Is this the end of the road for Ganguly?
It would be cruel and sad if this turns out be the end of the road for Sourav Ganguly for he has been a colossus who deserves a befitting exit. Let's say it straight. He had passed a fitness test, he was available, but for the second time in his remarkable career he has been dropped. He made a stirring comeback the first time. This time, it could be the beginning of the end. The implications of this decision by the national selectors, which must rank among the boldest and the most radical in Indian cricket history, are huge.
It can be argued that Ganguly can still command a place in India's one-day XI on batting merit. As he showed with that gutsy hundred in the Duleep Trophy match last week, he is still a few notches higher than many young batting talents available in the country. But by ignoring his claim, the national selectors have shown that they are prepared to invest in a long-term vision. Call it subscribing to the Chappellway or collective progressive thinking, the last meetings of the selection committee have sent a clear message: players will not be picked on reputation, or even ability, alone; attitude and commitment to the team cause are big factors.
It's tough not to feel for Ganguly, who has the right to feel short-changed and aggrieved, but it must be said that the interests of Indian cricket have not been jeopardised by his exclusion. Viewed dispassionately, it can even be described as a right step forward. For far too long, Indian cricket has remained obsessed with, and shackled by, the cult of the individual. Ganguly helped build a team that can be counted among the most competitive in India's cricket history, but a cycle has been completed and India need to build again. They need fresh talent, fresh legs and hunger. Some of the older players have to make way for the young.
Ganguly, his supporters will argue, has proven both his fitness and form with his Duleep Trophy hundred. But Ganguly's place in the team must be viewed in a wider context: he remains among the slowest movers in the field and between the wickets; his casualness towards personal fitness has never been a secret; with India finding Mahendra Singh Dhoni, they no longer need to play seven batsmen; JP Yadav has shown promise as an allrounder; and there is Mohammad Kaif waiting in the wings.
At the moment, India's batting order picks itself. Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid (with the option of promoting Irfan Pathan/Dhoni/Yadav if the need arose), Yuvraj Singh, Kaif when he returns, Dhoni, and Yadav. Ganguly can only be accommodated at the expense of Yadav, but apart from affecting the balance of the team, it will also affect the batting order because it will force Kaif a slot behind. Since Kaif has been ruled out for another week, the selectors could have brought in Ganguly at the expense of either Venugopal Rao, Suresh Raina or Gautam Gambhir, neither of whom have got to bat so far, but that would have been a short-sighted approach because Kaif's return is inevitable. There is little point in picking Ganguly in the sqaud if he can't make it to the playing XI, or XII.
By playing inspired cricket in the last two matches, the Indian team have made a strong case for continuing with what's clicking right. Tendulkar has made a magical return, Dravid has led positively and with imagination, the fielding has been sharp and the team has looked galvanized. True, it might only take a couple of defeats for the picture to look completely different, but for the moment, it's clear this is the way forward. If India continue to win, it's difficult to see Ganguly returning to the one-day side in the near future. And the longer he stays away from the national side the harder it will be for him to find his way back.
It's difficult to imagine what Ganguly will do now. Ever since returning from Zimbabwe, he has kept his own counsel and steeled himself to regain his honour. As he showed in the Duleep Trophy match last week, he is willing to fight for his place. He is a strong-willed and passionate man and these qualities reflect in his game. But how long will he allow himself to linger in the sidelines? If India manage to beat both Sri Lanka and South Africa, will the selectors still pick him as captain in the Tests, a form in which his record has been even more indifferent than in one-day cricket?
Indian cricket is churning at the moment. The next couple of weeks could be seminal.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo