The heart of the matter

Why Sourav Ganguly is the most fascinating Indian cricketer of our time



Love him or hate him, you just can't ignore Sourav Ganguly © Getty Images

At some stage, hard to say when, Sourav Ganguly no longer remained a cricketer and turned into a folk hero and a folk villain. Averages and the rest came into it but with Ganguly things became a matter of convictions of the soul. Anything he did or did not do could provoke an outcry. Everything that was done to him or not done to him could provoke an outcry. Ganguly issues took the form of movements. In many ways he is the cricketer-phenomenon in India's modern pop culture.

A year of sustained chaos, encompassing several riots, numerous u-turns and countless epitaphs, has now led to a predicament of superb absurdity. In a recent column the satirist Jug Suraiya was badgered by his partner to attend yet another festive-season party. "You'll meet lots of interesting people," he protests. "I'll end up as always like a spare Sourav; present and accounted for, but no one quite knows what's to be done with him." Indeed, no one quite knows.

The Ganguly situation is impossible. No answer is a solution, not even the one of respectfully putting him out to pasture, because he isn't going, and if he isn't going he is almost certain to be back. No, the situation must resolve itself and the rest is commentary. The fashion is to be exasperated, if not disgusted, by the whole affair. Personally I'm not tired of it. Not in the least. I'd be lying if I say I'm not fascinated: as human dramas go, there's too much in it.

And the situation could not be what it is were Ganguly not what he is. On braving my surname and referring to Ganguly as the most fascinating Indian cricketer of his generation in a recent article, I was ticked off by a reader: "I am sure no person, living or dead, on earth outside people of Bengali origin thinks that Ganguly comes anywhere close to being one of the most fascinating cricketers, let alone being `the most'." Another put it more succinctly: "A f***ing Bong standing up for another f***ing Bong."

Never mind the enlightened. The reactions Ganguly evokes comprise a phenomenon broader than Bengali parochialism. Cricinfo.com's diarist Siddhartha Vaidyanathan reported from Pakistan that the first thing locals asked him after the khatirdaari was about Ganguly. They were unhappy with the treatment meted out to him. They related to his naked passion. In one way or another Ganguly speaks to watchers. At once he compels you to assume both the best and worst about him; at once he can prove you both right and wrong. In short, he makes you feel. I have not spent quite so much time discussing, debating, any other cricketer. What is it about him?



In ... out ... in again, the going has been tough for Sourav Ganguly in the recent past © Getty Images

I suppose Ganguly came to symbolise individualism and rebellion. Individualism in that he was given to flouting norms, yes, but also in the way he could not be bothered about members fitting into or giving energy to the group. To him match-winning talent was match-winning talent and that was that. Type was important: the brasher the better. In his book Aakash Chopra and Mohammad Kaif were meant for walk-on parts and Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh for glory. This could not be scoffed at because, as much as the attitude may have bred hubris, at the time the team was being built there exuded from it a rawness of belief that was both effective and appealing.

A journalist recalls being phoned by Ganguly to watch a youngster in a first-class game that was being televised. "Aap is ladke ko dekho. Badaa khilaadi hoga yeh. Mujhe khilaana hai. (Watch this boy. He is going to be a big player. I want to pick him right away.)" A few months on, Mahendra Singh Dhoni smashed 148 against Pakistan from No. 3. One player put it this way: "If you capture Dadi's imagination, he will do anything for you." And vice-versa, for once he'd captured Dadi's imagination the player too would do for anything for Dadi. Yuvraj on his first comeback to the team was quoted saying: "I'm ready to die for such a captain." Harbhajan's unstinting support can in some way be understood in light of the fact that, feeling defeated by disciplinary issues, the chucking saga, an ordinary international track record, and economic pressure at home, he was contemplating moving to the US to drive trucks for a living at the time Ganguly fought for his selection.

Generally Ganguly fostered angry or reckless young men. To him "good behaviour", a broad term espoused by the present team management, belonged in school and probably not even there. He himself had been summoned to the match referee no less than 12 times in the last decade. His approach was bound to precipitate what could possibly be termed a cultural conflict in the world of modern sport. For Ganguly, like for Arjuna Ranatunga, competitiveness involved brinksmanship rather than training. As far as they were concerned Australia were not to be aspired to. They were simply to be toppled. England were not to be appeased. Victory lay precisely in their disapproval. In other words, Ganguly and Ranatunga wanted to do things their way. Both carried a resonance of the anti-colonial rather than that of the savvy global sports professional of the age (in Pakistan, Ganguly blithely sported an oversized beanie bearing a logo of the wrong corporate). If it was limiting it was also inspiring. And it invited, from Western observers especially, a ludicrous mix of suspicion, ridicule and condemnation. Much more easy to be gracious about well-mannered fellows who toe the line.

So far so good. Ganguly quenched the thirst for individualism, which is an essential allure of sport; he had an effect on young players and followers similar to that of a rock concert, and all the while kept a successful team together thanks also to a wonderful set of seniors and a fine coach.

And yet, after a point every day for him became a day of decay: the uncorrected technical errors, the sinking fitness levels, the sagging fielding, the jaded tactics, the lowering of standards for himself and by extension for the entire side - not least the gifted youngsters over whom he had so much influence. Finally, his almost politician-like desperation to hold on to power manifested itself in an insecurity - or was it the other way round? - that tore away at the very fabric of the team.

The deterioration looked all the more stark because of the contrast with that most outstanding of cricketers, and Ganguly's exact contemporary and heir, Rahul Dravid. Simply, Dravid built himself on stronger foundations. Ganguly batted pretty as a butterfly but, distracted, found himself blown away by the winds of high pace. Dravid opened up once his base was sufficiently secure. When it came down to it, Dravid had the rigour to last. Likewise, where Ganguly the leader powered on bare-chested with the belief that with flair on his side nothing was impossible, Dravid appreciates that any group must have the safety net of work ethic, discipline, punctuality, enthusiasm - the finer things. Dravid's brand of risk-taking is more cerebral. With Ganguly there was always the element of danger, of losing it all. Ganguly was not about systems and processes. Ganguly was about whims and instincts. This was the thrill, and a great thrill. But I suppose when you're losing, the thrill is gone.

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Personally, commenting on the Ganguly situation has been challenging because it involves a tussle between the heart, which wants the individual, the rebel, to beat the odds and win, and the mind, which cannot help but log the slow, sad decline. Then the watcher and the journalist in you battle and they can be, but are not in every instance, the same.

Besides, this was a situation like no other. The more I dwelled on the issue the more I stopped dwelling on the rights and wrongs (there were so many that there weren't any) and the merits of the case (which became too tiresome). They didn't matter so much either. Simply, I just wanted to see how it would unfold on a human level.

I suppose in effect I was choosing the simple intimacy of the watcher to the powerful insider-ness of the journalist. I couldn't see why a nebulous "what's best for the team" should become a pamphleteering cause with me - that was merely a parameter to be considered while trying to pass honest judgement on the actions of the men responsible. Beyond that it was neither my duty nor my inclination and I felt foolish for harbouring any guilt in this respect. At a deeply personal level it did not matter a great deal to me whether India became the next Australia or not. Cricket was at once a massive joke and the most significant human theatre and all the joy ultimately came from the universal stuff and would be fulfilling regardless. And banging on either way missed the most crucial point of sport - that we really don't know what's going to come.

It was with this sense of freedom that a colleague and I jumped on to a spontaneous train to Rajkot on the eve of a Duleep Trophy fixture in which Ganguly would need to prove his form and fitness. It felt like something special might happen, and it did. On a municipal ground, in an environment so anti-climactic that it was melodramatic, the soon-to-be-deposed Indian Test captain hit a rousing century. It was lovely to watch, not so much because of his strokes, some of which were indeed vintage, but because of all the other layers to it.

That evening I met Ganguly at his hotel. I was apprehensive. I had written critical articles about him over the past few months and these things have a way of getting around, often in exaggerated form. I had nothing specific to ask him. I only wanted to try and gauge what he might be thinking, how he might be reacting to the uniqueness of his dilemma.



Sourav Ganguly was largely calm through ups and downs, but his fans certainly were not © Getty Images

There was an air of complete serenity about him, heightened because he was initially sitting on a swing in an open courtyard. He looked the perfect bhadralok: crisp white kurta pyjama, hair neatly parted, thin-rimmed spectacles.

It was an easy, enjoyable, and in some ways warm, conversation. Broadly, three things were striking. One was that retirement was very far from his mind; how others might like to remember him seemed to be their own business. Another was his sense of hurt about allegations of "divide and rule". But the most remarkable was his aura of calm. His family members would later tell The Hindustan Times that he has always been so, that he had never ever lost his cool off the cricket field, that nothing ever fazes him. He himself would say that he believed in destiny and expected to be playing the World Cup of 2007. In that short little meeting I could appreciate more properly than ever before the temperament of a man who at any moment of time has more knives at his back and more garlands at his face than a cabinet of ministers.

A week on, Ganguly was dropped from the one-day squad altogether. Then stripped of Test captaincy, then deemed a Test allrounder, then... you know the story.

The most revealing moment came in the response to his being dropped after the Delhi Test against Sri Lanka. He could have retired right then a saint, all sins forgotten. The man who a few months ago was among the most reviled in the land now had the undiluted support of the nation. It was extraordinary that he would pass up the opportunity and choose instead to put himself and the team under so much pressure and run the risk even of humiliation - were he to return and flop. As ever he left you grappling with mixed feelings: to admire his self-belief or to dismiss him as delusional? What to make of such a man?

And so there he was in Lahore in India's first Test of the new year. He probably should not have been playing at all. Despite the denials to the contrary, it is learnt that his inclusion in the touring party had more to do with the wishes of authorities other than the selectors and the team management.

Late on the second afternoon: Pakistan 668 for 6, India wilting. Ganguly had just made an impressive dive at the boundary. Now a high ball swirled above his head. An initial misjudgement, frantic back-tracking, a final, flailing leap, a one-handed catch both spectacular and comic, a slow-motion backward roll on hitting the ground, and off like a bomb upon regaining poise, injecting humour and spirit into a weary side. It felt like he was one of the boys again. Even Greg Chappell smiled. It was by a distance the most contagious moment of the game. He did not bat a single ball and humbly carried drinks in the next Test.

He was back again for the final match. He made 34, 37, and two errors which were each to be - as luck would have it, and since this story has a strain of tragedy running through it - his only error of each innings. Both times the team required a big score and in the final analysis these were a pair of letdowns. Still it was not an illusion: he indeed batted beautifully, more fluently than any other Indian in the match and as fluently as he had ever done in his career. Few could have expected it. Among those few was Ganguly.

Two days later he flew back home as Dravid turned his mind to the upcoming one-dayers and, some part of it no doubt, to the batting order for the next Test series. And that's where the Sourav Ganguly saga rested at the last opportunity to update.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of Pundits from Pakistan. This article was first published in the February 2006 issue of the print version of Cricinfo Magazine