West Indies in England, 2007 June 2, 2007

All in the mind

The challenges for Daren Ganga as West Indies' stand-in captain

Despite three Test centuries Daren Ganga has never been a settled member of the West Indies' side © AFP
Pressure is a word often used when a cricketer is thought to be playing with an inordinate burden of responsibility - team collapse, improbable target, poor weather conditions, backroom complications, even faded form - and judgements are based on the player's response to these factors.

In that sense, Daren Ganga, the replacement captain for the West Indies team has been pressured and judged accordingly for all of his cricketing life. To him has never fallen the role of playing freely, not in Test cricket, and not in his mind.

It is the unfortunate shadow that hangs over his performance as a Test cricketer, and one that will loom even more ominously over his accidental elevation to captaincy after Ramnaresh Sarwan's shoulder injury sent him back to the Caribbean.

Ganga entered Test cricket almost as a trade unionist, his debut match in Durban following a bitter strike by players over contract arrangements that saw firings, rehirings, apologies and state interventions before a game could be played in South Africa. The series was a West Indian debacle - from Johannesburg in November 1998 to Centurion in January 1999, the team was trounced in every one of the five Tests.

Ganga was nineteen; a debutant known for getting stylish runs with great technical proficiency, and his transition from first-class to Test cricket was expected to yield high returns. It didn't happen in South Africa. It couldn't. His first match was in the third Test, when the graffiti was already on the wall, and he could only manage 28 off 94 balls.

He became a sometimer on the team, never convincing selectors that he could manage the shift, so that even when he made his maiden Test hundred against Australia in 2003, and followed it with another century, he was left at home for the England tour the following year.

Before that, he'd only gone past fifty three times in 17 Tests, and they had been laboured. There is a little nugget of information in this vein of Ganga stats.

Ganga is a thinker, a vital aspect of any Test cricketer, but in his case, maybe he thinks too much, or has too many simultaneous thoughts and they confuse his actions

Ganga is a thinker, a vital aspect of any Test cricketer, but in his case, maybe he thinks too much, or has too many simultaneous thoughts and they confuse his actions. A WICB official was talking with great affection about Ganga (everyone likes Ganga) and noting how early he saw the ball. His problem, he opined, was that he saw it so early that he had too much time to think about how to treat it and this created indecision at the critical moment. Ganga scored centuries against Australia, he said, because the balls came at him faster, leaving him less time to think, and forcing him to play more by instinct. It presents an insight into the Ganga burden.

"It's all about being under pressure," he had said of playing for the West Indies. It is how he sees it, this need to perform, and it weighs him down considerably. His view is not without base. His Test career has had a staccato beat, in today, dropped tomorrow, hardly a nurturing relationship for a young cricketer, but for every return the pressure has been greater, and his performance has suffered.

Things had got so dismal for him, that he was not selected for the World Cup squad, despite an outstanding regional season. But it was not that he had been dismissed entirely. When Brian Lara announced his retirement from international cricket in April, the two names that immediately surfaced as possible captains were Ramnaresh Sarwan and Daren Ganga. Most people feel he lost out because he could not keep his place on the side. It came down eventually to an assessment of who would perform better under pressure. Sarwan got the nod, but Ganga was named vice captain, and the hope was that together, the bold gambler and the solid thinker would form a complementary leadership.

Ganga and Sarwan had already led their national teams in regional competitions. Sarwan had his success in the Stanford 20/20 tournament and Ganga his in the Carib Beer series. He scored 265 against the Leeward Islands in March 2005 - an innings with 36 fours and two sixes - and led his team to a double victory in 2006, the first regional title for the team in 21 years.

Ganga has had success at domestic level as captain © Nation
As a captain, Ganga has had considerably more success, especially with his batting, than he has had as a player. He has worked out the reason for this, admitting that when he is captain he is so much more absorbed with managing the team's performance that his relentless self-analysis subsides, and he responds more instinctively to the game. Yet, knowing this has not meant that he has developed the ability to act on the information, and for this he should receive professional guidance.

Those who have played under his captaincy are full of praise for his leadership style, which has been described as intelligent, supportive, fair, responsible and solid. They are qualities desperately needed in West Indies cricket at this point.

But Ganga has to bring other qualities to the table as well. His team is young, and inexperienced, and already must be reeling from the slaughter they faced at cold English hands at Headingley. They've had to deal with team changes, contract disputes, drastic weather, and unfamiliar bowling conditions. They've had the misfortune of not even benefiting from match practice when they arrived. All are conditions that lead to that unavoidable image of a team under severe pressure.

The new captain is bound to be feeling its icy hands gripping his heart like a vice. But he has to dig deep and find the same stoic calm that kept him in the running through all these roller coaster years. He has to remind himself that there will always be pressure, what can change is how he responds to it.

Think team, think strategy, think leadership, and trust instincts. Forget about Daren Ganga and make a new name for yourself, as West Indies captain.

Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad