Cricket selectors on trial as World Cup gets underway

The 'wise men' will be hailed or pilloried according to how their teams perform at one-day cricket's flagship event in the subcontinent.

Kris Srikkanth, the Indian cricket selector, will wait and watch anxiously as four of India's top players recover from injury after being selected in the 15-man World Cup squad.
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Spotlight on decision makers worldwide to see if they got team combinations right for World Cup.

You really do not want to be a selector in the month leading up to the cricket World Cup. Often, the heckling starts long before a 15-man squad is announced.

In December 2002, when Steve Waugh was left out of Australia's preliminary 30-man list, some reactions made you wonder if Trevor Hohns and his panel had killed Bambi. Waugh was captain of the 1999 team that had claimed the trophy after losing their first two games.

He was also a legend who had played one of the great one-day innings, 120 against South Africa in a Super-Six game that Australia had to win to stay in contention.

The man who replaced him in the middle order had no claims to greatness. But in Australia's opening game against Pakistan - their preparation having been devastated by Shane Warne failing a drugs test and flying home - it was a belligerent century from Andrew Symonds that rescued them and laid the platform for an unbeaten campaign.

Symonds went on to establish himself as one of the greats of the 50-over arena, claiming another winners' medal in 2007 before his maverick ways irked the new selection panel enough for them to drop him.

This week, the shooting-Bambi uproar has been seen in Norail and other parts of Bangladesh after Mashrafe Mortaza, the fast bowler who hurt himself during a domestic game in December, was left out of the 15 to contest the World Cup on home soil.

A strike was called and slogans chanted by irate fans. Mortaza himself merely wept, saying that he understood why the team management could not take a chance on him regaining fitness in time for the February 19 start.

For an outsider, the excessive emotion might have seemed illogical. But for a young cricket nation that first played in the World Cup in 1999, Mortaza is an iconic figure, the bowling hero when India were routed in Trinidad four years ago. It is also hard not to feel for a man whose whole-hearted endeavour has been stymied by one knee injury after another.

In Sri Lanka, the voices of dissension were muted. The sentimental might have wished Sanath Jayasuriya and Chaminda Vaas one final crack at World Cup glory, but the pragmatists know that both were past their best.

Jayasuriya is now 41 and a game that was built almost entirely around quickness of eye and hand has disintegrated to such an extent that he did not even attract a bid at the recent Indian Premier League auction. Vaas, who turns 37 this week, has 400 one-day wickets but has lost so much pace that he would offer only hitting practice if not given the new ball. With the selectors keeping faith in Lasith Malinga and Nuwan Kulasekara, that was never going to happen.

Pakistan have picked the best squad given their constraints. The two best bowlers in the land, Mohammad Aamer and Mohammad Asif, currently await the verdict from the spot-fixing hearing held in Qatar earlier this month.

Shoaib Malik has clearly been tagged a bad apple, and the chances are that Salman Butt, who was also questioned in Qatar after British police found a huge amount cash in his hotel room, will have to wait a long time for his next cap.

The delay in announcing a verdict in Qatar ensured that Pakistan could not pick either Asif or Aamer. In the unlikely event that both are acquitted, it will be interesting to see how the International Cricket Council deals with the legal fallout.

And what of the other co-hosts, India? There were no surprises when the squad was announced, except for Piyush Chawla being selected as a third specialist spinner. Given how India's pace bowlers have been less than robust in recent times, going in with just four of them is a big gamble.

There is also a big injury cloud hovering overhead. Sachin Tendulkar played two games in South Africa before flying home with a hamstring problem.

Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, the others in India's first-choice top three, did not play a game.

Praveen Kumar, who would share the new ball with Zaheer Khan if conditions were conducive to swing, is also nursing an injury, while MS Dhoni, the captain with the grotesquely misshapen fingers, has grown used to playing with pain.

The format means that India can afford to rest some players against Ireland and the Netherlands, but they will need to field their strongest side in the other games to emerge from what is clearly the more challenging group.

Several of their batsmen, with the exception of the impressive Virat Kohli, have been exposed in South African conditions, but should be back in their element on the subcontinent. The only selection headache surrounds the sixth specialist batsman.Before the South Africa tour, Suresh Raina and Yusuf Pathan would have been favoured to come in either side of Dhoni at No 6.

But with Yuvraj Singh providing a valuable wicket-taking bowling option, and Kohli in such superb form, Pathan, who scored 105 in the one-day defeat to South Africa in Centurion yesterday, might have to make way.

Raina is in poor form, but has two consistent years to fall back on. Pathan can be devastating, but his frailty against the short ball will be blood in the water for fast-bowling sharks. He is likely to be used as an impact player on placid pitches.

In a region that loves its effigies, pity the selectors who get it wrong.