How will one best remember Sourav Ganguly? What will be his most enduring legacy?
These are questions being asked all over the cricketing world on a day when Ganguly will wear his India colours for one final time in Nagpur. While some say that he will be best remembered for his never-say-die spirit and perhaps as India’s best ever captain, history will also surely remember him as someone who rescued Indian cricket from its deepest low: the tribulations of match fixing.
At a time when the match fixing scandal was eating into the very edifice of Indian cricket and the national side under Sachin Tendulkar was in disarray, Ganguly assumed the mantle of leadership. Fans had started to lose interest in the game and only a handful in the cricket fraternity — one of them being Ganguly — was above suspicion. To compound problems, he was soon challenged by Steve Waugh’s record-breaking Australians seeking to conquer the “final frontier”. It was a team that came to India on the back of 15 wins on the trot.
Ganguly’s initiation into Test captaincy in 2000 could not have been more dramatic. To add to his woes, India was mauled at the Wankhede in a little under three-and-a-half days in the first Test of the series. Add to this the scoreline at the end of Day 2 at the Eden Gardens in the second Test: Australia having scored 445 and India reeling at 128-8, the situation looked set for Ganguly to lose the captaincy even before he had warmed up to it.
Reality, however, could not have been more different. India won at the Eden match thanks to a miracle partnership between V V S Laxman and Rahul Dravid and a match-winning spell by Harbhajan Singh. This was followed by a series-winning victory at Chennai. It was perhaps the best Test series ever to be played on Indian soil and suddenly to borrow the words of the man of the moment, Barack Obama, Indian cricket had a three-word mantra: “Yes we can”. Under Ganguly, nothing seemed impossible and innovation was routine.
Ganguly converted Virender Sehwag into an opener, discarding all the conventional idioms about opening the batting. It was a decision that still continues to pay dividends. Remembering the decision, Ganguly suggested in a conversation last week at the end of the Delhi Test, “In India you need quick runs at the top of the order for once the ball gets older, you can’t score fast. And if you get off to a flier the opposition will always be under pressure. Sehwag was our best bet.”
He played Dravid at number six and promoted Laxman up the order, an innovation that won India the Eden miracle, and could be something we need to resort to again to get Dravid back in form. He inspired Harbhajan to become a proven match-winner in all forms of the game and motivated the team to win in adverse overseas conditions. In doing all this, his hair may have turned grey and his batting form may have suffered but the nation surely gained.
Ganguly’s personal journey may be divided into two distinct phases — the pre- and post-Greg Chappell periods. While the first witnessed near unrivalled elegance in batsmanship, the second was a more cautious and hardened phase, one in which he valued his wicket much more. While in the first, dancing down the track and hitting spinners out of the ground was routine and caressing the ball through the offside to the boundary second habit, in the second, milking the ball for ones and twos was the norm.
The first phase resulted in comments like Sourav was god-like in his offside play; the second forced critics to acknowledge that he was more mature and solid after his stunning comeback in South Africa in the 2006-07 series.
The one link between the two periods was his aggression. Be it the over-the-top waving of his shirt at the Lord’s balcony after the Natwest victory in 2002 — something that he gets slightly embarrassed about when reminded of — or making Steve Waugh wait for him at the toss in the 2001 series or his valiant counter-attack en route to scoring a series-defining century at Brisbane in 2003, aggression and confidence have been his defining traits.
In retirement, too, Ganguly stands out. Even in his final Test match at Nagpur, Ganguly scored a flawless 85. Giving it up before critics call for his head, despite knowing full well that he could have continued for some more time given his current form, he remains someone who has always exceeded expectations and fought his way out of trouble. In fact, it is this ability that endears him most to the owner of the Kolkata Knight Riders, Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan.
In commenting on his legacy, one is forced to acknowledge Ganguly’s ability to surprise one and all. You may not trust him with your life if you apply the parameters of reason and rationale, but you can certainly bank on him if you think with your heart. And who better to tell us than Ganguly that modern competitive sport is more often than not played from the heart and not in the mind