mid-day speaks to former Test opener and selector, who stuck his neck out for rookie Mahendra Singh Dhoni in the 2003-04 Duleep Trophy final selection
Kolkata: Who says only cricketers have sleepless nights. Selectors too, especially when you are part of a committee which has dropped the incumbent wicketkeeper from the city you hail from, in a cricket-crazy state.
Former national selector Pranab Roy. Pic/midday archives
Sleepless nights are what former India opening batsman-turned-national selector endured when rookie Mahendra Singh Dhoni was included in the East Zone playing XI to take on North Zone in the 2003-04 Duleep Trophy final at Mohali instead of Deep Dasgupta, who had donned the big gloves for India.
By his own admission, the then East Zone national selector Pranab Roy was a nervous wreck just before the Duleep final because Roy, had convinced his selectorial colleagues – Kirti Azad (North), Syed Kirmani (chairman, South), Sanjay Jagdale (Central) and Kiran More (West) – to come and watch a certain MS Dhoni, whom they knew very little of.
"Dhoni was not even the first choice wicketkeeper for East Zone at that time; Deep Dasgupta was. My colleagues felt that if he couldn't make it to the East Zone first XI, how could he fit into Team India? But I was absolutely convinced that Team India's search for a wicketkeeper-batsman had ended because I had watched Dhoni from his younger days in Jharkhand, then Bihar (before the state was split), over a period of time," Roy told mid-day here yesterday, going on to recall his early encounters with the long-haired basher from Bihar.
"After ending my first-class career, somewhere in the early 90s, I took to umpiring as the BCCI was encouraging former players to get into umpiring. My new job took to me to the far corners of the country and I bumped into this Dhoni boy a few times during his U-19 matches. Honestly, there was nothing great about him that immediately caught my eye. But as I kept watching him, I was impressed by his brute strength. After I became Bengal selector in the late 90s and then BCCI selector in early 2001, I was convinced that Dhoni's wicketkeeping skills could be worked upon and his big-hitting would serve India well. Hence, I recommended him to our selection panel."
Roy, who was in the Indian team on their 1982 tour of England, admitted that sticking his neck out for an unknown youngster was even tougher than facing up to the likes of England's Bob Willis and Ian Botham in the two Tests he played, apart from 72 first-class games.
He explained: "Being East Zone selector it was a given that players from Bengal would dominate the team. There were names like Devang Gandhi, Rohan Gavaskar, Deep Dasgupta who were seniors and automatically picked themselves. Dhoni would have had to replace Deep, who was in prime form having recently scored a century against England. But my late father's (former India opener Pankaj Roy) words kept ringing in my ears. He too was a selector and witnessed a phase when there were no players from East Zone in the Indian team. The media would hound him, questioning why East couldn't produce an India player. That's when he told me, 'if a player is good, he should be backed at all costs, irrespective of which state or association he came from.' People says it takes a sixth sense to make such calls, but for me, it was much more than that - a seventh sense, maybe. I didn't sleep for a number of nights thereafter, wondering whether I had made the right recommendation. I knew Dhoni was physically strong, but was clueless about his mental strength, which is very important at the highest level.
"Thankfully, my co-selectors were on the same page as me, and of course, Dhoni, with his success, almost immediately vindicated our stand. He scored 60 in the second innings, took a few catches and didn't look back."
However, Roy witnessed his most satisfying moment a couple of years later, when Australian Greg Chappell was appointed India coach. "Chappell took over in 2005, a year after I had relinquished my job as selector. We selectors had prepared a list of around 15-20 players besides the Indian team's first 15 so as to provide a pool of players for the team management to work with. This pool remained constant even with the new selectors coming in. One day, I was having dinner with him during a camp and I casually asked him what he thought of the young players in the talent pool. Without blinking an eyelid, Greg told me that MS Dhoni is a great find. 'The boy has a wonderful cricketing brain and an unbelievable work ethic,' " Roy said. The clincher, though, was later when Chappell told Roy that Dhoni will lead India for a number of years. "Just as Dhoni's doing his job brilliantly now, I'm glad I did mine then," Roy signed off.