Why selection in India is not illogical or capricious, contrary to popular opinion

Like VVS Laxman, a significant number of Indian Test batsmen are picked because they look superior to their peers in domestic first-class cricket, before they have a stellar first-class record Getty Images

Selection is among the most difficult and essential parts of cricket. It is essential because elite cricket, be it international or franchise-based, is an exclusive contest in which only the very best can compete and from which others who are not as good must be excluded.

It is difficult for two reasons. First, it is strictly impossible for selectors to ever be correct. A correct answer implies that, beyond argument, all other answers are wrong, or that they are measurably incorrect in different ways. Second, selectorial decisions affect the professional lives of others.

The key feature of a game - which is an example of a "closed system", or one that is separated from the world at large - is that its rules are precisely known. For instance, chess is governed by a set of rules that are precise and complete. If you removed one of those rules, or added other rules, you would no longer have chess. At any given point in a chess game, the player whose turn it is has a finite number of possible moves that they can make. This set of possible moves is completely known. It is a very large set but finite; this is why computers can play chess.

So also, a game of cricket is not just governed but constituted by a set of Laws. Between them, these laws specify all possibilities in cricket. The laws governing closed systems, such as games, are arbitrary. There isn't a natural reason for why the rules governing chess or cricket are as they are - they are made up arbitrarily. Closed systems are impossible to achieve when the rules that are to govern them require justification. (Formally, this is due to a well-understood difficulty known as the problem of induction.)

The criteria chosen for selecting cricketers require justification. You could say, for example, that batting averages are relevant to selecting cricketers. But you cannot conclusively show, beyond argument, that they are the only relevant criterion, or, if they are one of the relevant criteria, exactly how relevant each of these criteria is. This is why any selection can be questioned reasonably.

Selection decisions cause more anxiety and resentment among cricket fans than any other aspect of the game. The competence and motives of selectors are routinely questioned. So much so that at one point the BCCI stopped holding press conferences where journalists could question selectors about the team that they had selected. As shown above, it's impossible to justify the selection of any player conclusively.

The only possible approach to any selection process is trial and error. Selectors have to assume that certain criteria are relevant, and exercise judgement - of different types. The type of judgement required to drop a player is not the same as that called upon when selecting a player. For one thing, in the former case, the team management's experience with the player is a criterion.

So how are Indian teams, and specifically batsmen, selected? Unlike, say, fast bowling, India has a rich tradition of producing top-quality batsmen, and a clear, fairly well settled pattern is evident in the way Indian batsmen are selected. In the rest of this article, I will try and reconstruct the logical sequence as it is evident from selections to the Indian limited-overs and Test batting teams.

The holy grail for selectors is the outstanding batting candidate. When a player is obviously better than other candidates, picking that player is an easy decision. For instance, consider a teenager who looks completely at home in the Ranji Trophy. Sachin Tendulkar was such a player. Recently, Prithvi Shaw has been such a player. Shaw, like Tendulkar, has so far been the outstanding player at every level at which he has competed. His Test debut was, unsurprisingly, a triumph. Whether he goes on to fulfil his promise remains to be seen, but the selectors have clearly identified him as an outstanding prospect.

Absent this type of clear superiority, the second type of player the selectors look for is the batsman who is clearly too good for the Ranji-Trophy level and looks like a potential Test player. This becomes evident from the speed and certainty of the player's run-making in first-class cricket over a period of time - not from one great season among a number of average seasons; it becomes evident from relentless run-scoring.

The great example of this was VVS Laxman, who made his first-class debut, for Hyderabad against Punjab in the 1992-93 season. It was the only game he played that season. His second Ranji Trophy match was in the 1993-94 season, against Kerala. He did not go past 21 runs in his first four first-class innings, yet he played for South Zone in the Duleep Trophy in the 1994-95 season. That year, the Duleep Trophy was played before the Ranji Trophy. After his Duleep Trophy debut, Laxman played the full season for Hyderabad and made two centuries and a 96. He made his Test debut when South Africa toured India in 1996-97.

Contrary to popular perception, Laxman was not picked in the Test team on the back of mountains of first-class runs. Rather, his early career suggests that he was rated as a potential India prospect very early on. As is the case in any reasonably good line-up, the most desired spots - numbers three, four and five - were not immediately available to him. He batted at six or as opener and did not score a Test hundred in his first 29 Test innings, which spanned seven Test series. His 30th Test innings was 167, in Sydney. However, in these years, he was making mountains of runs in domestic cricket. In 30 innings in the Ranji Trophy during the 1997-98, 1998-99 and 1999-00 seasons, Laxman made 13 centuries, including two triple-hundreds.

By the end of that 2000 season, he had a modest Test career. But he also had an outstanding domestic career. The traditional way to put this is to say that he made it impossible for the selectors to ignore him. He "broke the door down", as the saying goes. What he really did was to demonstrate that he was clearly too good for the Ranji Trophy level. He proved right the selectors at various levels who thought he was a potential Test player.

This is a classic pattern in the careers of most India players. Experienced, expert eyes identify that these players are potential Test-quality players. Typically, they demonstrate that they are too good for the Ranji Trophy.

The table below shows the first-class batting records (excluding Test cricket) of the most prolific batsmen in India. With a few exceptions all of them have had Test careers, and all of them have been repeatedly picked for India.

Beyond the obvious Test candidate, and the potential Test candidate, a third category exists, because it is not always possible to find the required number of players (the average Test squad has seven or eight batsmen) who fall into the first two categories. There are always two or three spots for which there are half a dozen or so equally strong candidates. This is where selection is at its most controversial, because this is where a choice has to be made among a number of more or less equal candidates. These candidates tend to be selected from the ranks of experienced Ranji Trophy campaigners. Alternatively, these candidates are selected based on form. These players also tend to be older than players in the first two categories.

In the last 50 years, 65 specialist batsmen (wicketkeepers and allrounders are excluded) have made their Test debuts for India, from Gundappa Viswanath in November 1969, to Mayank Agarwal in December 2018. The median number of first-class games played by these 65 batsmen before their Test debut is 37. The player quickest to make his Test debut in the last 50 years was Dilip Vengsarkar. He played his first first-class match at the start of the 1975-76 domestic season, and within three months had made his Test debut, against New Zealand. Yuvraj Singh and Karun Nair played 37 first-class matches each before making their Test debuts.

Of the 33 players who played at least 37 first-class matches prior to their Test debut, only 11 went on to score at least 1000 Test runs. Of the 33 players who played at most 37 first class matches each before making their Test debuts, 20 went on to score at least 1000 Test runs. The former list includes Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Shikhar Dhawan and Gautam Gambhir. Of these, Pujara and Rahane arguably had to wait longer than they otherwise might have in another era, due to India's exceptional Test-match middle order of the late 2000s.

Test batsmen in India are not selected purely because they score runs in the Ranji Trophy. Rather, the Ranji runs serve to confirm promise identified by expert eyes. All the successful Indian Test batsmen share a common trait. They are likely to be identified as international prospects quite early in their cricket careers. Their domestic record demonstrates that they are too good for domestic cricket and belong at a higher level.

When considered according to their age at Test debut, the most successful Test batsmen who played for India have been 23 or younger. Three-fourths of the 65 specialist batsmen who have made debuts for India in the last 50 years have done so before the age of 25. The remaining 25%, who debuted after their 25th birthdays, did not fare well in Test cricket, as the table below shows.

The availability of an opening in the batting line-up obviously plays a part. Between Laxman's debut in January 1996 and S Badrinath's in February 2010, only four batsmen debuted in India's middle orderv- Vijay Bharadwaj (October 1999), Hemang Badani (June 2001), Virender Sehwag (November 2001) and Yuvraj (October 2003). Of these, Badani opened the batting in his debut innings (he batted at six in the second), Sehwag went on to become a prolific Test opener, and Yuvraj became the established alternate whenever Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly or Laxman were unavailable.

Until recently the Indian limited-overs side was selected in much the same way as the Test team was, from the same pool of players. The ability to make the jump from the standard of domestic cricket to international cricket has been the major consideration. This is what motivated the selection of Rohit Sharma to the limited-overs sides and the decision to ask him to open the batting - a spectacular success. But recently India have made some interesting selections for the limited-overs middle order. Kedar Jadhav and Dinesh Karthik are not in the picture for the Test team, but their selection to the limited-overs sides is more than a hunch.

Of the 54 batsmen who have scored at least 1500 runs in domestic limited-overs cricket in the last ten years, the three outstanding players (highlighted in the chart below), based on a combination of batting average (a measure of consistency) and strike rate (a measure of power), are Yusuf Pathan, Jadhav and Karthik. Pathan is already 36, and last played for India in 2012. Karthik and Jadhav are likely to feature in India's middle order at the World Cup.

Judgement is inescapably required for selection. A system of selection that eliminates the requirement for someone to exercise judgement, and is provably superior to all other systems, is logically impossible. When it comes to selecting Test teams, the BCCI's selection committees over the years have done a generally excellent job and have shown themselves to be expert judges.

It is not the case that selection is only down to the appointed selectors. Rather, the selectors merely sit at the helm of a vast grapevine that runs up from local clubs and schools to the state teams, through former players and umpires. You saw evidence of this grapevine recently when Virat Kohli observed that Shubman Gill was an outstanding prospect. You see it when Rahul Dravid speaks of the quality of talent in the India Under-19 squad. You see it at work when the selectors pick an 18-year-old opener for the Test team after only 14 first-class games. But most of its work occurs beyond the national team, at lower levels, either in first-class cricket or in age-group cricket at the national and state levels. It is a system that has emerged over decades.

The discourse surrounding selection is often dominated by fractious, conspiratorial mutterings about how selectors are incompetent fools who play favourites, or worse, and are either weak (a charge levelled typically because selections appear to follow what the captain wants) or dictatorial (a charge levelled at other times, when selections appear to ignore what the captain wants). This is best seen as a manifestation of the stakes involved. But these mutterings do not provide a reasonable picture of what the selectors do, or what selection is like.

It is in the nature of selection (as of life) that the selectors cannot escape being unfair to somebody, because selection is, at its core, an act of exclusion. There is always a "deserving candidate" who misses out. Indeed, if there isn't, then the resulting team is unlikely to be very good. The number of deserving candidates who miss out on selection is directly proportional to the quality of the squad that is selected. Right now, when India are enjoying what is arguably their most successful period in their history, is a good time to point this out.