Sourav Ganguly: cast away that tag of fragility
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At 2.40pm local time, the Gabba rose to salute a man whose spirit Australia had sought ruthlessly to crush before this Test began. The Australian fielders allowed him the right of passage and clapped him all the way back to the dressing room. Sourav Ganguly looked solemn for a man who had achieved his biggest personal triumph. But it was understandable. After his double-barrelled celebration of his century, which reminded many Australians of Michael Slater, he would have found himself emotionally exhausted. This was his finest hundred, and among the very best played by an Indian outside the subcontinent.
For years now, Ganguly has carried, not unjustly, a tag of fragility against pace and bounce. He has been a magnificent leader of his men, but from time to time, with every bad series with the bat, speculation has arisen on whether he would have merited a place in the Test side without the privilege of captaincy. He has handled the doubters sometimes with a dismissive grin, sometimes with scorn and sometimes with hurt. Through all his travails, though, he has never let his spirit flag, or the chin drop.
At the pre-Test press conference Ganguly had described the Australian tour as a test of his team's ability. "By the end of this tour, we will find out how good we are. Individually, and as a team." It was a brave thing to say for a man with a Test average below 30 against Australia. Ganguly isn't given to braggadocio, but there is disarming honesty to his straight talking, which is sometimes mistaken for arrogance. His decision to bowl first in this match, though tactically right, had been described as negative and prompted by a desire to protect his top order. It was predicted that Ganguly would drop down to No. 6 to delay facing the quick bowlers as much as possible.
At 62 for 3, all three wickets having fallen for one run, and among those Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, two men expected to carry the Indian batting in Australia, India found themselves facing a familiar crisis. The follow-on mark wasn't far, but suddenly it looked a long way as Ganguly made his way at No. 5. His opening stroke was a streaky three between third slip and gully and there was the odd swish outside the off stump in the beginning, but apart from a slashed four just out of reach of a stretching third slip, there were no other alarms.
Throughout his career, Ganguly has scored most of his runs on the off side, but a sure sign of good form is when he is striking the ball well to the left of cover. The ball is then hit with the bat fully behind it rather than with an open face. From the moment he off-drove Andy Bichel between cover and mid-off, Ganguly was flowing.
Those carping about his poor overseas record neglect an outstanding series against West Indies last year where Ganguly was a picture of consistency. But there, it was an unfamiliar Ganguly, grafting and toiling for his runs, accumulating rather than amassing. He scored an imperious hundred against England at Headingley later that year, which was savage, and slogged for a good part. Today, he reclaimed the pristineness and the majesty of the batsman who had caressed his way to two hundreds in his first two Test matches.
Sourav Ganguly: the positive attitude made all the difference
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Ganguly had spent six days with Greg Chappell in preparation for the Australian tour. Chappell wasn't willing to take any credit for Ganguly's hundred today, saying that the hard work was always done in the middle. He did say, though, that most of all, he had emphasised to Ganguly the need to stay positive and let the merit of each ball dictate his response.
The most noticeable feature in Ganguly's batting today was his footwork. The essence of his off-side strokeplay is playing away from his body, for it allows him the freedom of extending his arms and create space for those silken drives, but his front foot was moving positively across today, which made his defense more secure and certain. He left balls outside his off stump with a rare assurance and his handling of the short ball was remarkably decisive: he either swivelled to slap them away in a controlled way, or ducked securely. Admittedly, there were no express bowlers in the opposition ranks today, but a couple of days ago, Steve Waugh had been ruffled by a couple of short balls and Ganguly's composure today would send a message to the Australian team, so fond of psychological warfare.
And let Ganguly's remarkable achievement not detract from another splendid innings from VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag's early cameo and Akash Chopra's solid contribution in stabilising the Indian innings. Laxman wasted a chance for a century, but he was the most fluent batsman in the Test so far, showcasing the beauty, the grace and the wristiness that makes his batting one of the most pleasurable sights in cricket.
John Buchanan measures a match by every session. By his score, India are well ahead in this match. It is not often that Australia concede a first-innings lead on home turf. The play tomorrow might turn out to be academic. But Ganguly's team have already scored a major triumph.
Sambit Bal, the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and Wisden Cricinfo in India, will be following the Indian team throughout this Test series.