Ganguly was fun. Every now and then a fellow feels like tearing off his shirt and waving it around like Mick Jagger with a microphone. Of all places, Sourav Ganguly responded to the urge at Lord’s, holiest of cricketing holies. So much for decorum. He might as well have burped in St Paul’s. Every now and then a fellow feels an insult coming on. Ganguly was rude to Steve Waugh, captain of all Australia, the mightiest foe of them all. So much for deference. Typically it started as a misjudgment and became an amusement that turned into a strategy.
Ganguly did not mind directing the fire at himself. What could they do? Bowl bumpers? Already every fast bowler worth his salt had tried to knock off his head. He had no lordly lineage but he walked and talked as he pleased, not exactly trying to provoke opponents but unwilling to deny himself. He did not give much ground to the modern game, with its fitness and diving and running between wickets and morning training and all that rot. It was brave of him to remain apart, for it left him exposed to ridicule, forced him to justify himself. But Ganguly was not scared of the pressure. Perhaps he needed the extra pressure the way a veteran car needs a crank. And, just in case, he had the populist touch. If Anil Kumble was the colossus, Sachin Tendulkar the champion, Rahul Dravid the craftsman, VVS Laxman the sorcerer, then Ganguly was the inspiration.
It has been an astonishing career. Some men prefer to follow a predictable path and their stories tell of a slow rise to the top and an equally measured decline. To that end instinct is subdued, contention avoided and risk reduced. That has been altogether too dull for Ganguly. Throughout he has toyed with his fate, tempting it to turn its back on him so that once again he could surprise the world with a stunning restoration. Something in him rebelled against the mundane and the sensible. He needed his life to be full of disasters and rescues, and comebacks and mistakes and memorable moments. To hell with the prosaic. At heart he is a cavalier, albeit of mischievous persuasion.
Taken as a whole, his contribution has been a triumph. It is no small thing for a boy from Kolkata to make it in Indian cricket. Till then local players were regarded as soft touches, and Ganguly himself was so categorised in his early days. Whereas the Mumbai-ites had risen through a rigorous system and the outstation boys had fought every inch of the way, the Bengalis seemed to lack the toughness required to make the grade. Ganguly changed all that. Indeed it was one of the many tasks he set himself. Always he has pitted himself against presumption and always he has prevailed.
Heavens, he even managed to time his departure as sweetly as ever he did any cover-drive. Before the series began he disarmingly announced that these four Tests against Australia were going to be his last. At a stroke his announcement put an end to speculation that he might lose his place. Ganguly is shrewder than he pretends. Just for a day or so it seemed that he might not get his way as reports spread of indiscreet remarks supposedly made about Robin Uthappa’s hair, but Ganguly disowned the comments, even the splendid one about “every Tom, Dick and Harry” playing in the team. And so, once again, he lived to fight another day. Mind you, he let them hang in the air for 72 hours! That was typical Ganguly: at once the hero and the villain.
Throughout he has toyed with his fate, tempting it to turn its back on him so that once again he could surprise the world with a stunning restoration. Something in him rebelled against the mundane and the sensible. He needed his life to be full of disasters and rescues
To some extent his manner has distracted attention from his cricket. Above all he has been a fine player whose career tells of determination and perseverance. As a batsman he played numerous influential innings. Often he was at his best on the game’s greatest stages (including Lord’s, where he first made his mark) or when the chips were down. Then he could concentrate. In less stressful times his batting could be flashy, with shots vaguely executed and the outcome left to the gods. Ganguly was not a collector of runs but a match player. Such men cannot be judged only in terms of tallies.
As captain he was an uplifting figure prepared to stand up for his players. It is easily forgotten that his captaincy started with Indian cricket at its lowest ebb. Hereabouts India was extremely lucky to have at its disposal a superb group of senior players untouched by those dire events, and a new captain free from the insecurity and greed that had undone his predecessor. Accepting money from grubby sources was, one sensed, beneath Ganguly. He just did not move in those circles or think along those lines.
Not that Ganguly alone deserves all the credit for India’s swift recovery. Around him could be found a resolute and principled bunch of cricketers. They needed someone to blow the bugle and Ganguly obliged. That is leadership. Alone among the cricketing nations, his Indian side repeatedly troubled the Australians. Under his leadership the team prevailed in England, daring to bat first on a Headingley greentop. Indeed the very image of Indian cricket changed – a process started by Sunil Gavaskar and completed by Ganguly and companions. No longer does anyone talk about timidity against fast bowling or languishing overseas. Driven in varying degrees by pride and professionalism, the now-departing generation acknowledged these weaknesses, confronted them and corrected them.
Always Ganguly was in the thick of it. No matter how often he was discarded he bounced back. No matter how frequently his cricketing obituary was written he found a way back into the team. At times he seemed to relish the headlines forecasting his imminent and final downfall. He is not by nature defiant. It is too petty an emotion. Just that he liked to prove doubters wrong. Criticism spurred him on. Otherwise he was inclined to become lethargic. He revelled in his reputation as an independent man who lived and played by his own lights.
He is not a man easily pinned down. Although it is never wise to suppose a man can be caught in a single adjective, it is much easier with his contemporaries. To watch Rahul Dravid or Virender Sehwag or Anil Kumble play is to know a large part of them. Ganguly liked to keep people guessing. Perhaps it is his background. Is it possible that the son of a wealthy businessman might have had some reservations, even embarrassment, about becoming a professional cricketer? Deep down Ganguly belonged to the old days, not so much of aristocracy as of ease. He cast himself as a sportsman, a player of games, and on the surface did not take it too seriously. And yet the fires of competition burned hot.
In some respects he has been a rebel, against the expectations of his origins, against dutiful modern ways, against the patronising of his country. But he is too large a figure to be motivated by anything as shrivelling as anger. Rather he has been a creative force in the game. As a batsman he was full of neatly executed strokes. It was not in his nature to brutalise the ball. Nor was he a poet caressing it with a delicate touch. Neither extreme attracted him in the slightest. Instead he stroked the ball, guiding it between fieldsmen or lifting it over their heads. It looked effortless but some men like to hide the strain.
He has an unusual and unconventional mind. Often he will make the remark that raises eyebrows, causes people to stop and think. After all the hullabaloo of the travesty in Sydney, his stepped back and said that it had shown “how desperately the Australians want to win”. All India was in a rage and yet a part of him respected that unbridled determination to prevail. He saw the meaning of the whole thing. Indeed he must have taken satisfaction from it. Australia has worked themselves into a lather over beating India. The rivalry had been largely his creation. And India had stood its ground. He had played his part in that as well.
Ganguly was at his most effective against the Australians. Somehow he sensed that the two nations had a lot in common, though they knew it not. But he felt that his players were unduly intimidated by the reputations and muscularity of these opponents. Accordingly he set out to convince them that the Aussies were human and could be beaten. In India he turned up late for the toss, a cheekiness that began as an accident and became an amusing tactic. It worked. The Australians became riled and started to play the man and not the ball. They had fallen into Ganguly’s trap. His players could see that he was neither scared nor scarred, and enjoyed plucking the giant’s beard. As captain Ganguly understood the value of gestures, the importance of appearances.
By no means, though, was it all gestures. Ganguly was the real thing, or else he could not have carried his players along with him. In Australia in 2003-04 he knew that his struggling team needed him to lead the way in the critical hour with a captain’s innings and in Brisbane he promptly produced a rousing, valorous hundred on a lively pitch against a rampant attack. It was this performance that confirmed, once and for all, that Ganguly was not as fragile as he seemed. A twig can be snapped but not even a tempest can uproot a tree. It also secured the respect of his initially reluctant opponents, who know a fighter when they see one. As far as the Aussies were concerned, Lord Snooty had earned his stripes. It is one thing to talk, quite another to follow up with deeds.
And now he leaves the scene. Although he has batted with silky serenity in this series, it is the right time to go. A man has only so many struggles in him. A player’s supporters have only so many battles in them. Perhaps in the last few days of his career he will play his part in India’s greatest cricketing feat, the downing of Australia not by miraculous deed but sustained ruthlessness. If so it will be no more than he deserves. Ganguly has been neither a genius or a saint or a great batsman, but he has served with distinction and leaves Indian cricket in a much better state than he found it.