Birds of a feather
If it wasn't such a national passion, most of us would probably see that cricket is not a game of heroes and villains, but of human beings, and human beings are inevitably flawed. From Ranjitsinhji to Lala Amarnath to Mohammad Azharuddin, Indian cricket has served up morality tales of ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances, and in their lives has revealed human nature: if we were born with their talent, these could have been our stories. In our age, we have the battle between Greg Chappell and Sourav Ganguly: two men who are, behind their rancour, similarly flawed, similarly grey. And yet so much of what is written about them is black and white.
The Ganguly-Chappell issue seemed to have achieved closure when Ganguly was dropped from the India squad for the first Test against England, but it has reared its head again, with Chappell's interview to his old friend, Mike Selvey from The Guardian. (Disclosure: this writer occasionally writes for that paper.) Among other things, Chappell said that "if he [Ganguly] wanted to save his career he should consider giving up the captaincy" and "[w]hat I didn't realise at that stage was how utterly important to his life and finances being captain was." Naturally, this raised a storm, with a minister from Bengal ludicrously stating that Chappell's remarks were "an insult to the state and the nation".
Chappell's remarks are reasonable, as opinions go, even if you disagree with them. Also, they reveal his thinking, which is valuable to us, and few people in such positions of responsibility speak so freely: inscrutability is the safest option in public life. And yet, Chappell would surely have known that such comments on Ganguly would create an uproar, which, in the long run, would be not be good for the side. Even if his feelings were justified, the practical thing to do would have been to keep them to himself. But he wore them on his sleeve.
Throughout his career, Ganguly did that as well. Ganguly led the Indian team as a newly liberalised country asserted itself on the world stage, and he had none of the hang-ups, the defensiveness, even the inferiority complexes, of some of his predecessors. He was not afraid to give lip to Steve Waugh or to take his T-shirt off at Lord's and, for just a moment the bare-chested Salman Khan of Indian cricket, wave it around lustily. He knew what he wanted -- from team selection to pitches -- and he wasn't scared to demand it. He also had the wherewithal -- the political support of Jagmohan Dalmiya -- to get what he desired.
But the qualities that made him India's greatest captain were also his biggest failings when taken to an extreme, and they eventually brought him down. His passion could result in needless petulance, as we saw when he withdrew from the Test against Australia at Nagpur because he was miffed that the pitch wasn't to his liking. Much of his side lost respect for him then, and it was a turning point in our cricket. His firmness could result in needless obstinacy, as in his interactions with John Wright, who was always unhappy with Ganguly's determined indiscipline, which set the wrong example to the youngsters in the side. And his straightforwardness could result in imprudence, as he showed when he revealed to the world, in a crowded press conference, the contents of a dressing-room conversation between him and Chappell that should've stayed private.
Arrogance and bullheadedness are the groupies of success, and self-belief breeds self-deception. Ganguly has averaged 29.6 in Test matches, if we leave out games against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, since his magnificent century at Brisbane, with his discomfort against genuine pace more telling than the statistics. A vicious cycle began in which his captaincy affected his batting and then the decline of his batting affected his authority as a captain, and yet Ganguly remained in denial about this. And who could he turn to for perspective? He was surrounded by vested interests, as successful men tend to be, who fed both his self-belief and his self-deception.
Chappell shares many of Ganguly's tragic qualities. He showed courage in taking on Ganguly with that e-mail a few months to the board, which he surely knew would be leaked. Chappell clearly decided early on that he needed power commensurate with his responsibilities if he was to succeed, and that meant having a new captain if the current one was counterproductive to his side. He gambled on a "Ganguly-or-me" approach, and he's won the short-term battle.
But there is a flip side to this, as we saw when he showed the finger to a crowd in Kolkata that was shouting pro-Ganguly slogans. Even if one can condone such self-expression and hot-headedness, that he later denied it, despite it being on camera for all to see, was inexcusable. Coaching the Indian cricket team is not just a private assignment about tending 16 men into a world-beating squad, but also a public role with greater responsibilities, however undesirable one finds it. As Chappell himself said in the interview with Selvey, "The job I do carries with it an enormous responsibility, not so much to my employers but to a cricket-mad nation. I genuinely feel that, while I am being paid by the BCCI, I am working for the people of India."
It is in that context that he should have refused to speak about Ganguly in that interview. He is right to give primacy to the results of the side he coaches, but such public uproar surely must affect some of the players, which might well carry on to the field. Also, the ill will it generates will be used to hurt him and Rahul Dravid, the captain, when the side goes through a rough patch, as all sides inevitably do. In the way Ganguly lost his captaincy and his place in the side, there lies a cautionary tale for Chappell himself. Indian cricket needs him to learn the lessons that Ganguly could not.