The Dhoni-Sehwag rift may have been true or blown out of proportion by the media. However, far from being unique, discords such as this have been commonplace in the history of the game. In this series, Arunabha Sengupta looks at some of the most infamous feuds of cricket. In this episode he looks at the bad blood between Sourav Ganguly and Greg Chappell.
When Greg Chappell arrived at New Delhi’s Taj Palace Hotel to appear be interviewed for the position of the coach of the Indian cricket team, he went through a dress rehearsal of what he was about to get himself into.
He entered the hotel to find it swarming with the biggest gathering of journalists he had ever witnessed. According to his engaging biography Fierce Focus, “they knew little about cricket, but were desperate for ... anything they could turn into a headline ... treating rumour and innuendo as hard news.”
The interview, supposed to start at 2.45 pm was pushed back, and when at 4.25 pm, he was finally ushered into the room where the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) honchos sat waiting, he was informed that it would have to be brief because the Board President, Jagmohan Dalmiya, had to leave for a meeting with the Prime Minister at 5.00 pm. However, he was welcome to resume his presentation once Dalmiya returned, whenever that might be.
The next day, while deliberations were still going on, one board member was accosted in front of the toilet by three journalists looking for a leak of a different kind. That is how the news of Chappell’s appointment was made public. The new coach was bombarded with phone calls before he was informed by BCCI.
Later, SK Nair, the board secretary, requested Chappell to walk through the hotel lobby to keep the journalists happy. A perplexed Chappell asked whether it would not be better to arrange a press conference. The replies he got were, “No, that would just encourage them to ask more questions” and “(don’t bother about helping them understand the truth because) they’ll say what they want anyway.”
It was the Australian’s first experience of working in India. If this was baptism by the curious fireworks associated with cricket in this country, it fell woefully short of preparing him fully. While his predecessor John Wright had dealt with the situation by quietly positioning himself in the background, Chappell tried to rush headlong through the complicated networked tapestries of Indian cricket’s corridors of power and the murky journalistic quagmires, stumbling and tripping throughout his two year stint.
The Honeymoon Period
The many problems that arose with Sourav Ganguly have been written and rewritten, commented upon and ridiculed often enough for the facts to get buried under the accumulated sound and fury.
The beginning of the relationship had been promising enough. Some weeks ahead of taking the Indian team to Australia in 2003-04, Ganguly approached Chappell for help with his batting technique. Of this meeting Chappell writes, “a fine batsman (who) had trouble with the ball rising into the line of his body ... he was extremely likeable and an excellent student.” The results were admirable, as Ganguly fought his way to his most celebrated century at Brisbane against Jason Gillespie, Nathan Bracken, Andy Bichel and Stuart McGill.
Ganguly even wrote the foreword for the book, Greg Chappell on Coaching.
It has been stated that the influence of Ganguly was instrumental in getting the coaching job for Chappell. Yet, when their relationship resumed, the harmony was left Down Under and war drums took over.
The Rhodesian Affair
In Fierce Focus, Chappell states that “This was a very different Sourav from the positive, ambitious young man I’d met in Australia. This Sourav was full of self doubt and caught up in his own struggle for survival...He didn’t want a coach ... he wanted a political ally.”
In recent press conferences, Ganguly has responded by saying, “Greg Chappell ruined my career” and somewhat more unequivocally, “Greg Chappell was mad.”
Cultural differences have been cited as the reason for the conflict, and there is a lot of merit in the argument. Here was a hardnosed Australian cricketer to whom the only thing that mattered was performance. On the other side was a team of superstars, many of whom according to Chappell, “were not interested in improving their game.”
As Chappell set exacting standards without trying to understand the Indian system, insecurities supposedly engulfed the team. The problems surfaced during the tour of Zimbabwe.
Here is what Chappell says in his book about the infamous tour match before the first Test, “Sourav, batting when the second new ball became due, decided to walk off after four overs. He was retiring hurt, but appeared to have no injury. I suggested he go for an MRI scan, but he declined. He was, in my view, simply frightened of a failure before the Test series. ... He had no concept what it did to the team morale ... nor did it help that when the danger had passed, he asked Kumble to retire so that he could go back in. Admirably, Kumble ignored him. The next day, I asked some of the team about Sourav’s antics, and they said it had been going on for years.”
In subsequent discussions between the captain and coach, Chappell revealed his opinion that Ganguly was not in a state to lead the side and it would be better for his batting if he relinquished captaincy. The Indian captain reportedly threatened to walk out of the tour, and had to be reassured that he would be supported if he remained at the helm.
In the first Test match, Ganguly scored a century, his first in over one and a half years, but the innings was painstakingly slow against a club class Zimbabwean bowling attack. Meeting the press after his innings, he disclosed without mentioning names that he had been pressured to give up captaincy before the match.
Later during the tour, Chappell sent the notorious email to the BCCI, which criticised Ganguly as being unfit to lead the team. Among other accusations, it spoke of the ‘injury’ during the tour match, Ganguly’s reluctance to accept his lack of form, unprofessional approach to training and his deliberately chopping and changing the team at the last moment and thus playing havoc with the confidence of young batsmen .
Chappell should have anticipated after his initial experience with the Board and the media that the email would not remain confidential. The press had a field day, television channels went on overdrive and fans went berserk.
Almost immediately, Harbhajan Singh came out in support of Ganguly and rubbished Chappell’s claims, immediately earning himself and his team mates a gag order.
Upon returning to India, both Ganguly and Chappell were summoned to a BCCI board meeting in Mumbai, and both were urged to work together in the best "interests of Indian cricket". “We were told to hatchet the bury (yes that was actually what was said)”, Chappell quips about the communication.
Omission and Reactions
Subsequently, Ganguly was omitted from the ODI squad, Rahul Dravid being appointed captain of the team. For a few Test matches, inclusion as ‘all-rounder’ and intervention of the likes of new board chairman, Sharad Pawar, somehow kept Ganguly in the side. Dravid volunteered to open the innings to free up a position for him in the middle-order. But, after India lost the deciding Test against Pakistan with Dravid failing as an opener, the former captain was omitted from the side.
Ganguly’s bitterness about the omission has never been a secret. Just before the 2011-12 tour of Australia, he hit out claiming Chappell had created insecurity in the team, and had targeted all players, including Sachin Tendulkar.
He went on to add that skipper, “Rahul knew what was happening was wrong but he did not have the guts to revolt”.
When in March this year Dravid announced his retirement, Ganguly modified his statement saying that he did not have anything against Dravid, since his omission had been the result of a scheming Greg Chappell.
What is lost in the tale of personalities is something that should ideally determine inclusions and omissions, namely, performance. For Indian stars, this attribute more often than not takes a remote backseat in the scheme of things.
When Chappell emailed his analysis about Ganguly, the southpaw was at the nadir of his batting prowess, and it was not just a temporary loss of form. Since his century in Brisbane, he had struggled in the interim year and a half, averaging in the low 30s in 13 Tests, which went down to 26.31 with just three fifties when one ignored two figure-bloating matches against Bangladesh. In the last major series, at home against Pakistan, he had managed just 48 in five innings.
In the last 30 One-Day Internationals (ODIs), he had scored at 29 runs per innings, with just seven fifties of which two were against Bangladesh, and one apiece against Kenya and UAE.
To an Australian cricketer, these suggested the remedy of working on the game in first-class cricket.
However, India is a completely different ball game. Ganguly was a legend, and according to senior newspaper journalist like LP Sahi, icons could not be handled in this way. Harsha Bhogle, in numerous television programmes, kept wondering whether it was possible to motivate oneself to turn out in Ranji Trophy matches in towns like Guwahati and Siliguri after having played at Melbourne, Lord’s and Cape Town.
Ganguly’s home state, with its pitiful share of sporting heroes, found it unacceptable that the man who had captained India so long and successfully could be shown the door in this way. Chappell soon joined the clan of the mythical demons. Not only were his effigies ringing global warning sirens as they went up in flames, his head was cast as that of an asura in some of the Durga Puja pandals. Rail blockades, parliamentary questions – the whole ridiculous cycle of off- field drama was played out.
When India played against South Africa at the Eden, in a disgraceful show of cult worship, the huge crowd cheered the touring side to victory. Chappell did not earn too many fans by giving the crowd the finger.
It was full blown cross-cultural communication failure.
And when Ganguly did emerge stronger from his stint in domestic cricket, it was not accepted that best steps had been taken – rather it was all about proving Chappell wrong.
Return of Ganguly and exit of Chappell
With the Indian team struggling in South Africa, and young replacements like Suresh Raina and Yuvaraj Singh doing precious little to fill the vacated spot, Ganguly made a successful comeback after ten months.
The technique had been worked on and the new edition of the left-hander looked far more solid at the wicket than he had done in recent years. The next couple of seasons witnessed strong performances, including some of the best innings of his career, and Ganguly remained a force to reckon with till his retirement.
Chappell’s trouble streaked tenure with the Indian team ended with a first round exit from the World Cup.
While Chappell complained about not being given the team he wanted, with selectors going in for ‘brand name’ players, the excuses fell on deaf ears. For most, he had been a destructive agent in the team.
To many the debacle in West Indies underlined that Chappell had undone the good work of John Wright and had taken Indian cricket to the brink of disaster and it was left to Gary Kirsten to resurrect the team into a band of world beaters yet again.
However, again that is a fable of sorts created in the fumes of controversy, one of those fantasies Indian cricket fans love to indulge in.
During the Chappell era, India managed a mixed bag of results, with some memorable highlights. In Tests, they won seven and lost four, including a series win in West Indies after a wait of 35 years, and the first ever win on South African soil. In ODIs, they won 32 and lost 27, ending up with a win-loss ratio exactly equal to the 1.18 managed under Ganguly.
The coaching period of Chappell has ended and so has the international career of Ganguly, but they have not been relegated to the backstage. The two remain larger than life as they always have. And many a times do they come out with comments which either deal with that period of turbulence or are triggered by it.
Before the Border-Gavaskar Trophy of 2011-12, Ganguly claimed that Chappell’s offer to help the Australian team by demystifying Indian batsmen augured well for India because the former Chappell had proved to be a failure in every coaching-related assignment. Well, Ganguly himself should know better, because after the 144 at Brisbane, he had gone on record saying, “I have no hesitation in saying he (Chappell) has made a significant contribution to my batting. He suggested a few mental and technical adjustments and they must have been good.” Additionally, as shown above, Chappell’s tenure did have a fair amount of positives.
Chappell for his part has revealed his side of the story in Fierce Focus, although some of the figures stated in the book are quite incorrect. To add fuel to fire, he recently came out with blistering comments on India’s culture and heritage that were both shockingly insensitive and hilariously ignorant. If earlier he had struggled to build a rapport with the Indian people because of cultural differences, he has done more than his bit to enlarge the gulf with his comments.
The duel has been long and bloody, and with these two colourful characters in the fray, there is no sign of any white flag.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)