If a question is asked as to who is the spunkiest Indian cricketer ever, my answer would be Sourav Ganguly, former captain and middle order batsman. His nonchalant attitude combined with high amounts of aggression, admirable physical courage and tremendous capacity to fight back when the odds were against him make him one of the most remarkable personalities in Indian cricket in recent times. There were many times in his career when he was written off as a spent force but each time he bounced back with renewed vigour making his critics eat humble pie. Ganguly also turned out to be one of the most successful captains of the national side and played a big role in moulding the team into a unit capable of winning matches on foreign soil also.
Ganguly first came into the national side as a 19-year-old when he was selected for the tour of Australia in 1991. His entry into the side was in place of Vinod Kambli, another left-handed batsman and a teammate of Sachin Tendulkar from schoolboy days. This was not taken kindly by the national media, which was dominated by hacks from Mumbai, and they went out of their way to prove that he did not deserve a place in the side. This resulted in each of his actions being analysed threadbare while his failures were highlighted.
The media even went to the extent of stating that he was called “Maharaj” (his nickname in the family) on account of his reluctance to carry drinks to the players. All this conveyed the message that he was a spoiled brat who was not worthy of being part of the national side. His performances during the tour were mediocre and, not surprisingly, he was dropped from the side for the 1992 World Cup that followed.
It took four years for Ganguly to make a comeback to the national squad. This time he was selected for the tour of England in 1996, that followed the ICC World cup held in Indian sub continent. Again the player who went out of the squad was Kambli, who had a decent run in the World Cup matches. When the team was announced, Mumbai media greeted the news of his selection with guffaws and derisive smiles, implying that he owed his place to the influence exerted by Jagmohan Dalmiya, the all powerful secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). However, this time Ganguly hit back at his critics strongly with his bat doing all the talking. He made his Test debut during the second match at Lord’s and announced his arrival with a brilliant century. He followed this up with another century in the succeeding Test and cemented his place in the side.
The period between 1996 and 2000 saw Ganguly establish himself as one of the leading batsmen in Indian cricket, both in the shorter as well the longer versions of the game. He was one of the top run-getters in the 1999 ICC World cup where his knock of 183 against Sri Lanka was the highest individual score. He also emerged with reasonable amount of success during the tour of Australia in 1999-2000, when the rest of the Indian batting line-up floundered against the Aussie attack. When Tendulkar announced that he was stepping down from captaincy at the end of the Test series against South Africa at home in 2000, Ganguly was the only contender for taking over the mantle from him.
Dada at the helm
Ganguly’s initiation into captaincy coincided with one of the darkest phases of Indian cricket as allegations of match-fixing suddenly came into the open. The recording of South African skipper Hansie Cronje’s telephonic conversation with bookies, subsequent revelations about involvement of certain Indian cricketers, including former captains, with members of the betting syndicate, shook the establishment and shocked the millions of cricket lovers in the country. Ganguly used this opportunity to rebuild the side by bringing in youngsters such as Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif and supporting them. The team also started playing more cohesively under a more demonstrative and vocal skipper.
The turning point in Ganguly’s career and indeed that of Indian cricket came during Australia's tour of the country in 2001. The manner in which India bounced back from the brink against Steve Waugh's men after losing the first Test by a huge margin and being forced to follow on in the second match is the stuff of folklore. Ganguly, the batsman was going though a very bad phase and hence his contribution with the bat was minimal during this series. However, he took on Waugh aggressively on the field as captain and managed to get under his skin, as the episode over toss revealed.
Convention in cricket demands that the host captain invite the skipper of the visiting side for toss not later than 30 minutes before scheduled start of play. Waugh decided to dictate terms and walked out to the middle by himself without waiting for Ganguly to go over and invite him. Ganguly understood Waugh’s intent and in an act of deliberate gamesmanship took his own sweet time for emerging out of the pavilion, thus making Waugh wait in the middle! Waugh was not amused and he talked about this to the large media contingent from Australia who lost no time in branding Ganguly as rude and arrogant. The Indian skipper remained unfazed and repeated this act in the next Test, making Waugh more annoyed and irritated!
The team’s performance in limited overs matches also picked up with the side showing an alacrity and balance that was never seen before. When India won the hard-fought final of the NatWest Trophy in England in 2002, the skipper showed his joy by taking off his shirt and waving it to fans from the balcony of Lord’s, a gesture that exemplified his irreverent and non conformist approach. The side also became joint winners of ICC Champions Trophy held in Sri Lanka in 2002. There was a brief dip in fortunes when India was blanked in a two-Test series in New Zealand in early 2003. This was followed by some early reverses in the World Cup campaign that year but the side rallied magnificently and reached the final, before losing to Australia.
Ganguly’s best year as skipper and batsman came in 2003-04 season when India toured Australia and Pakistan. He led from the front in Australia with a superb century in the first Test that set the momentum for the entire series. India won the second Test, thanks to brilliant performances by Rahul Dravid, V V S Laxman and Ajit Agarkar but lost the third. In the series-deciding final Test, India had Australia on the ropes and it was only a fighting innings by Waugh, playing in his last Test, that saved the host's blushes. Ganguly and his boys emerged from down under with their heads held high. This was followed by an emphatic win over Pakistan in both Tests and limited overs matches in a series that was planned at short notice. The fact that the Ganguly-led side could defeat Pakistan in their own den filled the hearts of cricket lovers in India with pride. Looking back, it can be said with certainty that 2003-04 season was certainly the high noon of Ganguly’s tenure at the helm.
Australia toured India in 2004 for a four-Test series. India lost the first Test but fought back strongly in the second Test which ended in a draw. The third Test was played at Nagpur where the curator surprisingly prepared a “green top”, which could only have helped the fast bowlers of the visitors. Ganguly took one look at the wicket, had an argument with the groundsman and withdrew from the match citing injury. His action invited criticism and it was widely believed that his illness was nothing other than “green wicketitis”! India played the match under Dravid and lost it and with that surrendered the series as well, despite winning the final Test. Ganguly was diagnosed as having tennis elbow and this forced him to sit out of the rest of the season.
India, under Ganguly, drew the three-match Test series 1-1 and lost the ODI series 2-4 as Pakistan toured the country in 2005.
Things started going wrong soon after that and strangely it was the events that took place outside the playing arena that brought forth the threat to his captaincy. The first of these was the change in coach of the national side. John Wright, who had worked with Ganguly and built up the side from 2000 onwards, left the post on completion of his tenure and he was replaced by former Australian skipper Greg Chappell. The second was a change of guard in the cricket administration in the country with Dalmiya, who had controlled BCCI since 1993 either directly or through members of his group, handing over the reins to a new set of office-bearers led by Sharad Pawar. Chappell and Ganguly fell out quickly with the former writing to the BCCI complaining that the latter was a “disruptive influence” on the side. Without the support of Dalmiya, Ganguly's grip on matters started weakening and his numero uno position in Indian cricket began to appear shaky.
When the 2005-06 season began, Ganguly did not return as captain as the selectors and coach preferred to have Dravid leading the side. However, Ganguly was back as India captain for the two-Test away series against Zimbabwe in September, 2005. The relationship between Ganguly and Chappell reached its nadir during this tour. Soon Ganguly was dropped from the side, both for Tests as well as limited overs matches. This led to huge protests as many felt that he was being sidelined by an antagonistic coach due to personal dislike and not on account of cricketing reasons. It appeared at this stage that Ganguly had reached the end of the road as the national team was doing well under Dravid and his absence was not felt either as captain or as batsman.
Ganguly was not one to give up easily. He went back to playing domestic cricket, spent long hours at the nets, hit the gym with fierce determination and worked his way back to the side by the sheer weight of his performances. He showed that he possessed the necessary skill sets to perform well at the highest level and did well in both versions of the game, at home as well as on foreign soil. This last phase of his career between December, 2006, when he made his return to the national side, and November, 2008, when he bid adieu to international cricket, was the most rewarding one as a batsman, since he recorded his only Test double century and was also adjudged as the “Asian batsman of the year” in 2007-08.
Ganguly announced at the start of 2008-09 season that he would be retiring after the home Test series against Australia. He was in superb touch and scored a century in the second Test and narrowly missed one in his last, thus signing out at a time of his choosing, with his head held high. He continued to play in Indian Premier League (IPL) for some more years, before turning his attention to cricket administration. He is presently the president of the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB), besides being one of the members of the IPL Governing Council.
How did this boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth into a traditional Bengali background evolve into an intensely competitive, fearless and determined cricketer, who fought back with vigour and passion whenever the chips were down? It goes without saying that the life story of such a remarkable human being would make interesting reading. Hence, one looked forward to reading his autobiography with lots of anticipation, particularly since Ganguly had never been reticent nor been scared of doing plain speaking when required. However, when it came to penning his story, Ganguly has disappointed.
The book “A Century is not Enough: My Roller-Coaster Ride to Success”, which hit the stands recently details all the instances in his life when he emerged out of the ashes and flew high. However, he has steered clear of all controversies in his account and avoided mentioning any person in bad light. Issues in which readers might have expected more transparency, if not outright revelations, are glossed over. Thus, there is hardly any mention of India’s struggles in New Zealand in 2003 or about the poor start to the World Cup campaign the same year. Similarly the book is silent about the Nagpur Test of 2004 and the events preceding and following it. There is very little about the personal life of the cricketer, his early days, studies etc. In fact the book does not offer much insight beyond what is already available in the public domain.
As a cricketer and captain, Ganguly wore his heart on his sleeve. However, when it came to penning his life story, he has been the personification of discretion and diplomacy. May be this is the first sign that Ganguly, the player, known for his guts and chutzpah is slowly getting replaced by Ganguly, the cricket administrator, who tries to take everyone together through spirit of accommodation and compromise.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)