In the 2000s, Sourav Ganguly took over a side that was reeling under the cloud of the match-fixing controversy. He then became the architect of a strong Indian team. He faced many upheavals, but he fought back hard to prove his detractors wrong.
Nishad Pai Vaidya recalls Indian cricket era under Sourav Ganguly on the latter’s 40th birthday.
On July 8, 1972, a leader was born who would go on to change the face of Indian cricket. A city that is known for producing footballers and eminent politicians – Sourav Ganguly’s arrival marked the beginning of an unparalleled hysteria. Kolkata’s favourite son went on to become a national icon and symbolised the spirit of a new Indian team. It was a fighting spirit that was not seen before, an exuberance that took the world by surprise. As he turns 40 today, let us flash back into the life and times of the Prince of Kolkata.
In 1992, Ganguly made his One-Day International (ODI) debut against West Indies in Australia. It wasn’t a happy outing as he could only score three runs and was axed after the tour. It took him four years to get back into reckoning – and he did it in some style. In a typically classical setting at Lord’s, Ganguly served notice on the biggest stage with a sparkling hundred on Test debut. It was a knock full off dazzling strokes through the off-side – which would go on to become his trademarks over the years.
Ganguly maintained a healthy average in Tests, but it was the one-day game that suited him the best. In the company of Sachin Tendulkar, he forged an awesome opening partnership that dominated for years. The duo complemented each other well and created fear in the minds of the bowlers. The aggressive intent was prevalent as they matched each other stroke for stroke. Through all that, they maintained their own style and backed their strengths.
Shane Warne said that he had nightmares of Tendulkar dancing down the track and smashing him over his head for six. Ganguly wasn’t far behind as spinners feared the sight of him waltzing down the wicket and lofting them. The left-arm spinners in particular would bear the brunt of his fury as the charge was on the cards. A number of captains protected their left-armers until they saw the back of Ganguly. Otherwise, they risked conceding a psychological advantage.
At the Eden Gardens, Ganguly was a gladiator who owned the arena. His entry would garner the loudest cheers and the opposite would lead to pin-drop silence. An unforgettable occasion came when he was ousted from the Indian side in 2005. A capacity crowd at the Eden Gardens cheered for the touring South Africans who were motivated to thump India comprehensively. It gave a sense of what Ganguly meant to Kolkata if the demonstrations in his support weren’t enough.
Ganguly’s real legacy lies not in his brilliant captaincy record or his fan following, but the way he steadied the ship after the nightmares of the match-fixing controversy. The team had lost its credibility and standing and it was left to him to pick up the pieces and rebuild. In the company of Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, he picked up the team from the muddle and regained respect in the years that followed.
Under his inspired leadership, India shed the tag of being poor travellers as overseas victories became more frequent occurrences than they ever were. In the ODI arena, a mixture of youth and experience gelled into a formidable unit. Players like Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag, Mohammad Kaif, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh blossomed under Ganguly’s watchful eye and became huge assets to the Indian team. It wasn’t just the Dravids, Gangulys or Tendulkars who won matches for India as these youngsters put their hands up and made themselves count.
The NatWest series final of 2002 is a landmark in Indian cricket as Yuvraj and Kaif scripted a victory from a hopeless situation. However, there was one moment that stole the young duo’s thunder. A jubilant Ganguly took off his shirt and waved it in the air at a venue that symbolises the gentleman’s game. In the traditional setting, it was an expression that challenged everything about it. It was a clear indication that here was a man unafraid to speak his mind.
In an age where cricket teams around the world resorted to sledging and mental intimidation, Ganguly taught his side to shield from those distractions and return a few “pleasantries” if needed. It wasn’t a planned show of emotions, but the team would not take anything lying around and were ready to pay the others in their own coin. There were a few occasions though – where he would try to get underneath the skin of the opposition captain for eg. arriving late for the toss.
The Greg Chappell era created a storm that pushed Ganguly out of the team. Anyone may have felt disheartened and taken a break from the game. However, Ganguly immediately hit the domestic circuit to script a comeback. In the face of adversity and when the sport had knocked him down and out, Ganguly showed tremendous fight to work his way back into the scheme of things. With detractors baying for his blood – some of whom were a part of the Indian think-tank – Ganguly was determined to prove them wrong. In a sense, he was cricket’s real life version of Rocky Balboa. Time and again, whenever he has been written off, he would bounce back to the delight of his supporters.
On hindsight, the axe did him more good than harm as some of his best knocks came after the turbulent phase. His maiden double hundred in Tests came against arch rivals Pakistan when India lost four quick wickets on the first day. He returned to the top in ODIs to do an encore of the Ganguly-Tendulkar partnership. With doubts surrounding his career prior to the Test series against Australia in 2008, Ganguly announced that it was going to be his last outing. Determined to end on a high, he played a number of crucial knocks to help India clinch the series.
Since 2008, Ganguly has lingered at the Indian Premier League (IPL) showing glimpses of old form. In 2011, he was ignored at the auctions, but was given a lifeline by Pune Warriors India. It hasn’t been a very successful time and the 2012 season was a struggle. People would have bet their money on him to fight, but age seems to have caught on.
Whenever the history of Indian cricket is written, the fearless leadership of Ganguly will get pride of place – a man many loved to hate, but nobody could ignore.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a club-level cricketer with an analytic mind and a sharp eye. It was this sharpness which spotted a wrong replay in IPL4 resulting in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. Some of his analytical pieces have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. Nishad can also be followed on Twitter)