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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 42, Dated Oct 25, 2008

The Selfish Patriot

The turbulent Sourav Ganguly may have been the least gifted of the Fab Four but, in some ways, his quirks took him the furthest. SURESH MENON assesses a complicated legacy

Personal History
Father's pride: Ganguly with daughter Sana
Photo: Reuters

WE DO NOT speak ill of the dead or the recently retired; in fact we swing the other way and call them ‘great’ without embarrassment. Ever since he announced his retirement, Sourav Ganguly has been elevated to greatness, but the fact is he gained by association. If Sachin Tendulkar had to be brought down a couple of notches to fit him into the so-called ‘Fab Four’ group, then Ganguly had to be pushed up a couple to settle alongside Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman.

Ganguly was not a great player, but he was a significant one in the context of Indian cricket as its most successful Test captain. Great players are not necessarily significant, nor significant players necessarily great. Barry Richards is an example of the former while Arjuna Ranatunga is an obvious example of the latter.

In the early 1990s, two players emerged from contrasting backgrounds. In Kolkata, Ganguly, born in the lap of luxury (even the silver spoon in his mouth was actually gold) began to serve notice. Across the country in Mumbai, born the same year, Vinod Kambli lived in a slum, struggled for existence and was beginning to discover that cricket could be a way out of the poverty. What they had in common was the ability to bat left-handed.

At that stage, any self-respecting sociologist would have told you who would be the bigger success — Kambli — arguing, “The slum boy has the greater hunger, more desperation and the crying need to climb out of his circumstances; the rich lad is a spoilt brat, too used to having everything drop into his lap and will disappear very soon.”

Yet, while Kambli is virtually forgotten today (despite making double centuries in successive Tests, he is best known as Tendulkar’s school friend), Ganguly, who made his Test debut three seasons later, played over 100 Tests and finished as one of the finest batsmen ever in one-day cricket. And, surprisingly, for one with a reputation for selfishness and inability to see beyond the tip of his Mercedes, a captain successful both statistically and psychologically.

Such contradictions have been a guiding force in Ganguly’s life. It is a Ganguly trait to overturn comfortable, preconceived notions of what ought to be. He took the clichés of the sport and reshaped them. If cricket was a gentleman’s game, he delighted in, metaphorically, drawing a false beard on its face or tweaking its nose. If turning the other cheek was expected of those who were slapped, he was happy to show the other cheek, but not the one on his face.

An earlier captain, Sunil Gavaskar, was quick to react to anything he perceived as a national insult. He had risen to the top of the Englishman’s game and, although born nearly two years after Independence, carried some of the baggage of colonialism. He refused an MCC membership after a gatekeeper at Lord’s did not recognise him. It was the typical overreaction of someone from a country that was yet to attain the maturity and confidence of those who dine at the high table in the comity of nations.

It was another generation before an Indian captain began to play the psychological games that upset the opposition equally. By the time Ganguly took over, India had thrown in its lot with the liberalised, global economy. India was now a country that saw itself as an emerging Superpower, and there was little need to shout from the rooftops.

GANGULY WAS equally quick to come to his country’s defence, but the wells of his nationalism were filled by a different source. It was said of Charles de Gaulle, the mid-20th century French President, that he saw no difference between himself and his country. Ganguly’s temperament is similar. When you said ‘India’, he heard ‘Ganguly’, and vice-versa. If you insulted him, you insulted the country. It takes a peculiar frame of mind to arrive at this conclusion, and Ganguly, for all the simplicity of his batting, was not a simple man.

His patriotism was an extension of his selfishness, but it worked for him as captain and helped him build a team that took pride in playing for the country. That combination of pride and pelf meant he was the ideal candidate to take over as captain once the matchfixing scandal hit Indian cricket. It was a difficult time, and the wrong man in that position might have turned away forever the millions of Indian fans who made up the backbone of the international game. Ganguly has not been given the credit for steadying the Indian ship after that scandal. Had he, too, been involved in the scandal, Indian cricket might never have recovered, and it would have had neither the money nor the power it wields today.

Ganguly had a traumatic first tour of Australia in 1991 under Mohammad Azharuddin. He was just 19, he was rich and spoilt, and he failed to get much sympathy from the captain, who lacked the equipment to understand players who were temperamentally and emotionally different from normal.

Ganguly refused to kowtow to the senior players, carry their bags or attempt the range of helpful activities that make junior players popular with their seniors. He was not being disrespectful, merely asserting that respect cannot be forced, and that the senior-junior divide was an artificial one anyway.

IN INDIAN teams, hierarchy was important, and it was brave of Ganguly to buck the trend. The word spreads and such men are quickly discarded; or made leaders themselves. Ganguly was both discarded — he was in the wilderness for four years — and made

Personal History
Tiger cub: Ganguly injected his self-confidence in the team
Photo: Reuters

leader. But that tour shaped him.

Ganguly drew from the trauma a lesson that he was to carry all his life. “If I ever become captain,” he told himself, “I will not allow the youngsters to flounder.” This formed the core of his philosophy as captain, and led to a second self-respect movement in the team, following the one led by Tiger Pataudi in the 1960s. Somewhere between Tiger’s reign and Ganguly’s, India had become a team too easily satisfied, too easily intimidated by the opposition, and perhaps a little too conscious of being nice guys with winning smiles rather than tough competitors who gave no quarter. Ganguly’s youngsters, knowing they had his unstinted support, rallied behind him much as Tiger’s team had done.

“When they make you captain,” Tiger had once said, “there will be a few seniors who will always resent it. Your best bet is to rally the youngsters.” In Ganguly’s case, there was the memory of the Australian tour to spur him into supporting the youngsters. He stood as a bulwark against the slings and arrows of outrageous selectorial fancies. Harbhajan Singh grew into a bowler of international class under Ganguly after an initial period of uncertainty. Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan were given the impetus to become match-winners. Confidence was the name of the game, and when he was on song as batsman and captain, Ganguly had enough of it himself to distribute the overflow among teammates.

As Ganguly built his team, he injected it with a large dose of self-belief. He deliberately got under the skin of the opposition. He kept the Australian captain, Steve Waugh, waiting at the toss, he showed Andrew Flintoff what he could do with his shirt off on the balcony at Lord’s after the England player’s similar performance in India. But the mindset that made him protective of the younger players also made him insecure about the seniors. The contradictions in his character surfaced often. Just as you thought that here, finally, was an Indian captain who had overcome parochialism and thought in national terms, he would become provincial and play one group against the other. Unlike his successors, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, Ganguly had only one ex-captain, Tendulkar, in his team, and he knew that the Mumbai player was not interested in leading the side. But, he felt threatened by the likes of Javagal Srinath, an intelligent man who kept his own counsel.

Part of this insecurity stemmed from the knowledge that, of the Fab Four, he was the least distinguished batsman. And when his form dipped, so did his man-management skills. The statesman-captain then became a politician-captain, undoing much of his own good work. The remarkable thing about Ganguly the captain was that he was both Brahma and Shiva — creator and destroyer — of team spirit.

Yet, for five years from November 2000, when he first led, he was responsible for a golden run in Indian cricket. He led in 49 Tests, winning 21 and losing 13. By way of comparison, Tiger Pataudi, often considered the finest Indian captain, led in 40, won nine and lost 19 — all his three wins abroad came in one 1968 series in New Zealand.

In the entire 1990s, India won just one Test abroad. Under Ganguly, they won 11 — more than a third of all Tests won abroad by India. Those who carp that this includes six wins in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe must remember there were also victories in England, Australia, the West Indies, Sri Lanka and India’s first-ever win in Pakistan too.

Ganguly took the unfancied India to the final of the 2003 World Cup, having two years earlier authored one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Test cricket, winning a three-match series after losing the first Test at home, against Australia.

Personal History
Odd couple: Before the fall-out, Ganguly sought Greg Chappell's advice Photo: Reuters

WHEN HE led the team to Australia in 2003-04, he was widely expected to crumble against the fast bowlers. By now, his dislike for the short-pitched delivery was widely known, as were his limitations on the leg side. Teammate Rahul Dravid said that only God played more beautifully on the off side, but there were no photographs of God playing a cover drive. On Earth, Ganguly was the best, and that was good enough. He knew there would be no easy pickings in Australia or anywhere else. He had neither Tendulkar’s all-round skill nor Laxman’s ability to convert anything into a strength, with wrists that virtually sang.

In the first Test at Brisbane, Ganguly made a combative 144 that set the tone for the series, one that India should have won, and one where Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman made highest scores of 241, 233 and 178 respectively. After Virender Sehwag’s 195 in Melbourne (ironically, India scored fast enough to give Australia time to win), pundits were moved to write that this might be the best 1 to 6 batting order in the history of the game (the other opener, Akash Chopra, was reviled for following team instructions: hang on as long as possible to make it easier for the middle order). Then came victory in Pakistan, losses at home against South Africa, and the end of coach John Wright’s reign. Wright and Ganguly had struck up a partnership — according to reports, Ganguly did what he wanted, and Wright did what Ganguly wanted. It was a happy marriage.

And then came Greg Chappell. Ironically, it was to Chappell that Ganguly had turned in Australia, making a private visit to prepare for the series, and it was to Chappell that he gave credit for his Brisbane century. But things unravelled pretty quickly, culminating in the wide publicity given to Chappell’s views on the captain in an email and sundry text messages to carefully chosen journalists who believed that indiscretion was the better part of valour.

Much was made of Chappell’s divisive influence on the team. But, in seven decades of international cricket, Indians have displayed a gift for divisiveness without outside help. On the 1936 tour of England, Baqa Jilani played a Test as reward for insulting CK Nayudu at the breakfast table. The captain was the anti-Nayudu Maharajkumar Vizianagram. And so on down the years. Tiger Pataudi had his reservations about Salim Durrani and Budhi Kunderan, among others. When India won the World Cup in 1983, the two stars, Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar, were barely on speaking terms. In the 1990s, Sachin Tendulkar suspected Mohammad Azharuddin of various shenanigans and made no secret of it. And each star pulled with him various juniors. Our cricket teams have always been fine examples of unity in divisiveness.

Chappell advised Ganguly to give up captaincy. He had serious misgivings about India’s fielding and about the attitude of the seniors towards fielding. This, too, was part of what he had inherited. The poet said, “As for living, our servants can do that for us.” Substitute ‘fielding’ for ‘living’, and you have the Indian attitude.

It was an attitude Ganguly both contributed to and fought against in his contradictory way. He was hardly a sterling example as a fielder, nor as a runner between the wickets, but he insisted on a regimen for the younger players, who were not yet as far gone as he was. Still, the pressure was mounting. When he was finally, and inevitably, removed from captaincy, he might even have been relieved.

Yet his legacy will be interesting. Neither Rahul Dravid nor Anil Kumble are Ganguly clones — we will have to look into the future to see the new Ganguly. Such a captain would be a team-builder, a self-confident manipulator of emotions, a taker of chances, a shirt-waver, metaphorically if not literally. That pretty much sums up captainin- waiting Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Perhaps it is from the Dhoni generation that we will see the full impact of the Ganguly legacy.

In his second coming as batsman, Ganguly made nearly 2,000 runs since the beginning of 2007, including a double century against Pakistan. It was that contradiction working again. Given up for dead, he didn’t merely flex his thumb to show he was not, but got up and danced and screamed. Even those who had become used to Ganguly’s contradictions were surprised.

In the early part of his career, I had written that Ganguly had the potential to finish as the country’s finest lefthanded batsman.

Personal History
Young Love: As captain, Ganguly worked wonders for his juniors Photo: AP

When we met later, he suggested, half-jokingly, that he was aiming higher: how about the best-ever, left or right? But, already, his contemporaries Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid had begun to pull ahead, and this was not even an academic possibility.

The manner of Ganguly’s farewell — another move that caught everyone by surprise — is bound to lead to all manner of speculation. He was the most vulnerable of the seniors; now he is in the strongest position amongst them, having told the Board where he got off. Objectively speaking, it would make sense to shake his hand after the second Test and pick his replacement so the newcomer has at least a couple of Tests to prepare for a long run, and for the series to follow, against England and Pakistan.

But, like Macbeth murdered sleep, Ganguly murdered objectivity long ago. His retirement is no longer a straightforward cricketing issue now, but an emotional one involving some of the most emotional fans, who believe their hero can do no wrong. Most likely, Ganguly will travel around the country, playing all four tests no matter what, and have a series of farewells, like an ageing rock star.

WHERE DID Ganguly the batsman fall short? The Cricinfo statistician gives us a clue. In his first 30 Tests, Ganguly averaged over 50, after beginning with centuries in successive Tests in England. In his last 59 Tests (before the current series), he averaged 42, which is nearly his career average. In between, over the next 20 Tests, his average fell to 27 in a two-year period beginning November 1999. In this phase, he played most of his Tests abroad and had yet to work out the solution to his weakness against pace. Captains simply placed two gullies to block his most productive stroke, and fast bowlers aimed at his ribcage, forcing him into wild contortions.

Ganguly never effectively overcame the problem, but with wickets all over the world gradually getting slower, and the batsman disciplining himself to play at fewer deliveries, the problem faded into the background. But the damage had been done and, well as he shone in one-day cricket, Ganguly was destined to be the fourth of the Fab Four.

In the shorter game, however, Ganguly had few peers. Opening the batting against bowlers unlikely to bowl flat out gave him the opportunity to score quickly and score many. Of those who have scored over 10,000, only Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar average better than Ganguly’s 41. He has 22 centuries, besides. And, with Tendulkar, he formed one of the best opening partnerships in the game.

Personal History
All good men: Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Laxman Photo: AP

IT IS possible that history will be kinder to Ganguly than his contemporaries. Yet, despite his 17 years in international cricket, 12 as a Test player, one nagging thought cannot be easily ignored. That perhaps he was lucky to have played for as long as he did. He might not have been picked after that initial Australia fiasco, and he might not have made it past the two-year dip had he not been East Zone’s leading player and enjoyed the support of the powers that be. That he stuck it out is remarkable, but there is no telling how other left-handers — Kambli and, later, Sadagopan Ramesh — might have done with similar backing.

If Ganguly had been told in 1996 that he would play 100 Tests, he might not have believed it; if he had been told that he would be spoken of in the same breath as Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman, he might not have believed it. If he had been told that he would lead India, perhaps he would have believed that, for he was a quick learner and knew he could play the gaps between the administrators with as much grace as he could between point and mid off.

In the end, however, all careers must be judged by the results — individual as well as team. And Ganguly’s figures fall short only in comparison to those of his illustrious contemporaries. Details have a way of melting away, leaving only the figures, and the figures will show that Ganguly had a better career average than some of India’s finest middle order batsmen — Dilip Sardesai, Ajit Wadekar, ML Jaisimha, Tiger Pataudi, Vijay Manjrekar, Salim Durrani, Lala Amarnath. He will finish in a group that includes Gundappa Vishwanath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohinder Amarnath and Polly Umrigar — which is not a bad place to be, statistically.

One of sport’s most pathetic figures is the talented player whose record does not match his talent. By the same token, one of its most inspiring has to be the player who plays above himself, making a mockery of his limitations. Sourav Ganguly fell short of greatness, certainly; but he will be remembered for — to use boxing terminology — regularly fighting above his weight.

Menon is a Bangalore-based writer who has reported on the game from all over the cricket-playing world

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 42, Dated Oct 25, 2008



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