November 9, 2008

The past he could see but not touch

Sourav Ganguly tugged at the heartstrings in a way that no Indian cricketer has before or since


Old grudges were briefly forgotten as the Australians gave Sourav Ganguly a guard of honour in his final innings © Getty Images
 

The stadium was more than half-empty, but the several thousand dotted across seats of many different hues rose almost as one when he emerged from the dressing room and stepped across the rope. There were 15 minutes to go for tea, and there must have been a few thousand hoarse throats by the time he reached the middle to be met by an Australian guard of honour. Where Tendulkar was revered, Ganguly was reviled, but as he embarked on his final innings, old grudges were briefly forgotten.

From my vantage point near the radio commentary box on the northern side of the stadium, I could see the tension writ large on faces. Quite a few had "Dada" painted on their cheeks, alongside miniature Indian flags, and the placards were everywhere. On air, Mike Coward explained to Australian listeners what Dada meant, and also how he was likely to be remembered by millions of adoring fans.

As he marked his guard, the messages of goodwill and support froze in nervous hands. As Jason Krejza walked back to his mark, there was a lull after the emotional storm, with nails bitten and the sides of chairs clasped. The contest within a contest was appropriate in more ways than one. All those years ago, Ganguly had been a controversial pick for the tour of England, and his selection disparaged in the same way that Krejza's had been. Ganguly had responded with 131 at Lord's, Krejza with eight wickets in an innings.

From round the wicket, Krejza looped the ball up in the direction of Ganguly's pads. The left-hander's blind spot. Throughout his career, Ganguly's footwork to spinners was nigh on immaculate. This time, he leaned forward, but not quite quickly enough to tuck the ball away in the direction of mid-on. As the ball spun across the bat and took the leading edge, expectant faces struggled to comprehend what was happening. It was only when Krejza dived forward to take a sharp chance that reality hit home like a bucket of cold water.

For a split-second, nobody moved, except for jubilant Australian fielders and those waving the flag with untiring energy up in the stands. Ganguly stared, then turned on his heel and started the slow walk back. As he did, the pent-up emotions burst forth. Around me, people held on to railings and shouted out messages of affection. One young man was nearly suspended in mid-air as he mimed the "We're not worthy" gesture.

The applause was deafening. Anil Kumble got a magnificent farewell in Delhi, but Ganguly had tugged at the heartstrings in a way that no Indian cricketer has before or since. The last few years of his career were like reality TV, with no one able to look away. But like a man who knew the significance of a big occasion - who else would start with a century at Lord's? - he had saved his best for last.

 
 
Even Bradman didn't manage a golden duck for his farewell. Of the many things you might accuse Ganguly of, lack of a sense of theatre wasn't one
 

Before the series, his average against Australia languished in the low 30s. He finished these four Tests with 324 runs at 54, a century in Mohali and 85 in his final game. And even Bradman didn't manage a golden duck for his farewell. Of the many things you might accuse Ganguly of, lack of a sense of theatre wasn't one.

Though never a poor man, Ganguly carried the reminder of every glove that laid him down or cut him. It inspired him to heights that few expected, and instilled in the group around him the belief that they too could touch the sky. As he walked off, millions and millions across a vast nation must have felt the sentiment that Wong Kar Wai expressed with such stark eloquence in his classic, In the Mood for Love. "The past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct..."