Exorcising the demons
Straight off the bat, this is not just about the runs he scored. This is about a man who came, saw and conquered - if only for the moment - the demons in his head, the ghosts in his past. This is about a man with so much to prove, recalled to his country's cause not so much because he was in form but because the so called 'marquee' players had all but lost themselves to the Indian management's faith; a former captain let down by his own board, yet who had done little to suggest over the past ten months that he had the cojones to play Test cricket again.
This is about Sourav Ganguly and his 141-ball, 224-minute 83 against the Rest of South Africa at Potchefstroom, as strong a statement of intent as there can be. When he walked in, the Indians had lost Wasim Jaffer, Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar with just 37 on the board. When Ganguly left, they had crossed 200, 115 splendid runs had been added with Irfan Pathan, and had taken a huge step towards securing a morale-boosting tour win.
And a man with reason to feel embittered had done enough to show his detractors that he belonged there at that very moment.
This was an innings of so many dimensions and emotions. He was wary about the balls he played, he arched his back, he watched his back lift, he cover drove, he edged, he was dropped, and he copped a nasty Nantie Hayward lifter smack above the right ear.
Given all that had transpired over the past year, given the conditions of his selection, and given the situation the Indians were in, Ganguly walked out to the middle at Potchefstroom on December 7 with a fathomable amount of pressure on his shoulders.
Countless television channels in India filled the airwaves with images of Ganguly batting for hours at the nets, running laps around the Eden Gardens, and stressing on how serious he was about making a comeback. For those who chuckled at the footage and Ganguly's quotes about sorting out technical difficulties, it is important to raise here the issue of his technique. After the first day's play, Ganguly revealed what had been noticed in his innings: "In India, I take a leg-stump guard. Here, I decided to take a middle-stump guard. When you are out of the team, you get a lot more time to analyse your batting, otherwise you're just going from one series to another and you don't get much of a chance. I've had time on my hands and I've worked on certain things."
Too true. He was no longer flip-flopping with a tentative front foot shuffle or just plain stuck in expectancy of the short ball. Rather, he played with upright balance, distributing his body weight better, his shortened backlift allowing him to play much straighter. And his head was still. Absolutely still. Where Jaffer misread the movement of the ball, Sehwag the pace and length, and Tendulkar and Laxman were drawn into tame prods outside off stump, Ganguly got right behind the line, played with a full face of the bat, and soft hands, and kept the ball as close to the ground as he could.
His first boundary was a glance down to third man, the second a four to the point fence via a misfield but, once in the 20s, he produced two shots that revived memories of the greatness he used to perch upon. First, Morne Morkel, the day's wrecker-in-chief, pitched ever so slightly on a full length and was driven through cover and mid-off. Hayward served up a half-volley outside off stump and was square-driven through point.
There was a moment of worry, and I'm sure scoffing in some corners, when he ducked into Hayward's next ball and had the medical staff out for an examination. But in the bowler's next over, Ganguly slapped consecutive fours through point and extra cover, one back-foot, the other elegantly off the front, to indicate that he was not in South Africa to be intimidated. The bouncers, ducking, and cover driving - and the odd word from Hayward - continued between Ganguly and the South African pacers all morning and afternoon, until he finally departed, edging an attempted cut off Friedel de Wet to the 'keeper.
What thoughts rested or raged in his head as he stepped over the ropes and made his way to the crease, only Ganguly will know. What he felt when he mistimed a drive to midwicket and picked up a single to get to 50, we can assume. What he felt when he walked back into the Indian dressing room, with 83 hard-earned runs to his name, the knowledge that he had done what a famed top-order hadn't, should not be surmised. Therein lies the beautiful complexity of an estranged individual. There was a bittersweet touch to his contribution following a second-innings duck, but for his unwavering focus, judicious shot selection, and resolve to get into perfect position, Ganguly's 83 should merit automatic selection for the first Test at Johannesburg.
He said - on his recall
"They [critics] told me that I had achieved everything in any case, played for the team for 11 years, been captain for five - what else did I want to get out of the game? But I just felt I still had it in me to play at the highest level for longer. At some level, I felt my career will be incomplete if I simply give up now."
They said - Greg Chappell on Ganguly's move to take middle-stump guard
"It was a smart move. It showed that he had applied his mind and come up with the right method to overcome the conditions. He looks calm, relaxed, very fit. He looks like he's worked hard on aspects of his game. He's applying both mind and method and that's showing."
Chappell speaks, in praise again, of Ganguly's footwork
"That was very important too [play off the front foot as much as possible]. It allowed him to take his decision just that much time later. By leaning forward, he was able to judge the length of the ball accurately, which also allowed him to leave the right balls. That's why he could also play his shots without too much of a problem."
From the inside - Dilip Vengsarkar, India's chairman of selectors
"It's good to score runs in the first match of a tour and it will stand him in good stead for the Tests, which are the ultimate. I hope he performs, I think he has it in him to score runs and it is good to see him back."
Jamie Alter is editorial assistant of Cricinfo