Ganguly returns to where it all began
Sourav Ganguly's arrival is barely noticed amid the commotion. A scrum of 20 journalists are crowded around a certain Sachin Tendulkar - hanging on his every word as they have hung for the best part of two decades, willing him to wax lyrical about the Lord's Test century that he has never yet compiled. Meanwhile the Prince of Calcutta, Tendulkar's former captain and fellow Galactico, slips serenely past the throng and takes his place at a nearby table. He is away from the limelight, back among the ranks. And the impression he would like to give is that he has never been happier.
It has been a crazy year for Ganguly encompassing exile and acrimony, recalls and redemption. Eight months ago, when his feud with his ex-coach Greg Chappell was at its height, the notion of a third Test tour to England was so absurd it was not even a consideration. But now he is back at Lord's, where his whole journey began, 11 years ago. In the corresponding Test of 1996, Ganguly announced his arrival with a sublime debut century and then followed up one innings and two weeks later with a second hundred - 136 at Nottingham. He has scarcely escaped from the headlines since.
"The past is the past. There are phases in life that you just have to fight through," says Ganguly. Nine days into his 36th year, and with more than 5500 runs from his 93 Test matches - including an Indian record of 21 wins in 49 as captain - he's fought and won more battles than most men would seek in ten lifetimes. But he insists the fires within have not yet been dimmed, they've merely been brought under control. It is a quieter, more contemplative character who is embarking on the autumn of his illustrious career.
"For those eight months [out of the side], I had all sorts of thoughts, but I never thought of giving up. It made me a tougher player to be honest. When I came back in South Africa [in December 2006], I felt I was tougher even than when I was playing my best cricket. I never thought so far as this tour. Even if I hadn't been recalled, I would have carried on playing until the World Cup, expecting an opportunity and ready to cash in on it."
Ganguly has cashed in alright. The first innings of his rebirth was an indomitable 51 not out on a Johannesburg greentop, out of a total of 249, that ultimately set up an improbable 123-run victory. Another 110 runs in defeat at Cape Town meant he finished a tough tour as the series top-scorer, and a 13 th Test century followed four months later in Chittagong, as Bangladesh were made to pay for their insolence at the World Cup. Even during that tumultuous Group B defeat in Trinidad, Ganguly was the one Indian who would not be bowed - defiantly anchoring a disastrous batting performance with 66 from 129 balls.
Those efforts were sufficient to re-establish his credentials. Now, at last, Ganguly is able to take pleasure in his cricket once again - something, you suspect, he has missed for many a long year. Certainly, he does not seem to miss the pressures of captaincy one little bit. "Oh yeah, completely," he says when asked if he's over his axing. "I've got so much more free time. Captaincy is never easy but in India it is harder because the demands are more. Now that I'm away from the job, I've been able to concentrate on myself and my [own] game again. I've got a lot of time to relax."
England suits his demeanour as well, despite the fact that the British press is scarcely any more forgiving than their Indian counterparts. In 2000 he endured an unsuccessful stint for Lancashire, scoring 671 runs in 14 matches with no centuries, and attracting the opprobrium of none other than the people's Prince himself, Andrew Flintoff. He was even less successful in a brief foray for Northamptonshire last summer, averaging 4.80 in six innings, although in mitigation, a four-week midsummer stint was never going to suit him. "When you come from the subcontinent," he says, "you need some time to get used to the conditions.
"I had no problems at Lancashire, to be honest. The only thing is, I never used to drink, and if you're a non-drinker in England it's tough. I used to have my coke, pack my bags and go home to see my wife. My performance was not what they wanted of an overseas professional, and that may have been a reason for some disappointment, but we still managed second in the championship."
Whenever Ganguly has turned up here in India's colours, however, the story has been significantly different. "Whether it's the World Cup, Tests or one-day cricket, by God's grace, I've done exceedingly well [here]," he says without exaggeration. His 379 runs in the 1999 World Cup included a career-best 183 against Sri Lanka at Taunton, while his six Tests to date in England have earned him the beastly tally of 666 runs, with three hundreds and three fifties. Only once has he failed, making 0 and 5 in the last Lord's Test in 2002 - the only occasion on which he has been beaten.
"I like coming to this part of the world, and I'm sure most of the players enjoy coming here too," he says. "The facilities, the travel, the comfort. You're not getting on flights every five days, you're not packing suitcases every day. You're just on the coach for a maximum of a couple of hours. It takes a lot of the tiredness out of you. The weather's good, and it's a country where everything's accessible."
Even so, Ganguly is too long in the tooth to allow complacency to seep into his assessment of the challenge. "I've done well here, but that doesn't guarantee success - it's a one-ball game for batsmen. It's been raining a lot here, so there'll be some movement, but if we put runs up on the board, that's the key." With the old firm of Ganguly, Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid reunited for a third and final assault, that side of the bargain is likely to be fulfilled, especially against an attack lacking the twin services of Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff. But what of India's own bowling?
"This is the best bowling team we've had in England," says Ganguly. "In terms of the number of games they've played, they are inexperienced, but in terms of performances they have delivered. We won in West Indies and we won the first Test in South Africa in difficult conditions. Zaheer Khan had a great summer for Worcester [in 2006], but Sreesanth is my dark horse for the series - he runs in all the time, and bowls with pace and swing in the right areas."
One man who is missing, however, is Ganguly's staunchest sidekick, Harbhajan Singh, and it is not hard to imagine what the senior man makes of his omission. "He's not just a great ally, he's a world-class bowler," says Ganguly. "He and Anil Kumble are India's biggest match winners, and he's got nearly 250 Test wickets. Series after series he's been on his own. He was our only bowler in 2001 when we beat Australia, because everyone else was injured. Anil was having a shoulder operation, while Srinath was injured after the first match. We kept on losing bowlers, but he just stood up at one end and picked off wickets."
Ganguly's tussles with Australia remain the zenith of his career. When asked where India's famous innings victory at Headingley in 2002 ranks in his all-time moments, it trails in a distant third, way behind the Adelaide triumph in 2003-04, and just about on a par with the away win in Pakistan that same season. But in terms of personal batting highlights, few occasions match Ganguly's opening gambit, right here in North-West London.
"The frame of mind I had in that Test [in 1996] I could never have it again," says Ganguly. "It's probably the best frame of mind I've had in my career. It's an age factor. I was more carefree back then, because when you're young you don't worry about a lot of things. In last 11 years I've scored runs all around the world, but back then I had no nervousness, no fear of failure.
"I wish I could get back to that mindset for this Test match," he admits, a touch wistfully. Given all the battles he has fought and won in the intervening years, perhaps it is not entirely out of the question. He has proved his point and clawed his way back from the brink. Now all he has to do is enjoy the few moments that remain.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo