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Where do the domestic toilers — with no IPL contract — go from here?

Last updated on 26 Jun 2023 | 08:28 AM
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Where do the domestic toilers — with no IPL contract — go from here?

The current selection process is partial and unjust, because the red-ball specialists don’t have the same opportunities as multi-format players

Having played a grand total of 87 first-class matches, Abhimanyu Easwaran is no stranger to those ‘all risk, no reward’ passages of play as a batter. 

An ‘all risk, no reward’ situation in red-ball cricket is when, as an opener, you start your innings with 20-odd minutes left in the day, meaning you have about 5-6 overs to negotiate. It is all risk, no reward because you can neither score big nor get set, but you can sure damn well lose your wicket. 

And even if you end up surviving, it is not a ‘win’ because you’ll have to come back the next day and start from scratch. Really, it is 20 minutes of hell, because there is absolutely nothing to gain.

Easwaran, in his career, has been at the heart of these situations many a time. Yet, he’s about to step into the biggest ‘everything to lose, nothing to gain’ situation of his career: Duleep Trophy 2023.

He stands to gain nothing by scoring big. In the years gone by, an India call-up would have been there for the taking but that is no longer the case, evident by the lack of importance given to first-class runs by the national selectors.

But he has everything to lose. He cannot afford to fail, for then the failure will be used as a stick to beat him with and disregard his achievements. Should Easwaran, by chance, end up having a ‘not-so-good’ Duleep Trophy, chances are that he’ll completely fall off the selectors’ radar. 

That he averaged 62.9 in 20 first-class matches between January 1, 2022 and March 1, 2023 won’t matter. That he averaged 82.33 for India ‘A’ in this period won’t matter. That he scored a 154 in the Irani Cup against Madhya Pradesh won’t matter either. 

He’ll be conveniently shunned, the justification being, ‘he hurt his chances by failing in the Duleep Trophy’. 

This is the unfortunate reality for the red-ball specialists in the country, who have no margin for error.  Because ultimately, the selectors are looking at the tiniest of opportunities to pounce, to have a ‘valid reason’ to shoehorn a flashier, IPL-molded batter into the Test side at the expense of a domestic grinder due to the latter’s ‘potential’. Good luck trying to stay relevant if you’re not perfect.

The problem here, though, is not about selecting players based on potential. It is not about using the IPL as a mean to judge the ability and skill levels of a player. It is about equal opportunity; or, in other words, ‘fairness’.

Ruturaj Gaikwad and Ishan Kishan have both been selected for the Test side based on their potential, which is fine. Neither player has groundbreaking numbers at the first-class level — Gaikwad averages 42.19; Kishan averages 38.76 — but have been picked based on the ‘eye test’. 

The selectors believe both individuals have the tools to succeed at the highest level, based on what they’ve seen of them in the IPL (for example, being comfortable with high pace against world-class bowlers). 

Which is not bad at all. There should always be room for intuition-based picks, for everyone can then be a selector/scout if numbers were all that mattered.

The problem here is that those toiling in the domestic circuit, unlike the Gaikwads and Kishans of this world, do not have the platform to showcase that they, too, can fare well against world-class bowlers. Which is why the whole selection process becomes unfair.

You’ve picked Gaikwad in the Test side because he’s shown he can handle bowlers like Nortje and Hazlewood well, GREAT. 

But, at the same time, how can you be sure that an Easwaran would not have fared better against the same bowlers? Ignoring players like Easwaran — red-ball specialists — completely because you’ve not seen them go toe-to-toe against world-class bowlers (in white ball cricket) is preposterous because they’ve not even had the opportunity to test themselves against the best.

It is also equally preposterous to judge the technical ability of a red-ball behemoth like Sarfaraz based on what you’ve seen of him in the IPL. Leaving out Sarfaraz from the Test squad because he looked dodgy versus the short-ball in the IPL is a comical justification. Because, firstly, the formats are different. If white-ball ability equalled red-ball proficiency then a batter like Rassie van Der Dussen, who averages 60.58 in ODI cricket, won’t be averaging 30 at the Test level.

Secondly, so what if Sarfaraz is uncomfortable against the short-ball? Test cricket is all about how you can maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. If being dodgy against the short ball is a fatal weakness like the selectors — and some experts — are making it out to be, then Travis Head shouldn’t be playing Test cricket at all. But he is, and he’s averaging 46.57.

Fine, if the Indian selectors are so hesitant about picking batters who are uncomfortable against the short ball, then why, exactly, is Shreyas Iyer playing Test cricket again? 

It just feels that the goalpost is conveniently moved when it comes to red-ball specialists. Every red-ball specialist in the country, it feels, needs to be beyond perfect to dream of a Test call-up, which is unfair and absurd.

As things stand, it is a pretty bad time to be a red-ball specialist in India — batter — dreaming of a national call-up because you don’t have the same opportunities that the multi-format players do, but there is a realistic fix to this.

The fix is that you ramp-up away India ‘A’ tours outside the subcontinent and ensure that a select group of players — the best performers in the domestic circuit — get to play on spicy wickets against very good bowlers. Chances are that they still won’t be up against world-class performers, but the quality of bowling they’ll face will still be significantly higher than what they come up against back home. Needless to say, the conditions will be far trickier as well.

Prior to the pandemic, the BCCI was thumping its chest about the ‘A’ programme and shadow tours, but since March 2020, India ‘A’ has played just one series outside the subcontinent, against South Africa ‘A’ back in November 2021.

Judging the red-ball specialists after they start playing regularly outside the subcontinent against quality attacks will be fair. 

Until then, the selection process for Test cricket will continue to be partial and unjust.  

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