MSK Prasad is in his first year as the chairman of the national selection panel, and has already overseen a very successful run by the national side. The former India wicketkeeper and his colleagues have worked in unison with the team management to facilitate India’s re-ascension to the No. 1 position in Tests, while also ensuring that the limited-overs formats have been given due attention with an eye on the 2019 World Cup in England.
Wisden India caught up with Prasad, who played six Tests and 17 One-Day Internationals between May 1998 and January 2000. The selector on tour spoke his mind on a wide range of topics, including succession plans for Indian cricket, and the future of Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh. Excerpts:
Can you talk us through the thinking behind a selector travelling with the team?
Fundamentally, I feel that people might think the role the selector plays when the team travels abroad is very limited. But it is always good to be with the team, to understand exactly what is happening. Things that we don’t see on television, there are plenty of other things that keep happening. More importantly, this gives confidence to both the team management and the selection committee. There should be some sort of unison of thoughts between both of them. On tour, we talk a lot with the team management. It may not be the same in India but while we are on tour, we have so much of time to talk to the team management and we are a part of the (process of picking the) playing XI also. We should appreciate the BCCI for having taken up this initiative. It hasn’t always been the case that a selector has travelled with the team, though even then, it was not as if we are all not in the same line of thinking. Also, when we select a player, we have certain things in mind. So if a selector is part of selecting the playing XI and part of the Indian team that travels abroad, there is continuity. There is every possibility that we tell the team management why a particular player has been selected and what it is that we are looking from him. Why a particular squad is picked, what is that we are looking for. That continuity is always there when a selector travels along with the team. The selector is a part of the tour selection committee that picks the playing XI. The tour selection panel basically comprises the manager, the coach, the captain and the travelling selector.
“Today, the system is so clear and more importantly so much of money has come in, maybe players are more secure with the contracts system we have, maybe with the IPL and the financial security it provides. Every player knows what he wants and where he is heading to and what the condition of his body is. Players are more assured and more confident than before.”
Without going into specifics, we have had instances of a senior player coming in as a replacement while a less experienced player has been picked in the original squad. How tempting will it be to pick the replacement in the playing XI, given his pedigree and his experience?
Again, it is up to the tour selection committee. The question here is about whether you make an emotional or a professional decision. To begin with, we have selected an individual in the original squad, and then an experienced player comes in as replacement for whatever reason. If we look at the emotional point of view, we might get carried away with the experienced pro, especially if he is in good form as well. But it is worth remembering that the experienced player didn’t go out of the team because he didn’t have the capacity, he went out because he lost form. But if you look at the continuity aspect, when the experienced player has gone out and a new player has been picked in the first place, he probably scores by a few points. It is a tricky situation, yes, but if you go by the professional decision that we are talking, then it is the first-choice selection that has the edge when it comes to figuring in the playing XI.
Speaking of which, players seem more confident these days about revealing the true extent of their injuries, like M Vijay did before this tour. That wasn’t always the case in days gone by…
Undoubtedly. Frankly speaking, after the Australia tour in 2000, I was bed-ridden for eight months and tried all sorts of treatment for my back. I couldn’t reveal even to my state secretary that I had a bad back; I couldn’t reveal it to the Indian board either. Everybody was wondering what was happening with me, but I didn’t have the guts to speak out. But today, the system is so clear and more importantly so much of money has come in, maybe players are more secure with the contracts system we have, maybe with the IPL and the financial security it provides. Every player knows what he wants and where he is heading to and what the condition of his body is. Players are more assured and more confident than before. Full marks to the IPL and the contracts system. The board has done a fantastic job in giving that security. That’s why you see in the last eight to ten years, the consistency of winning is more compared to the earlier days.
“Since we are doing really well, there is nothing wrong in trying out youngsters as well so that we can have a better succession chart, and the transition should also be smooth. Otherwise, what happens is what you see with some of the other countries. I don’t see that they had a clear-cut plan and vision for the future. Suddenly, there is a dearth of talent and that should not happen with us.”
How do you balance this consistency of winning, as you put it, with grooming youngsters for the future?
I always believe that even the sweetest water in the Ganga gets stagnant if it just stays there. A river has to flow and likewise, systems have to move on. But most important is the timing of it all. That is, when does the call have to be taken? Since we are doing really well, there is nothing wrong in trying out youngsters as well so that we can have a better succession chart, and the transition should also be smooth. Otherwise, what happens is what you see with some of the other countries. I don’t see that they had a clear-cut plan and vision for the future. Suddenly, there is a dearth of talent and that should not happen with us. Even in our organisations, there should be a clear-cut succession path and definitely we are working on that.
Especially given how obsessed we as a country are with results, can you compromise on today by planning for tomorrow?
This is where the ‘A’ tours are really helping us. From the last ‘A’ tour of Australia that we went on, Hardik Pandya is one of the best finds. We got a couple of other players as well, Kedar Jadhav, for instance. This is where the ‘A’ team plays a really good role for us. The moment a player does well on an ‘A’ tour, if you are trying to bring him into the senior team, he is able to adapt much better. And they are straightaway performing as well, like Hardik has done. I appreciate the work Rahul (Dravid, the junior coach) is doing at that level, at the ‘A’, junior and Under-19 levels. He is really preparing the boys brilliantly for the senior levels. According to me, we should have more India A tours; not just one, we should have a minimum of two-three tours every year so that there is a constant stream of supply to the main team.
How often do you interact with the junior selection committee, then, to get a sense of who to look out for?
We meet on and off but frankly speaking, it is not the junior committee with which we interact more. It is with Rahul, with the (Under-19) team management. We take a lot of inputs from Rahul, I keep taking to Rahul. At the same time, we talk to the team management as well. We have a mix of people from whom we take inputs. I do interact with Venkatesh Prasad (the junior selection chairman) but more so with Rahul. The role of the selection committee ends with selecting the team. So now it is up to Rahul to take these boys to the next level. Rahul is the guy who can give us more information about the guys for the future. We keep talking to him.
Over the last home season, your panel brought back people into Test cricket after six or seven years, but it also blooded a lot of youngsters. How do you decide when to do what?
We go slot by slot, if you really look at it. I was talking about the succession chart. If it is an opener, we have six-seven openers in mind. If it is an offspinner, what happens if (R) Ashwin gets injured – who’s the next in line? Whether it is Jayant Yadav or whoever it is. We have a clear succession plan for every slot. In case there is any lapse, you can always fall back on seniors who are tried and tested people. And we also give due importance to domestic performances – all those seniors who have done really well like Gautam Gambhir or Dinesh Karthik. Dinesh is the best example. He did extremely well in all three formats in domestic cricket, so we rewarded him with a place in the Champions Trophy. Whatever chances he got, he did well and even in the West Indies, he grabbed his opportunities. This is where the mix has to come in. You should know when to continue with the senior boys who are doing well, when to bring in the juniors and when to go back on to the super seniors who have done well. This is where we come really into the picture. I think we have done fairly well in mixing that part.
“I appreciate the work Rahul Dravid is doing at the ‘A’, junior and Under-19 levels. He is really preparing the boys brilliantly for the senior levels. According to me, we should have more India A tours; not just one, we should have a minimum of two-three tours every year so that there is a constant stream of supply to the main team.”
Players who are left out, guys like say Karun Nair or Parthiv Patel, who did well in their limited opportunities, do you talk to them? How important is it to keep the channels of communication active?
Being a student of management — I have done my Masters in Management – and with my experience I had as a director (of cricket at the Andhra Cricket Association) also, the one thing I am very aware of is that it is very important to have extremely clear channels of communication. All the misunderstandings, everything that happens, happens just because of the lack of proper communication. And if you see the example, we couldn’t pick Karun Nair and Parthiv Patel for this series. I spoke to Karun and explained why he is not there in this series and what it is that we are expecting of him for him to make a comeback. And at the same time, it was very tough to leave Parthiv out. Whatever chances he got, he played exceptionally well and did everything that was asked of him. But we had to tell him that this being such a short series, we didn’t have the luxury of having an additional wicketkeeper. And Colombo is just an hour’s flight from India, so in case something happens, he can always fly in. Maybe if we hadn’t communicated those things in that way, he would have had a hundred-and-one thoughts in his mind. He could have felt left out, unwanted, thinking maybe X, Y or Z was not in favour of him. So it is always good to speak to the player and let him know where he stands. I had spoken to Yuvraj Singh last year during the Ranji Trophy season and told him how important his role would be as a mentor-cum-player in the Champions Trophy. He did well in the chances that he got and even as a mentor, surprisingly he played that role too really well. From nowhere, we got in Gautam Gambhir. After six years, Abhinav Mukund has made a comeback. After eight years, Parthiv Patel has made a comeback; after so many years, Dinesh Karthik has made a comeback. So there is a channel that is taking care of this process and our selection committee is talking to these people and getting them ready, whether it is juniors or seniors. We give them those hints so that they are prepared mentally. Communication is a key to the success of any organisation or process. Lack of communication is the cause of all misunderstandings and all problems.
Was it tempting to pick Jasprit Bumrah, say, for this Sri Lanka Test series?
Bumrah is good but unfortunately, playing here is like playing in India, it is another Asian country. The question was whether you required that extra seamer or not. That’s the reason we picked Hardik Pandya ahead of Bumrah, because Hardik can add value to the team both with his batting and his fielding. So whether we really want a third seamer (in the playing XI) in Sri Lankan conditions is a point of debate, and if at all we want a third seamer, he should be an allrounder, that’s what we felt. Undoubtedly, Bumrah has done exceptionally well in the last year for sure. Last year in the Ranji Trophy, he did extremely well for Gujarat, won them the semifinal. Yes, Bumrah has the ability to play Test cricket. We will see what happens in future because we have enough away series coming up.
You have been part of a five-man panel, now you are the head of a three-man committee. How have the dynamics changed?
I may not be able to comment on that because it is still under consideration.
“The best thing that happened from our point of view was that the Champions Trophy was in England. That has really opened our mind in many aspects. We know what our real strengths are. Frankly speaking, our team did really well. There are a few shortcomings that we have noticed and maybe we will fix those shortcomings in the next 18 to 20 months that we have leading up to the World Cup.”
Coming to the limited-overs sides, the World Cup is a little less than two years away. Do you start to plan for it now itself?
Undoubtedly. The best thing that happened from our point of view was that the Champions Trophy was in England. That has really opened our mind in many aspects. We know what our real strengths are. Frankly speaking, our team did really well. There are a few shortcomings that we have noticed and maybe we will fix those shortcomings in the next 18 to 20 months that we have leading up to the World Cup. Whomever we have in mind, we will start giving them more opportunities so that they are mature enough by the time the World Cup comes around. In case we are picking a youngster, then he should be given due chances by the time he plays the World Cup.
India has always been an age-driven country. With both MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh already on the wrong side of 35, will they actively figure in your World Cup plans?
We will see, we need to talk on that. We will have to take a decision, let’s see how it goes. We all know who can add value. Again, we will go slot by slot. We should know when to take a call. It’s not that suddenly you take a call and you are nowhere. You can’t be totally unprepared, so we need to be balanced on that aspect.
The captain is obviously the boss on the field, but who is it that takes the final call in selection meetings if his view and that of the selection panel are not in sync?
At the end of the day, it is the selection committee’s decision that prevails. I know I will be lying if I said it (debates due to differing opinions) hasn’t happened at all because you should always have multitudes of opinion so that you can come up with a good solution. Fortunately, whatever the selection committee meetings that we have had, whether it is with Mahi or with Virat, finally when our discussions and arguments are in the right direction, both of them are very accommodative and they give real importance to the process. Not many people know that. They all think it is Mahi who selects the team, or it is Virat who selects the team. It doesn’t happen like that. Questions have been asked about whether we can impose our opinion on their superstar status. Frankly speaking, when they sit in the selection committee, they sit as a captain. They never come with any kind of baggage behind them. All the meetings we have had so far have been interesting meetings. They have always given importance and priority to the selection committee. The final call is always ours, the selectors take the final call. If that means that, at times, we have to overrule the points that are raised, then so be it.
A lot of us found it surprising that when he was the head coach, Anil Kumble didn’t sit in the selection meetings…
We always take the opinions of the coach prior to the selections. As chairman, I speak to the coach and take his opinion. In fact, the captain always brings along with him the opinion of the coach because the coach and the captain also speak to each other and discuss names before the meetings. Whoever is representing the team management, that person brings the opinion of both the coach and the captain, and with the best interests of the team at heart. I used to speak to Anil prior to any selection.