Prasad: You need to do what you are supposed to do. Our deeds are there to see. If seven superstars of the Indian team don’t play in an important match, seven youngsters step in their place (the Australian tour 2021) from India-A and win you the game, it is a big compliment for our hard work. Whether people believe it and speak about it or not is immaterial as long as results are there to see.
When you look back at your tenure, what was the most satisfying decision your team took?
Prasad: See, we are not gods where we can predict what is going to happen in the future. Over a period of time, we created a good selection system where we groomed certain players after having identified them from domestic cricket. The amount of bench strength we have created across formats is something we are really proud of.
Former chief selector Sandeep Patil took an unpopular decision when dealt with the Tendulkar retirement dilemma in 2013. Do you think, you faced a similar kind of situation while dealing with the Dhoni retirement question? Was that the toughest phase?
Prasad: During the course of your journey as a selector, you will have to take some tough decisions even against the legends of the game in the interest of the future of Indian cricket. Identifying the right successor is the most important job of a selector. You have to be dispassionate as a selector and can’t be emotional about taking tough decisions. And the reason for having a selection committee is to create successors. There can’t be another Dhoni or Sachin as they are very unique (players) and their contribution is invaluable and no one can question that.
How do you look at the evolution of someone like Rishabh Pant since your team gave him the breakthrough?
Prasad: That’s what we talk about succession. When we picked this guy (Pant), there was a lot of controversy. People said that he can’t bat in Test cricket and can’t keep in challenging wickets. So, what has happened today? See, how he kept wickets against England at home. And the way he batted in challenging batting conditions like England and Australia. The role of the selector is to identify the potential. Many people never believed that Pant would be so good.
There is a perception that the way selectors backed Pant, same cannot be said about the team management. What you have to say?
Prasad: When Pant came in, Wriddhiman Saha was the best keeper in the team. Initially, when we picked pant in the squad, Saha was the best keeper in the country purely because of his keeping skills. Later, we all accepted the fact that Pant will keep wickets in away series because your keeping skills are not tested much and batting skills become more important. With the stellar performances in Australia, Pant has convinced the team management that he needs to be backed even at home and immediately the way he kept wickets against England this year was there for all to see.
Can India include both Ashwin and Jadeja in the WTC final?
Prasad: Yes, I firmly believe that both spinners should play. If Hardik Pandya was available and conditions were helpful then I would have said go with it (just one spinner) otherwise you should start treating Jadeja as a batsman because he has been getting runs across formats. He is a complete package. It will be a big blunder if we even think of dropping Ashwin from the playing XI. I know that conditions are going to be different but the kind of experience he has, with the kind of form he is in, all the five bowlers should play.
A difficult question for you now. If the team need to pick just one spinner, who has got the edge?
Prasad: Irrespective of the conditions, both should play. I have my own doubt that the teams will get a seaming wicket. ICC will give a sporting wicket because they too want a five-day match because the viewership across the globe will be better.
How do you see someone like Ajinkya Rahane’s position in this team? A very fine player but someone who is too inconsistent?
Prasad: I think he is too good a player to start with. Of course, he has gone through lots of ups and downs (of late) but whenever the team has been in trouble, he rises to the occasion. He has that potential. The graph is a little up and down but I don’t foresee any drastic decision being taken by team management. He will come back strongly. He is a wonderful team-man and everybody likes him a lot. Whenever Virat hasn’t played a big innings, this man has stepped up. We must not forget how he delivered as a captain and a player in Australia when many seniors were absent.
So, you are suggesting that someone like Rahane should never be judged purely on numbers that may not look as great?
Prasad: Yes. He is a proven player and his overseas record is far superior to many of the Indian players and maybe at home he has struggled a bit. We should not be putting unnecessary pressure on him.
Besides Rahane, do you think this is also a litmus test for Pujara as well since he too like Rahane averages below thirty in England?
Prasad: Again, We should not be putting unnecessary pressure on him. Someone like Rahane or Cheteshwar Pujara because they are true soldiers who have served Indian cricket wonderfully well for several years in the longer format. We should in fact back them. Such talents should never be sidelined as they are proven match-winners and complete players. Rahane is like a suicidal troop. He can go anywhere to bat for the team.
Contrastingly, on the other hand, Rohit Sharma has got great numbers in India but not abroad. In that context, do you feel that this is going to be the biggest challenge of his Test career for him on this England tour?
Prasad: After those five centuries in the 2019 World cup, we had a solid discussion with the team management and we identified a slot for him (as an opener). I know it was white-ball cricket but he adapted well and we thought why can’t he do the same in the red-ball format. Our middle order was sorted and packed so we wanted Rohit to come in the team and play and opening was the only position. For Rohit, the last Australian series was a mixed tour. It’s a great opportunity for him to make up for what he has lost (as a Test match player in his career). I remember VVS Laxman telling me in 2013 that he thought Rohit would step in his shoes and will replace him. That shows the kind of aura Rohit has and the kind of impact he had on his teammates. Batting in the month of April and May is tougher than June-July in England. He will be mostly playing in the second half of the summer and I feel he will set the tone for the series.
Your team nurtured and invested a lot in Hardik Pandya, India’s desperate need for an all-rounder in Test cricket. Do you suspect that his red-ball comeback is now tough?
Prasad: Apart from Ben Stokes there are not too many fast bowling all-rounders in world cricket and it does take a toll on everyone. Ever since the back surgery, Hardik is not the same bowler who took a five-wicket haul in Nottingham in 2018. I thought they (the current selectors) would pick him for the WTC final as he was being preserved for that (only). In this IPL, Hardik hardly bowled for his franchise and I thought they must have been told by the Indian team management considering his workload. And preserve him for WTC. It clearly shows that something is wrong with his bowling or the doctor may have advised that he can’t bowl much. And, if he can’t bowl ten or twelve overs in a day in Test matches, you can’t pick him purely as a batsman.
There was a perception that you were too humble in front of someone like Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli. People can’t imagine how you could win arguments against such aggressive professionals?
Prasad: You ask them what kind of arguments we had. Sometimes, we didn’t want to see each other (after meetings) but the beauty of them is that the next morning when we would meet they would recognize and acknowledge that there is (merit in the) point we made. I am a management student and know how to manage. People want me to blame someone publicly? Why should I do that because it is my family? I may like or dislike decisions even at home in my family but can I come out and say something publicly? Virat and Ravi will tell you about that (how we used to have heated debates). Just because we didn’t have differences publicly doesn’t mean that we were succumbing to them. Who knows how we have convinced them on so many issues.
Finally, do you think that the WTC final is Kohli’s ultimate test as a skipper? He doesn’t have a global trophy as yet in his CV?
Prasad: Undoubtedly, it’s a wonderful opportunity for Virat to get his first ICC trophy in his kitty. Team India did well in the 2017 Champions trophy and even in the 2019 ODI World cup where we played like a champion team until that one bad hour (in the semi-final against New Zealand). This year is going to be very important for Kohli. Everything will be forgotten if he wins the WTC final and the T20 world cup final this year.