Why India need to ditch archaic approach to selection and take a leaf out of IPL playbook

Heads were expected to roll after the conclusion of the 2022 T20 World Cup as India’s wait for an ICC Trophy stretched for another year and, expectedly, the selection panel headed by Chetan Sharma became the first casualty as the BCCI sacked the entire committee earlier this week and invited fresh applications. During Sharma’s tenure as the chairman, India had disappointing outings in two T20 World Cups and the period saw some debatable decisions. Not to forget how the entire Virat Kohli captaincy episode unfolded. The next two years are very important white-ball years for the Indian cricket team with the 50-over and T20 World Cups and a lot of changes are expected to happen to meet the demands of the two formats, especially T20.

For years now, IPL has served as a feeder system to the Indian cricket team as the world’s premier T20 league not only allows the players to showcase their talent on the big stage – against and with top players from around the world – but also puts Indian youngsters in the spotlight. The tournament, however, follows a very different approach from the Indian cricket setup and the biggest difference is the way squads/teams are put together in the T20 league. Yes, there are auctions which take place, but the year-long activity of scouting and identifying the right people for the right job is something from the Indian cricket board that can draw some inspiration. It’s high time the T20 format is looked at from a different perspective, ditching the old-school approach, which frankly seems quite outdated.

Chetan Sharma-led national selection committee was sacked after India failed to win 2021 and 2022 T20 World Cups. Image: ANI

State-fed model

The Indian selectors mostly operate on the state-fed model where players are picked on the basis of their performances in the domestic competitions – Ranji Trophy, Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and Vijay Hazare Trophy. However, a good show in the domestic circuit doesn’t always guarantee a national call-up and the IPL show certainly adds a major catalyst. But on most occasions, it’s these competitions which are the reference point for national selectors and a solid IPL show can certainly fast-track the journey. Most on-site visits are around these games and various selectors are spotted in the stands when these fixtures are underway.

IPL, however, is different

IPL teams follow a much more comprehensive approach and player scouting is a year-long activity. After speaking to a lot of franchises, it’s clear that the scouts never rest. The senior age group is where the scouting begins and most IPL scouts could be found on the sidelines of these competitions. Mumbai Indians, for instance, have a network featuring plenty of former, and a lot of recently retired, cricketers, to spot the right people for the right job.

Don’t be surprised if you see a John Wright baking under the sun during a Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy fixture or a Parthiv Patel making the trip to Jhajjhar to watch a Men’s U-25 fixture between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. For Mumbai, it’s being the quiet spectator at competitive games and then inviting the shortlisted players to their training facilities for a 7-10 day hit. MI were the first team to go scouting in the age-group fixtures and it helped them wider the search and player pool. Even the camps at their training facilities are not meant to be mere trials. They treat it as an opportunity for the franchise to work closely with the players they see potential in. And once they identify you, they groom you and back you.

Academies and the X-factor

While most teams are heavy on scouting, there are some like Delhi Capitals who are very academy driven. The franchise has tie-ups with a lot of clubs, in the capital city, and spot and nurture talent around the year. They even participate in pan-India tournaments, like the JP Atray Memorial, with their Development Squad and identify players who could take the next step in the scouting process. A team like Lucknow Supergiants, one of the two new teams to join the IPL this year, prefers to not keep a jumbo squad and for them, it’s more about finding the right people for the right job. Gautam Gambhir, just like he did with KKR, follows that X-factor approach and fills in the blanks when he spots the required skill set.

“Gautam has a set of his people who he trusts with information regarding players. But then he would personally watch the player, without the player’s knowledge of course, and then come to a conclusion of whether to invite him to the camp or not. If he’s not convinced, he would give his comprehensive feedback,” a source close to the former Indian cricketer tells us.

Gautam’s former IPL team KKR, however, follows a very scout-driven approach led by AR Srikkanth. Srikkanth also performs that role for other teams of the group, and foreign scouting falls in place with his involvement in different leagues. Plus, the advantage of Srikkanth’s previous stints with various teams and set-ups, only helps KKR create a strong database. At the local and domestic levels, it’s Abhishek Nayar’s inputs which come in handy for the team.

Camps, simulations and trials

Unlike the state association trials, which are mostly jumbo in nature, IPL teams prefer a very format-driven approach and the camps/trials are dominated by match simulations. An opening batsman, identified by the scouts, is given a certain target – say to score 50 in the first four overs with his partner. Similarly, a middle-order batsman’s ability to play against spin and rotate the strike comes into the picture. Again, the X-factor!

For bowlers, it’s about the holding job, variations and nailing yorkers at the death and the ability to make inroads with the new ball. Even when the players bat in pairs, their individual contributions and the manner in which they sync with their partners come into play. It’s not always that a player is picked on basis of one camp. There are some who have had numerous camps with various teams and an opportunity sometimes comes with the team they haven’t attended trials for. That’s the beauty of IPL and auctions.

Net bowlers and ready replacements

The concept of net bowlers came into play with the bio-bubble restrictions and teams, both IPL and national teams, preferred to carry jumbo squads to have both replacements and quality net sessions in check. Earlier, it was either the local state associations or the visiting country which would provide bowlers for net sessions.

COVID-19 changed the scenario here and both the franchises and the Indian cricket team wouldn’t complain. While the Dubai leg of IPL saw net bowlers getting picked midway through the tournament, even by the teams they weren’t travelling with, the Indian cricket team made use of this during the away Test series against Australia when ill-timed injuries made way for net bowlers in the Playing XI.

Lessons from the IPL

One thing is clear from the way franchises operate, it makes a lot of sense to treat the format like a different beast and very professionally. Unlike the fifty-over and Test format, T20 allows very little time to return in the game as momentum can swing in a space of few deliveries. So is the old-school selection approach featuring zonal selectors, with the criteria mentioned by the Indian cricket board, the way forward? Or can the board take cues from the way IPL machinery operates, independently, and put together a system in place which treats the form exclusively?

Revisiting the TRDO?

The last time the Indian cricket team took giant strides forward (winning the T20 World Cup and 50-over WC in space of four years and dominating Tests) and unearthed talent for the future was when the Indian cricket board initiated the TRDO (Talent Resource Development Officer’s) wing in the early 2000s. The system saw the likes of MS Dhoni, Ishant Sharma, Piyush Chawla and RP Singh arrive at the big stage and serve Indian cricket for a long time.

The brainchild of talent spotter and writer Makarand Waigankar, the system saw immediate and long-term results. If in place, what should the TRDO wing for T20s look like?

In a chat with Cricketnext.com, Waigankar listed a few points which must be followed to meet the demands of the format and the growing cricket ecosystem of India.

“Look at the number of games being played right now. So many matches are being played right now, in the 1000s. It’s very important to first use technology and have a strong database in place,” says Waigankar.

Will a T20-only TRDO help? “Yes, certainly,” says Waigankar. “Pick TRDOs from various zones and ensure a person from the zone is not operating in that. So the person from the North goes South, from the South, goes North and so on. Just get the bias out of the picture and then blood the talent when it’s ready. Do not waste crucial years of a player on the bench. I identified Sanju Samson for KKR when he was 14. Since then, how many games has he played for India? What’s the point then? Find the players, back them, and play them. Simple,” he adds.

Getting rid of the traditional approach

Selectors from each zone, one chairman and the same old drill are something which can be revisited to meet the demands of the T20 format especially. BCCI has invited applications for the new set of selectors and chairman and the criteria for applying are the same as the last time around. 1000s of applications are expected to reach the Indian cricket board’s inbox when the deadline ends on November 28.

“What is this, a corporate job application? More than 2000 applications are expected to reach BCCI’s inbox. Who is going to go through those? What’s the point of such a tedious process? This is a mockery of the entire process and the setup. Not needed at all. Either has the criteria revisited. So many people are going to meet these criteria. Just like it makes sense to have the different white ball and red ball captains, it’s important to have different selectors for both red and white ball format,” says Waigankar.

Mission 2024

Mission Melbourne was unaccomplished for Team India as their wait for an ICC trophy continued after the semi-final defeat in the 2022 edition. It remains to be seen what happens on the team and leadership front, but with selectors being the first set of changes, it’s important this crucial piece comes together before the blueprint for the 2024 edition is put in place.

After winning the title in the inaugural edition, India have reached the final only once – in the 2014 edition – and India would want to change things around as they hit the road to the 2024 edition which will be jointly hosted by the United States and the West Indies.

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