Sports

The way things fit together is the essence of good selection

As India prepare for a Test match with possibly their least experienced middle-order ever, it might be worth looking at what constitutes good team selection.

Selectors are like wicketkeepers, remembered only when they make mistakes. Success or failure of their job is judged on whether the team wins or loses. In the former case, selections seem inevitable; in the latter, ill-advised.

As in life, however, you can do the right thing and get the wrong result (and vice versa). Theoretically, AI can select a team entirely by algorithm, but the process will lack important human qualities: imagination, creativity and unpredictability. Two of the most intelligent writers on the game have given us two fine notions of a cricket team, stressing its essential variety.

The great England captain Mike Brearley wrote in his classic on captaincy that “Unlike a rowing eight, a cricket eleven works only by dint of differentiation.” Expanding on the ‘Lego’ theory of selection, Ed Smith, former England player and selector, said in a recent book that “the way things fit together is at least as important as the pieces themselves.”

Not an exact science

Selection cannot be an exact science; there are too many variables from differing match conditions to untested mental abilities of the players. And luck, of course.

India go into the middle Test of an important series with just five players who are certainties: skipper Rohit Sharma, his opening partner Yashasvi Jaiswal, and Shubhman Gill at the top. Lower down the order Ravichandran Ashwin and Jasprit Bumrah. As I write this, Ravindra Jadeja hasn’t been declared fit to play while two wicketkeepers in the squad makes it seem like there is some uncertainty there too.

The idea of resting Bumrah (which might be a good idea for his IPL team, not so good for the national team) doesn’t make sense now.

Not everything is the selectors’ fault, of course. India are without their two best batters, Virat Kohli and K.L. Rahul. In the second half of the order the choice is less troubling. If Jadeja is fit, he bats at No. 6, leaving the two higher slots to Rajat Patidar, Devdutt Padikkal or Sarfaraz Khan who have played one Test among them.

The selectors’ reluctance to recall Cheteshwar Pujara, 36, is understandable given their process and its emphasis on looking forward. But this is the kind of unpredictable call that — however embarrassing to the selectors — would have been in the team interest.

Rajkot is Pujara’s home ground, he is in outstanding form and, as Ed Smith points out in his book, every good process needs a good anti-process. “That paradox,” he says, “is central to good decision-making.” It is for such choices that you do not outsource team selection to machines.

On the other hand, the youngsters picked for the middle order might be the success stories of the Test. But from this end of the event, a tried and tested player who is in form would be a choice both logical and unpredictable, a rare combination that says something about team selection.

After all, when England won the first Test, it was a debutant who made the difference while in the second, a 22-year-old scored a double century for India in an innings where no one else made 35.

I suspect choices in the IPL marry the two crucial elements, machine algorithm and human intuition, when making decisions. The ‘Lego’ effect is stronger in this format too. A team is more than merely the sum of its parts, it is the product of the interaction of these parts.

Unconventional

Some of these ideas have been taken on board by the national selectors, and Indian teams have done well as a result. But often the changes were forced on them owing to injury or players’ unavailability. And since that is what is happening now, the unconventional might carry the day.

The best selectors follow the football great Johan Cryuff’s dictum: “Choose the best player for every position, and you’ll end up not with a strong XI, but 11 strong 1s.”

It is the “way of fitting together” that is the essence of good selection. That is why a left-handed batter sometimes gets preference over a right-hander with a better record, or an unusual type of bowler is preferred over a traditional one. The unconventional is often the selectors’ calling card.

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