A day before the must-win tri-series game versus England at Perth, the Indian team was joined by national selector Roger Binny. He stood a few yards away, talking to journalists and others known to him, even as his son Stuart bowled in the practice session.
Like all things in Indian cricket, the conflict of interest here is apparent. And so, when the 15-man World Cup squad was announced, this paternal connection was talked up — and there was quite some uproar in the media – mainstream or social.
In this din, it skipped attention that Binny junior has now been part of the Indian team’s set-up ever since the road to their title defence began.
“Depending on a few venues, in Perth or in New Zealand, it is important to have a seaming all-rounder in the side. Stuart Binny is exciting, can play aggressive shots and give me 6-8 overs so I use other part-timers less. Irrespective of the debate, the best seaming all-rounder of India has been picked,” said skipper MS Dhoni prior to the just concluded tri-series.
Two points find validity herein. First, that the New Zealand tour, precisely a year ago, was when preparations for the 2015 World Cup first began in earnest. With two new balls from both ends, and only four fielders outside the 30-yard circle, India needed to achieve a fine balance with its eleven – six batsmen and five bowlers. They failed, losing 4-0 in five ODIs.
Secondly, that series was also when this Binny experiment began, as he made his debut in the fourth ODI at Hamilton. It wasn’t an outing to remember. He didn’t get to bat, and bowled one over that cost eight runs. Anyone who attended or saw that game on television will have a hard time recalling if he even fielded the ball once.
Binny’s debut match is a prime indicator of Dhoni’s instinctive captaincy, irrespective of the format. If a particular ploy takes his fancy, he will stick to it as if there is no other better plan in the world. The inexplicable, constant use of a leg-slip in the last four overseas Test series is an example. Alternately, if the vibe is not right, Dhoni will instantaneously move away from a particular idea.
However, there is a huge sticking point at this juncture. Throughout this overseas calendar year, on umpteen occasions, Dhoni has lamented the absence of a genuine seaming all-rounder. Even if using Binny optimally didn’t come naturally to him, the Indian skipper needed to wrap his brain around this very idea.
And thus, somewhere, something clicked, and the Binny experiment continued. He went to Bangladesh and in seaming conditions, reduced their batting line-up to pulp. Then he went to England, as the team management decided that a five-bowler-attack was the best way to go about the Test series.
In truth, it was purely the captain’s decision, since it meant dropping a full-time batsman in Rohit Sharma and Dhoni having to bat at number six. And he made the call — for the first two Tests, Binny played his part — a maiden fifty in Nottingham helping draw that match and ten overs at Lord’s, albeit uneventful. He then reappeared in the final Test at the Oval.
His statistics in these few chances didn’t tell a wonderful tale. A misfiring all-rounder, nay, it would be better to play an inconsistent full-time batsman or bowler. Across the country then, Binny was deemed a failure, consigned to return to domestic wilderness for good. The general opinion was that even his father couldn’t conjure a trick to get him back.
Then again, Indian cricket doesn’t adhere to generalisations. Binny opened the bowling against Sri Lanka in the ODI series at home, just prior to the Australia tour. Dhoni was resting his injured thumb at that time and Virat Kohli led the side. This obviously meant that 30-year-old Stuart had his bags packed for the World Cup. After all, they had been prepping him for the past one year.
In truth, that has been the hallmark of this selection panel’s choice. They have experimented with particular names, and despite odd performances, have stuck to their guns. Ambati Rayudu is another example of this process. As such, Binny’s selection was none too surprising, however much the outcry or debate it generated.
After that, it was about permutations and combinations. Brisbane, in that light, was a water-shed moment for Binny’s chances of making the playing eleven. Excited by the bounce at the Gabba, he was picked ahead of R Ashwin. And he stood out in a shambolic nine-wicket loss, top-scoring with the bat and opening the bowling again.
He couldn’t be dropped in Sydney thereafter, certainly not with rain around. Binny took three wickets, doing what he was picked to do. Perhaps he did a little more.
After India exited the tri-series, when asked if two spinners and two medium pacers plus Binny is the way forward, Dhoni replied, “I think so, yes. Frankly, we cannot afford to play three fast bowlers and two spinners because our batting becomes too light. All good sides bat quite deep. We need to get our batting strong and we cannot have four to five batsmen in the lower order getting out cheaply.”
In this tri-series, India searched for good form and ahead of the World Cup. They found Binny instead, traversing a long journey from outcast to balancing the eleven. He is the one positive, as Dhoni would say. And Indian cricket fans better get used to it, for they will be seeing a lot more of Binny in the next two months.