June 11, 2000

Ganguly: courageous captain of a difficult side

When India lost to Sri Lanka in the third match of the Asia Cup, the Indian captain was a troubled man. Troubled might actually be an understatement. Coming to the post match press conference without his customary grin, the Bengal southpaw was all fire and brimstone. "What can I say when batsmen with the experience of 150, 200, 300-odd internationals don't know what to do on a flat batting track," he replied in anger to a question. Although he was severe on the batsmen, even the bowlers were not spared. "We gave away at least 25 runs more, but the total was still attainable," he said. In that match, Mohammed Azharuddin made 3 and Ajay Jadeja 8.

These kind of losses are not new to Indian cricket. We have seen experienced cricketers let down their captains more than once in the past. What has happened in the last 10 years or so however has made it easy for players' failures to pass by unquestioned. When Azhar took over as captain of the Indian team, a rather unhealthy ethic crept into the side. The captain remained uncommunicative in the face of defeat. Neither speaking to the press or the players, Azhar crept into a shell of his own. Sachin Tendulkar took over the mantle of captain from an unsuccessful Azhar in 1996. His stint was just as nerve wracking, if not more so. More than one member of the squad communicated the feeling that The Management was unresponsive. The most glaring case is Nayan Mongia's trip to Australia.

When MSK Prasad sustained an injury, Mongia was flown in to replace him. On arriving in Australia, he found that he was not required to keep wickets. He was given the impression that he was not even wanted in the team hotel. ''This is all very frustrating,'' he said. ''I don't know what is my status in this team. If they don't want to keep me, let them tell me. I'll take the first flight home. But why keep me waiting? I am not a youngster on his first trip. I have played 40 Tests in the last eight years. It's not a good feeling to be unwanted.'' Mongia added. What he said made sound sense. However, it was not his feeling that was the centre of attention. Instead, it was the Indian captain, Sachin Tendulkar's inability to communicate to his team that came to the forefront.

All that seems to have changed for the better with the arrival of Ganguly at the helm. Although the run of losses has not yet been arrested to everyone's happiness, the captain's forthrightness is winning him friends. At the end of the same press conference after the loss to Sri Lanka, Ganguly was asked, "You say you are disappointed with the performance of senior players. What are you going to tell them at the team meeting?" Ganguly waited long, collected his thoughts and ended that pregnant pause with the loaded statement "I'll tell them." On hearing that, coach Kapil Dev chuckled quietly to himself beside the skipper.

The team meeting took place. The next match drew near. This time an encounter of even bigger proportions, against arch rivals Pakistan. Yousuf Youhana dazzled, scoring a classy hundred and knocked India out of the Asia Cup.

Once again Ganguly had to meet the press. After scribes had exhausted the set of standard questions, Ganguly looked ready to leave. Standing at the back of the crowd, I asked him, "you said you would tell the experienced players who failed in the last match something in the team meeting. What did you tell them?" He looked back at me and answered, "That was something that happened within the team and I can't really talk about that." Looking straight into my eyes, he got up to leave, shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said "well, whatever I said, it didn't work, did it?" There was surprise all around. Indian captains have not let their feelings show so plainly in many years.

Whether what Ganguly says to his players works or not is one thing. Whether his players want to hear what he says is another. At the end of the day, however, it is heartwarming to see a captain who has things to say to his players. Not only does Mr. Ganguly have things to say, he also has the guts to say them.