Sandeep Patil has always been his own man – unconventional, unorthodox, colourful but seldom controversial.
If he hasn’t been larger-than-life, it’s because his cricketing accomplishments on the world stage weren’t exactly overwhelming. In 29 Tests, he made 1588 runs at just under 37; 45 One-Day Internationals brought him 1005 runs at a modest average of 24.51. For all his enormous talent, Patil was something of an underachiever at the global level, perhaps because he didn’t quite have the bloody-mindedness required to be an unqualified success.
Patil, however, left no one in any doubt about his determination, or his penchant to take the fight to the opposition. He was a naturally attacking batsman – a veritable powerhouse who muscled the ball with unrestrained abandon and whose best innings came away from home, on surfaces with some pace and no little bounce.
One Test after being felled by a Len Pascoe bouncer, Patil displayed courage, character and conviction with a spectacular 174 in Adelaide, his highest Test score and a master class in attacking batsmanship. That was in 1980-81. A couple of seasons later, he smashed Bob Willis for six fours in a seven-ball over, and then played a significant role in India’s triumph at the 1983 World Cup.
It was a bit of a shame that his Test career ended in controversy. Patil was the pawn in the power struggle that has so often threatened to pull the plug on Indian cricket, sacrificed for playing a poor shot in the Delhi Test against England in 1984. Kapil Dev too was axed for a similar misdemeanour in the same Test, as England went on to complete their last series triumph on Indian soil. He didn’t play a single Test thereafter, but thankfully, he hasn’t been lost to Indian cricket.
Patil was a surprise choice as a national selector – not because he didn’t have the credentials but because in the run-up to the revamping of the panel last month, his name hardly cropped up. Once he was inducted into the committee and Mohinder Amarnath was replaced by Vikram Rathour, Patil’s seniority automatically catapulted him to the chairman’s post.
It took Patil just one meeting of the new selection committee to establish his authority, and to reiterate that even while being a part of the establishment, he will stick to unconventional methods. To not pick a single specialist spinner in a 14-man India ‘A’ squad to play England in a warm-up game is a brave, bold and unprecedented call. The idea might or might not have germinated elsewhere in the selection panel, but just as a captain is eulogised in victory and castigated in defeat, every single decision of the selectors, however concerted or diverse it might be, is eventually attributed to the chairman.
It would have been easy for Patil and his team – Rathour, Roger Binny and Saba Karim, all former Test players, and Rajinder Singh Hans – to play it safe, stick to the beaten path and pick a team that went along expected lines and didn’t ruffle feathers, especially given that it was their first selectorial adventure. In having defied traditional thinking, Patil’s panel has sent out a strong signal and raised the level of expectation among the cricket fans.
England, it must be acknowledged, haven’t made a huge fuss over the fact that they have been denied exposure to spin of a reasonable quality in their first practice match in India. Yes, there have been a few rumblings from former players, but that is only to be expected from some that cling to the mistaken notion that the sun will never set on the empire. The national team, currently training in Dubai and just about putting the Kevin Pietersen saga behind it, has steered clear of making any comment on the no-spin situation.
It is, after all, India’s prerogative to decide what team they want to put out. How would Messrs Lloyd and Vaughan react if India were to object to the absence of Monty Panesar and Ravi Bopara, say, from the England squad? Or the presence of Stuart Broad and James Anderson? Or indeed if India’s selectors were to leave out Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan and R Ashwin from the squad for the first Test? Would it still be ‘pathetic’? And against the ‘spirit of the game’?
So caught up has everyone been with the lack of specialist spin resources in the India ‘A’ squad that an apparent straight fight for No. 6 spot in the Test XI hasn’t quite grabbed the eyeballs. By naming both Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh in the squad – and it’s a cinch that both will play – Patil’s team has made it clear that there is nowhere to hide, and that it won’t be averse to taking tough decisions. Raina is the incumbent, Yuvraj has re-emerged as a serious challenger; by throwing both into the mix, there is a not-so-subtle message – ‘Your future lies in your own bats’.
Already, Patil and his panel have stirred the pot. Few would have expected them to be as proactive so early into their tenure, but the expectations that have been raised will have to tempered by the reality that this is the picking of an ‘A’ team, and that while it will generate a little bit of heat and interest – Rohit Sharma’s exclusion, for instance, hasn’t at been a talking point at all, which must be construed as an indication of growing maturity at all levels – all eyes will be on what course they adopt when it comes to the Test team.
There are problem areas galore, not least the recent unedifying Test form of Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Tendulkar. If not immediately, then not too far from now, these issues must be addressed if the celebrated trio don’t turn things around. For all the contributions of the previous panel – India’s ascension to the No. 1 Test ranking and their spectacular World Cup triumph last year – Krishnamachari Srikkanth and his co-selectors will be remembered for being the men in charge when India were drubbed 0-4 in successive away series in England and Australia. It’s not a legacy to be proud of. Patil and the other four wise men are intelligent enough to understand that well begun is no more than just half done, and that their legacy will revolve around how they respond to tough situations that are bound to crop up in the next five months or so.