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cricket news: On the Charge Of Selection Errors

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After India lost at Perth, a truism about the current Indian side has emerged in the press and among observers on twitter. The charge against the India is that they are prone to picking the wrong team. From a distance, you can see the picture this charge is trying to paint. It suggests incompetence on the part of India's team management (specifically, the head coach Ravi Shastri, and the captain Virat Kohli). This sense is encapsulated by this observation which appeared on my timeline yesterday.

This, about one of the world's best cricket teams. One of the better presentations of the the India-are-prone-to-selection-errors argument is by Freddie Wilde for the cricket data company CricViz.

Selection is a matter of judgment. At any given point in time, in any Test team, more than one equally reasonable combination is always possible. Therefore, to lay a Test defeat at the door of the selection of one of two players in an XI is tenuous. Further, all fifteen (or however many) players selected to a squad are considered good enough to play in the XI. Therefore, it is little more than a shell game to ask "if X wasn't picked, why is X in the squad". The answer is obvious - the squad has more than 11 members and the team has only eleven spots.

At Perth, its fairly obvious that Umesh Yadav had a bad game. But this, by itself, does not show that India would have been better off picking a spinner in his place. Nathan Lyon has a lot of experience of bowling in Australia and is a very very good bowler. With more than 326 Test wickets in 81 Tests before the Perth Test, he could lay claim to being Australia's best ever Test off-spinner. Australia rarely drop him when he's available, no matter what the conditions. He has featured in 82 of the 86 Tests Australia have played since his Test debut. The options available to India were two spinners who have never bowled in Australia before. Nevertheless, Ravindra Jadeja is a terrific bowler and would have been a good option, even with an Australian line-up dominated by lefties. The six fast bowlers not named Umesh Yadav had an excellent game. Hanuma Vihari had to bowl for India because Umesh Yadav was struggling. Given how successful the fast bowlers were, it is very difficult to sustain the argument that picking Umesh Yadav instead of a spinner was a bad decision.

Umesh Yadav has bowled well at Perth in the past and took 5/93 in a dismal Indian bowling effort here in 2012. He also took 10 wickets the last time he played for India. Umesh Yadav has never been one to keep the runs down. He either gets wickets or he goes for runs. With the other three Indian fast men demonstrating much improved control, India could have picked a 4th bowler who would offer them some added depth in their batting and keep the score under control, or they could have gone with the shock weapon - the seamer who might go for runs, but could have a spell worth two or three quick wickets.

We've considered the spin option. What of Bhuvneshwar Kumar? Kumar last played for India in South Africa in January. Since then, he has played a lot of limited overs cricket for India but has been injured and was ruled out of the England tour (where he might have enjoyed the conditions). Kumar's record is too good for him to be left out. It was worth taking him to Australia in the hope that he could play in the tour game. Everybody would be able to bowl and bat in the tour game, and everybody but Bhuvneshwar Kumar did, suggesting that he had not recovered by then. As Kohli indicated, Kumar had recovered to be available for selection, but didn't have any significant bowling under his belt. Wilde summarizes this situation as follows:
In the post-match press conference Kohli explained that Bhuvneshwar wasn’t picked because of a lack of first class cricket—he hasn’t played a first class match since the third Test in Johannesburg—but if that makes him un-selectable and with no first class matches scheduled during the series, then why is he in the squad at all? Either India got their team wrong or their squad wrong.
Except that Kohli didn't say that Bhuvneshwar was unselectable. Nor did he suggest it. If you listen to what Kohli says, his entire point was that it was a close decision and Umesh Yadav's form, together with the fact that Bhuvneshwar hadn't bowled much recently, meant that Umesh Yadav got the nod ahead of Bhuvneshwar.

India did misread the conditions at Lord's when they played two spinners. None of the other selection decisions - leaving out Rahane and Pujara in South Africa and England respectively - could be considered bad decisions. They were arguable decisions. In fact, none of the selection decisions

Selection is a favorite subject for observers and writers. Some have gone so far as to describe the selection choices of the current Indian side as "blunders" - careless, or stupid mistakes. This is a peculiar formulation. Consider what's happening here. Lay people are accusing Test players of careless, stupid selection! This is obviously the voice of disappointment. But it does not seem to be a particularly self-aware voice.

It is generally impossible to criticize selection seriously. By seriously, I mean, to make a good quality argument which justifies a claim to the effect that a particular selection was obviously bad. This is because there's always more than one reasonable combination available to a squad in any given Test. At Perth, India could have played Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Umesh Yadav or Ravindra Jadeja as their fourth bowler. All three would have been reasonable selections. Therefore, selecting any one of these cannot be considered an error.

Every India captain (and their team management) has shown a particular pattern to their selection. The selection has never been careless or random or stupid. Sourav Ganguly preferred to err on the side of batting depth. Rahul Dravid was more attacking, but he would hedge his bets. Kohli has shown a near monomaniacal preference for chasing twenty wickets. India have played five bowlers as a rule under Kohli, and he has seemed averse to picking bowlers for their ability with the bat. There appears to be little expectation that the bowlers should contribute with the bat. It is possible to consider this as being too attacking. But it is not a stupid idea. Nor is it arbitrary.

Even though I would prefer it if Kohli were to hedge his bets a little (I would have preferred it if India had played Ravindra Jadeja at Perth) and not attack so much, I can see that this is the way they want to play. The one thing about Kohli, both in the way he bats and in the way he sets up his team, is the total absence of any fear of losing. This is a quality to be admired in the captain of the Indian team. It is an anti-nationalistic approach which treats the game as a game - as a contest to be won, rather than as a proxy for some ridiculous "national pride". These are professional sportsmen and not warriors, and that's how it should be.

Anytime you hear criticism of selection choice, you can be sure of two things. First, it has no cricketing merit, and second, it is the voice of disappointment or resentment, not reason. Now, some of these resentments may even be justified. It is not in serious dispute that the way in which Anil Kumble was replaced by Ravi Shastri in 2017 was dubious. I wrote about it at the time (1, 2, 3). But even so, this does not justify bad arguments about selection.
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