Coffee with Maharaj
Sourav Ganguly, Puma bat in hand, is ensconced in a large sofa in the coffee shop of the Marriott Royal hotel, a gothic structure in Bristol's College Green area. Overlooking him - Maharaj to many in Bengal - are portraits of English monarchs. He's served coffee by a Bengali waitress, who blushes when asked for the bill: "For you, sir, it's complimentary."
A few metres from the hotel stands a life-size statue of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a political hero in Bengal and a pioneering Indian social and religious reformer. Ganguly had paid a visit to the spot that morning and garlanded the icon. Roy, who died in Bristol, played a big part in Bengal's Renaissance movement back in the early 19th century; about two hundred years on, Ganguly was to achieve the cricket equivalent. It was under him that India took their first steps towards improving their abysmal away record.
"Enormous," he thunders, when asked how much India have improved on their travels over the last few years. "Honestly our overseas performance since 2000 has been very, very good. The tag of 'we don't travel [well] abroad' is not fair."
He's fidgeting with his bat, twirling it as if getting ready to enter the field. It's probably the same chunk of wood that transformed into a wand during his incandescent 57 at The Oval, an innings that effectively put a seal on the Test series. "I don't think we would have lost either way yaar," he shrugs when asked about the stunner. "But I'm batting well."
Surely India's new Mr Dependable is doing more than just batting well? "The good thing is its been under crucial situations. Like at The Oval. Even in Nottingham [his 79 in the second Test], the morning session against the new ball turned the Test match in our favour. That's what is expected of you when you've been around for so long."
More bat twirls. This is fast resembling Lt. Daniel Kaffee's quirky baseball manoeuvres in A Few Good Men.
Before he arrived at the Marriott, Ganguly spent half an hour patiently attending to media requests. At the end of India's practice session at the County Ground, reporters from nine television channels hovered around him, taking turns to ask three to four questions each. Switching effortlessly between English, Hindi and Bengali, he patiently responded to all. It's almost as if he had slotted it as 'media day'. He's not the captain anymore, hasn't been for a couple of years, and isn't forced to face the press every other day.
"Obviously not being captain has helped," he says, gently feeling the Puma marker on his bat. "When you're captain you get involved in a lot of things. You're trying to get the best out of players and subconsciously, without knowing, it gets to you. At the end of the day you return to the room tired. You're working on everyone, on the team, on yourself. Slowly, slowly it affects you."
An hour earlier Rahul Dravid responded to a variety of questions, first from the television media, then radio, then print, then radio again. Some questions related to India's crushing loss in the first one-dayer, others left him speechless. "Sachin Tendulkar has scored two hundreds on this ground from No. 4," cried out one reporter, implying that Tendulkar should bat at that position in the second ODI. Dravid deflected it with, "Thanks for telling me", before breaking into a laugh.
"It's hard work yaar," says Ganguly. "I understand what Rahul goes through and I keep on telling him, 'You should not take things to heart'. Because there are too many things happening. If he starts worrying about everything, he'll be a goner. I'm sure he understands. He knows what he's doing."
Ganguly would know best. Five years ago, during India's previous tour to England, it was him in the hot seat. So hot was the seat that he ended up rubbing people the wrong way. 'Lord Snooty', they termed him. Yet on all his three trips, starting with his fairytale start in 1996, he has left an indelible imprint with his batting.
"I love coming to this country," he beams. "The facilities, the travel, the hotels ... it's comfortable, it's not tiring. We've been here for more than two months and honestly I'm not tired, I'm not homesick. It's great, man. It feels like home."
I think nobody has the right to talk about Sachin Tendulkar's game. It's just a phenomenon
But where's the naked aggression? Surely he doesn't plan to leave without baring his chest on the Lord's balcony? "It's gone down, yaar," he says, like a teenager who has been stood up on his first date. "But it will go down. As captain you're involved immensely. You get worked up, you get carried away. It slowly dies down once you're a player. You realise you've to take the back seat."
That back-seat team, comprising Ganguly, Tendulkar, Anil Kumble and VVS Laxman, have played a big part in Dravid's performance at the steering wheel on this tour. It's a series when they needed to chip in, especially with no coach to take the pressure off Dravid. With such a wealth of sounding boards, Dravid has rarely been short of ideas.
Nobody knows which is trickier: asking Ganguly about India coaches or doing the reverse. His relationship with John Wright often got messy; the one with Greg Chappell ended in the ugliest divorce in Indian cricket - one that was played out in public.
Now, for the first time in his international career, India are without a coach. So, Mr Ganguly, how has it been? "We have coaches," he says matter-of-factly. "Robin [Singh] and Venky [Prasad] have been superb. Their man-management skills have been worth watching. Chandu Borde has been nice. When he got appointed, a lot of people said, he's 73. He may not be the most active because of his age but the batting ideas he gives ... he stands behind in the nets, watches every ball. That's all you need."
Both Robin and Prasad played under Ganguly, and the air of matey-ness between them is apparent. Ganguly insists the dressing-room atmosphere has been relaxed and, with the finesse that he would use to thread a gap between point and gully, proceeds to fire some salvos.
"The youngsters have enjoyed themselves. It's been a lovely dressing room, a free dressing room. No hiccups, not many controversies off the field, not too much rubbish going around. Which has been good. It's been fantastic." With the exception of "rubbish", which is spewed out, all the other words are uttered in a measured tone.
"You don't need a professor at this level," he says. His expressions don't change but the tone goes up just a notch. "You don't need to treat international players like students. What are you going to teach Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid or Anil Kumble? What are you going to tell them? [There are] minor things which you notice in the nets you come and tell them, 'This is what I feel, this is how you can do it better'. And Mr Borde does it perfectly."
There's an exaggeratedly mellow tone about Ganguly. At 34 it is but natural. It's an age when bankers and doctors start the best phase of their professional lives but one when cricketers are expected to slink away silently. Ganguly may be playing the best cricket of his life, but he has nowhere to go.
"They say with age your reflexes slow down. I've not felt it," he says, admiring the green grip on his bat before twirling it even faster. "As a batsman playing fast bowling, when playing somebody like Chris Tremlett, with a bit of bounce, I've not felt it. In South Africa I faced the pace. When I came back to India you had Lasith Malinga bowling at 150, Dilhara Fernando bowling at 150. I never felt I was late.
"It's how well you look after yourself yaar. Rahul is 34-35, I don't see him change in his batting. Rahul produced his best knocks between 30 and 34. Matthew Hayden is 35, Gilchrist is 34-35, Steve Waugh, Allan Border ... I'll give you a whole lot of names. Unless or until you're special like Tendulkar or Lara ... look at Chanderpaul. His batting has gone to a different level."
He realises his coffee has turned cold. But he wants to continue a train of thought. He quickly takes a few sips before coming back to Tendulkar and Lara. "They're exceptions. The best two batsmen I've seen. Ricky Ponting comes close but ..."
Tendulkar he has observed at close quarters - played with him, been led by him, captained him, and is now back to playing with him. Mention the name and he reacts with a spontaneous "great". No thought, just a sudden "great". The two have been like true chums on this trip, constantly motivating each other and chirping away incessantly in the slips.
"We've opened in one-day cricket a lot, nearly 150-160 games," he says, shadow-practising the right-hander's square cut. "We know each other's batting, what the other guy wants to do, what the other guy is trying to do."
So, like the rest in their mid-30s, should Tendulkar be at the height of his powers too? The response arrives in a tone that says, 'Stop talking rubbish.' "When you play for 18 years you can never be the same," he says. "Especially when you have been so brilliant. But he's still one of the best.
"That innings at The Oval, which he played, I told him after the Test match, 'It's an innings for everyone to watch, for every youngster to watch and learn.' For somebody who's got 25,000 runs, they kept hitting him on his body. He was not hitting the ball well. Still he stood there and batted, batted, batted, batted, batted. And he got an 80. It shows the hunger of that man."
One gets the feeling that by using "batted" five times in the sentence Ganguly is trying to explain the greatness within the struggle, the humility in seeing oneself exposed yet achieving the end result. He thinks for a moment before considering the best option. "I think nobody has the right to talk about Sachin Tendulkar's game," he says. "It's just a phenomenon." With a thud, he plonks his bat on the red carpet.
Ganguly is soon set to join Tendulkar and Dravid in an elite club; he stands within touching distance of 300 one-day caps. It's a milestone he could reach during the fifth match of the ongoing series, at Headingley.
Ganguly is 34. It's an age when bankers and doctors start the best phase of their professional lives, but one when cricketers are expected to slink away silently. Ganguly may be playing the best cricket of his life, but he has nowhere to go
These days he values every innings highly, knowing full well that the "job" might last for only a "year or two". Ganguly tries to draw an analogy to explain.
"Every time you walk out and perform, it's that feeling of, 'Man, I belong at this level'. It's not about money. As a journalist, you interview a Maradona or a Sampras or a Tiger Woods and you feel, 'Yeah man, I've done a great job. This is what I've worked for.' Similarly in my profession it's the satisfaction you get by hitting a good cover-drive, or defending well to somebody bowling at 90 miles an hour. It's a job satisfaction thing."
How would he have reacted if, in the spring of 1996, when he had all but given up playing for India, someone had said he'd play 300 one-dayers? "I'd have said, 'Tell me where you want to go for dinner and I'll take you.'"
His dinner plans for tonight involve Monty Panesar, his former Northamptonshire team-mate, who ran him out two days ago. He grins a wry grin when told that he was Monty's first international run-out victim. "Lovely fellow," is the only response.
Which brings us to the end of one the more engaging bat-twirling sessions in recent memory. For the audience, comprising the waitress, three English monarchs and myself, it has been a fascinating experience. With Ganguly there is no other way.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is assistant editor of Cricinfo