Ganguly sinking as chances run out
The top half had idols of Durga, the bottom the same pictures of the idol sinking, only morphed with Ganguly's face in place of Durga. "Idol will return. Icon?" said the words, on a bold red panel impossible to miss. Today, on the last day of the 2006 poojas one year later, most of India is still looking for an answer to the question that has dominated Indian cricket more than any other in recent memory.
At just past 6.40pm today - after a Sachin Tendulkar-led brutalisation of India Green's bowlers to the strident tune of 381 runs - there was a chance that we might be closer to the answer. In a red t-shirt - slightly odd for a team that's called India Green - and bottle green pants, Ganguly walked out to bat, with an impossible mountain to climb, some might say two - a personal one and a target of 382. It was the moment the Challenger Series had been waiting for, and the expectations were as high as they could be. The first pressure released when he tucked Ajit Agarkar to square-leg for a run that got him off the mark.
For the next 44 minutes, the game stood still. There was really no realistic chance that this target would be hunted down, and it was all down to what Ganguly could achieve. Would this be the day when he proved beyond doubt that he still had it in him to play for India? Could this be the time when he would stand up and bat like the Ganguly of old, making a mockery of the best-laid plans of the bowlers? It was a desperate time, and times like this bring out the streetfighter in men.
It was that fighter who anticipated, correctly, that the ball would not be pitched in his half when he took guard, and ducked smartly under the Agarkar bouncer that greeted him first up. It was the same avatar that enabled Ganguly confidently to plant his right foot forward and towards off, and square-drive Munaf Patel sweetly through point. The defense was reassuring, the composure portrayed a man who believed in himself. But as is always the case with Ganguly, there was a hairy moment. Reaching outside off to fetch an Agarkar ball, he scooped towards off, just wide of a diving Dinesh Mongia at cover. The nerves were calmed by a vintage Ganguly cover-drive, on the rise but all along the turf, sizzling to the fence.
Agarkar, not content to be dismissed in such fashion, banged one in short, and Ganguly played the pull - a shot that makes his fans reach for stress busters - and did so well, rolling the wrists and keeping the ball down. All the while, Rahul Dravid, leading India Blue, kept Ganguly on his toes. Harbhajan Singh was posted at a catching position on the leg-side, waiting for a ball that was fended away awkwardly, and later moved to short cover for the uppish drive, a constant reminder to Ganguly that the bowlers were on the hunt.
If the cover-driving was typically Ganguly, then so was the manner of his dismissal. A delivery that was a bit short, and a bit wide, asked to be hit, but it needed a better shot than the one essayed, a less-than-fullblooded cut, that landed safely in Ravinder Jadeja's hands at point. Twenty-four runs, four boundaries, over-and-out. If you looked carefully, you'd have seen Dravid doing his best to stifle an outwardly exuberant celebration. It was just one of those moments.
But the day had several such Ganguly moments. His first major action in the match came in the 28th over of the Blues innings. He came on to bowl replacing Piyush Chawla, who had been battered out of recognition by Tendulkar, and immediately was onto a steady line and length. That he was treated almost with kid gloves - and let no-one fool himself by thinking Ganguly's bowling was a serious threat - was perhaps indicative of the fact that both Tendulkar and Dravid wanted to make damn sure that they did not get out to Ganguly. They both played with obvious care, so much so that Ganguly only went for 23 runs from five overs on a day when the batsmen made 381 from 50. Perhaps Ganguly was not the only nervy one about.
With the chance gone, the question remains unanswered. For India Blue, Tuesday is a day to put their feet up and relax, for Green and Red it's a day that will decide who takes an early flight home. For Ganguly, tomorrow is another day, a fresh chance - and he's fast running out of them - to win back a place in the Indian team, or at the very least, some respect.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo