The reaction to India's squad selection for the World Cup has been quite muted - a testimony in my view to the well articulated selection process and the fact that the selection has taken place with the team management and the selection committee ending up on the same page as the World Cup has approached. That this has been possible with the Dravid-Chappell-Tendulkar/Sehwag management with two seperate selection committees (More and now Vengsarkar) is significant.
Selection is one of the most fascinating aspects of sport, more so in cricket, where the selection committee wields enormous power, unlike a sport like football or rugby, where the coach is all powerful and selects the squad. There has been tremendous debate in India about the "honorary" nature of the selection committee. Several new age global citizens of varying vintage demand accountability and professionalism from selectors, and want them to have a full time paid job (the subtext being that someone will have the power to sack them if they don't like the way the job is being performed - the classic definition of accountability in the corporate world). The election process of BCCI is more powerful than people imagine and has come to the rescue consistently over the past 8-10 years. The practice of zonal selectors is an excellent one and the ridiculously reductionist notion that it propogates "quota" selections can be dispelled simply by taking a piece of paper drawing 5 columns on it - one for each of the 5 zones and listing the players from each zone for each squad selected to represent India over the last 10-12 years.
In the matter of selection, i come down squarely in favor of the selectors. I think they do an extremely difficult, thankless job very well. I have been having an interesting discussion with Homer about the selection process and he describes two distinct criteria which seem to have guided selection to the national squad in recent times. The following is a quote from Homer's comment at the end of his post.
1. One approach would be to identify a group of people, with identified strengths and weaknesses, and then tailor the process around them so as to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. (This is referred to as the personality based selection criterion)
2 .Another approach is to have the process itself sacrosanct and to mold the people associated with the process to meet the requirements of the process. And in doing so, people are picked or discarded on how best they facilitate the smooth implementation of the process and add value to it. (This is referred to as the process based selection criterion)
The first is a process focus while the second is a personality focus. I would argue here that both points of view have to be, and are adopted by selectors and one does not negate or contravene the other. If you look around the world, the most successful talents to have been selected successfully into international teams in recent years (this has possibly always been true but i don't know enough to make the broad generalized claim), have all had glaring technical flaws if viewed classically, have invariably been unorthodox and have many a times not had extraordinary success at domestic level before they got selected. I would point to Irfan Pathan, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Virendra Sehwag (he did enjoy plenty of success at domestic level though), Marcus Trescothick, Chris Gayle, Hershelle Gibbs, Lasith Malinga, Mahendra Dhoni, Michael Vaughan - have all been selected on faith, inspite of the existence of one of more obvious weaknesses. At the same time, there have been instances of players who look perfect not going on to make it - such as Mark Ramprakash or Greame Hick.
Selection is inevitably risky because it involves making final judgements about human beings. Therefore, on occasion, players will be selected on faith on other occasions, they will be dropped on faith. The dropping of Ganguly and Zaheer was an example of the second approach explained above.
The dilemma and difficulty of analyzing selection in cricket is greater because Cricket, even though it is a team sport, is for all intents and purposes an individual sport in disguise. Plays are made by individual batsmen facing individual bowlers. Most criticism of selection policy ignores important realities. For example, if you think about it, the following practical criteria would seem to have been absolutely crucial when it came to selecting the Indian squad for the world cup.
1. The limitation of being able to pick only 15 players.
2. The requirement of having at least one spare batsman, spare fast bowler and spare spinner.
3. The requirement of enabling the team management to select an eleven with 5 specialist bowlers or one with 6 specialist batsmen (which in effect dictated that Sehwag and Pathan had to be selected)
4. The availability of batting talent (only 2 of the top 15 run scorers in this years elite Ranji Trophy division were realistically in line for India selection)
5. The availability of bowling talent
If we are to be fair, then any criticism directed at the selection committee must have already considered all of the above factors. Over and above this, there needs to be some basic courtesy which ought to be extended to the team management and the selection committee, given the nature of the job. To be fair though, reaction to this selection has been very fair by and large. One major issue though, which one hears and reads very often, is this notion that selectors "reward" players by selecting them and "punish" players by dropping them. In that sense, selection is very much a process which adheres to the 'process' criterion. The non-selection of Ramesh Powar being a case in point. It is not reflection on Powar that he wasn't selected. You could make the case that Powar might have been preferred ahead of the great Anil Kumble, but equally convincing arguments could be made in Kumble's favor - a particularly persuasive one being that Kumble is likely to play only on absolutely helpful surfaces, because he will play as the second specialist spinner only.
Selection then is a difficult job. It commands decency and courtesy on the part of the observer. It is inherently political and can never be an absolutely rational process, any more that wagering can be an absolute scientific certainty. If you look around the world - the Australians have selected a squad with Lee, Clarke, Ponting and Symonds all out injured right now. South Africa have embraced their own brand of affirmative action and go into the world cup as the side ranked number 1 in the world. England have selected their squad on a prayer with nothing much in terms of performance to go on in recent times. The West Indians have selected a squad with a debutant and another player with a potentially career ending bookie investigation hanging over his head.
All this just goes to show that selection is fraught with risk. Stereotypes about "aggression" and "committment" and "killer instinct" and "professionalism" and that much abused word - "accountability" inform most of the criticism which selectors and the team face. And if viewed carefully, most of the criticism is ill-conceived. I suppose these are some of the perils of playing God. "You go and represent a billion people in the world's biggest cricket tournament, because me and my colleagues think you are the best available person for the job" - saying that to a 23 year old with little first class experience is as difficult as saying it to a 34 year old with well known technical weaknesses and a history of poor fitness. The Selectors seem to play God - but their real job is to place their trust and the trust of their employers and supporters in individuals.
And that is how it must be seen.....