Rest of SA v Indians, Potchefstroom, 1st day December 7, 2006

It was Ganguly at his best

Dileep Premachandran in Potchefstroom
For Ganguly, it was very much a fresh start, a new chapter in what is already a storied career



Sourav Ganguly played a gritty and cultured innings © Getty Images

It was perhaps no coincidence that the two men who turned the day around for the Indians were both individuals who needed to reverse their own fortunes. Irfan Pathan's place in the side has come under scrutiny in recent times - he played only one of four Tests in the Caribbean - while Sourav Ganguly wasn't even part of the picture after being dropped following the tour of Pakistan.

Pathan had at least been around the squad, playing quite a few one-day games, but for Ganguly, it was very much a fresh start, a new chapter in what is already a storied career. Failure here certainly wouldn't have ruled him out of a Test spot, but it might have raised questions about the wisdom of bringing him back. In that context, it was vital that he went to the middle and showed everyone just what he could still achieve.

The stars weren't exactly aligned in his favour when he walked out. Mornantau Hayward was blowing hot and cold, but there was absolutely nothing tepid about the lean and lanky Morne Morkel. When he opened the face of the bat to guide the ball to third man for a couple, the scoreboard, still for so many months, was ticking again, and it helped that Morkel soon went off for a rest in the outfield.

It wasn't as though the others were second-raters though. Alfonso Thomas swung the ball late, and was ceaselessly accurate in his opening spell, while Friedel de Wet of the Highveld Lions also gave little away in a committed spell of seam bowling. Having seen VVS Laxman and Mahendra Singh Dhoni fall in quick succession just before lunch, Ganguly could have been excused for going into a shell soon after.

He did nothing of the sort. A couple of magnificent square drives on resumption signalled intent, and he barely made a false move till he took his eyes off a nasty lifter from Hayward. It struck him flush on the helmet, and as he keeled away in the direction of square leg, you feared that some of the confidence might have been knocked out of him. But after being treated for a couple of minutes, he was ready to rumble again, and the predictable bouncers that followed were ducked under.

When the bowlers did pitch up, supported by a 7-2 offside field, he reached into the past to produce two glorious boundaries through point. Back on even keel, you thought. But there was to be another twist in this particular tale. Morkel came back, and Ganguly looked back anxiously as he got the edge to a full delivery. From where we sat, nearly 100 yards away, a sigh of relief couldn't be heard, but there might just have been one as Vaughn van Jaarsveld grassed the chance to his right at gully.

There was an almost shy wave of the bat in the direction of his team-mates after he reached 50, though they certainly weren't shy of showing their appreciation for a gutsy effort. A couple of sublime drives followed, including one peach down the ground off Justin Kemp, but with a century there for the taking, he had a dart at a De Wet delivery that slanted across him. There was the thinnest of edges and you could see him turn immediately behind to see whether Morne van Wyk would pouch it. He did, and a gritty and cultured 141-ball innings had come to an end.

Along the way, he had stitched together a wonderful partnership with Pathan. Both men took turns to attack, and the run-rate never slowed despite half the side being back in the pavilion. In many ways, it was Ganguly at his best, positive and decisive with his strokeplay, and unafraid to get into line even when the bowling was at its most hostile.

The example he set clearly rubbed off on the lower order, with Harbhajan Singh clattering a shot-filled 47, and Zaheer Khan showing great determination to keep the pace bowlers at bay in the day's climactic stages. At Brisbane three years ago, Ganguly had set the tone for India's tour with perhaps the best of his Test centuries, and though this innings wasn't quite in the same league, there were enough moments to cherish from a man who has rediscovered the hunger that made him such an integral part of India's middle order.