Question time for Ganguly
It's been said a million times before. `When to go' is easily the toughest question in a sportsman's career. How often have we seen great players fluff their lines in the end. Sunil Gavaskar and Greg Chappell did it right, Viv Richards and Javed Miandad didn't, and Allan Border and Kapil Dev had to be nudged. In recent times, Nasser Hussain got it spot on, not once, but twice, first as captain, then as player.
From now on, Sourav Ganguly, unless he can effect a magical transformation with the bat in Test cricket, will find himself facing the dreaded question again and again, not only from newspapers, TV channels and Bishan Bedi, but perhaps even from himself. He will not find an easy answer, because none exist. Renouncement isn't so simple.
Ganguly's case is particularly tricky. He is only 32, almost the same age as Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. He has every right to think he has a few years of cricket left in him. And as India's most successful captain, he can't be blamed for believing that he should be the man leading India to the 2007 World Cup. After all, the current team is the one he built.
The problem at the moment is not with Ganguly's captaincy, though. It is with his batting. He will throw up a couple of stats to show that it's not been that bad. Though plain stats should never be the sole basis of judging a player, his batting stats as captain are quite poor at 37.03 in 47 Tests as against 45.54 before he became captain. If you take Bangladesh out of the equation, it dips to 34.93. There was a time in the 1980s when an average in the mid-30s was passable. But the standards have shifted. More and more batsmen average in the 50s these days. In the Indian team alone there are three. Dravid averages 64 in his last 46 Tests, Tendulkar has been consistently above 55 and Virender Sehwag is pushing towards 55 now. It shows Ganguly's average in an even poorer light.
But forget the averages, they only tell part of the story. Let's look at Ganguly's real contribution to India as a Test batsman. When did he last produce an innings when his team really needed it? It takes us back to Brisbane in December 2003, when Ganguly's 144 launched India's campaign in Australia. Fifteen months is long time in Test cricket.
The Brisbane innings was a stirring performance that saved India from disintegrating after Dravid and Tendulkar had been dismissed within the space of a few balls, and it was then hoped that the innings would be the turning point for Ganguly as a batsman. It didn't. He scored a fifty at Rawalpindi, but so did Parthiv Patel, whose innings was crucial, and VVS Laxman, and in end it was Dravid's monumental 270 that won India the Test and the series. Ganguly then failed in the two Tests he played against Australia at home, before scoring three fifties in relatively easy conditions against South Africa and Bangladesh. And against Pakistan, he came unravelled. His charge at Danish Kaneria in the first innings at Bangalore after being dropped wasn't a sign of aggression; it was of utter panic. It was palpable; the crowd felt it; it is inconceivable that his fellow players, both Indians and Pakistanis, wouldn't have.
Therein lies Ganguly's biggest problem. He never did, and was never expected to, carry the Indian batting. But such has been the force of his leadership that modest performances in Test cricket have been more than adequate to earn him his place in the side. As captain, he now stands as India's finest, ahead even of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Sunil Gavaskar. Like them, he has changed the perceptions about Indian cricket, and more than that, he has forged a winning team. It can be argued that Pataudi and Gavaskar didn't quite have the resources to win, but to Ganguly must go the credit of spotting the raw diamonds and burnishing them to sizzling glory. India is a far more settled team now than in 2000-01, when the job was thrust on Ganguly. The cruel irony of the situation is that having done his job, Ganguly has also made his own role as a spirited ringleader redundant. That, in a way, is the true measure of his leadership, but the fact is that now Ganguly needs to perform with the bat to keep his place. Otherwise, it will soon be a case of him keeping the more talented batsmen out of the side.
Ganguly is a proud man. He harbours no illusions about his batting, but he takes pride in it. He has often spoken about the adverse effects of the cares of captaincy on his batting. An out-of-form batsman needs the support of the team, but Ganguly is fast reaching a stage where every Test innings is a burden. He needs time out to rediscover his batting. He needs to reflect on his legacy. Would he want to be remembered as the leader who showed India a new light, or as one who overstayed?
It is unlikely that he will receive the right advice from those who surround him. There are plenty of people who gain from and feed on his current status. He will have to find the answer himself. It will take courage. But it's not a quality Ganguly has lacked in the past.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo in India and of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.