The art of the riposte
Sourav Ganguly has been to hell and back, and looks the better for it.
We are sitting in his hotel room in Visakhapatnam. It's been a couple of hours since India have wrapped up a hard-fought series win over Sri Lanka, and it's been a tough day at work for Ganguly. Shivratri celebrations kept him awake the previous night; a short lunch break due to the delayed start meant he could hardly grab a bite; his bowling spell in the match left him a bit stiff; and the soaring temperatures had him cramping.
He had come out to open and then retired in the second over after a dizzy spell. But he was back when the second wicket fell, produced a controlled fifty, his fourth in six innings since his dramatic return, collected the Man-of-the-Series trophy, and was sprayed with aerated drinks by his team-mates. Now, bathed and in fresh clothes, he looks fresh enough to run a marathon.
He sits comfortably on the bed, the trophy lying close by. The landline and cellphone buzz incessantly. He has semi-packed. In a couple of hours he will catch a train - yes, a train - that will get him home before the flight the next morning can. The ticket is delivered when we are in the middle of a question. Ganguly sprints to the door, sprints back, and carries on from where he left off.
Every bit of him looks rejuvenated. His eyes are twinkling, radiant even. He appears both serene and energetic. A burden has been lifted off him, and his performances have vindicated his resolve to carry on when many, including well-wishers, willed him to give up. But if he is burning with indignation, he keeps it to himself. There is no rancour in his voice. Yes, there is a quiet confidence, and the air of man who wants the world to know that he knew he could do it.
He says that he now views cricket differently while maintaining that he hasn't changed as a person. But he certainly looks different from his last few months as captain of India, when he mostly looked besieged. The world-weary stubble he sported back then was emblematic of his worries, as were his pained facial expressions, and the constant chewing of his fingernails.
Misfortune seemed to follow him everywhere - he was banned for poor over-rates, struck for a last-ball six in a Deodhar Trophy game, and during his horror run at Northamptonshire, where he managed just 19 runs in three first-class games, was clattered on the head by a Shahid Nazir bouncer. Zaheer Khan's very presence appeared to rattle him, be it in the Duleep Trophy, the English County Championship, or the Challenger Series.
One quote sums up his remarkable return. "Somehow I have this ability," he says, "whether it's god-given or not I don't know, but I believe that I can be successful."
How have the last few weeks been? Can we call it a completely new phase?
I don't think so. Just that I've played well since I've come back. I've played well in the past also, had some lean patches in the past also. It's going to happen to everyone. The satisfying thing is the consistency, I think that's the best part of it. It's not just that I'm getting runs - I've got runs earlier also - but it's the way I'm playing, and the consistency.
It's as if you're in a supremely calm mindset, in a different zone almost.
When you play well, it seems like that. That's why form is so important. It's the patches that you hit in your career at different stages.
I'm playing very well, touch wood (touches the table next to him). Nothing matters to me except performance. Till whenever I play, I hope I can keep that mindset. I haven't allowed too many other thoughts to trouble me.
Can you talk about your innings in the Karachi Test last year. It was a difficult pitch, where not many batsmen succeeded.
I batted well in Karachi. I wasn't getting many opportunities at that stage, and I thought I batted very well. I was unfortunate not to continue, but that's past. But yes, I thought I started batting well in that innings. This phase is a continuation of that.
You seem to have made some changes in your batting.
I have changed my technique, bit with my stance, bit with my initial movement. I use a slightly lighter bat compared to my earlier days. I've worked on it, but nothing major.
|I would have tried for a certain period of time - till probably the World Cup. If after that it didn't happen, probably I would have taken other decisions|
In most professions people reach their peak between 30 and 35. As a sportsman you are entering the final stage of your career. How frustrating is it?
I don't think age has got anything to do with it, unless you're in your forties, or a fast bowler in your late thirties. I'm 34 now, and for a batsman it's not any age at all. I don't think age has anything to do with sports. It's just how fit you are and how you perform. I have worked on my fitness.
See, when you're captain of India, it takes a lot of time away from you. I'm sure it takes a lot of time out of Rahul [Dravid] also, and it's going to take a lot of time away from future captains too. Captaining is hard work, and in modern-day cricket it involves a whole lot of things. You don't get space. When you're not captain, you get a lot of time for yourself - you work on your fitness, your game... you don't have to worry about other things. So I've had a lot of time.
You made a statement when you joined Northants: "People in India are very fragile, they can take decisions based on one match or two."
It is a mindset in India. Decisions change very quickly with one win and one loss. I've seen some renowned names do it. We are a bit sensitive as a country. I wouldn't say that only that kept me going. I felt I was good enough, I felt that at some stage I'd get an opportunity because of the performances I've had for my country. I knew it would not be easy to throw me away easily. I also knew there was a lot of tough cricket coming [for the Indian team], and as I said, people forget things very easily in India.
How would you compare this period to 1994 or '95, when your chances of playing for India appeared slim?
I was young then. When you're 21-22, nothing matters. The world is at your feet, you don't care much about things. I was enjoying playing for Bengal. Bengal were doing well. I never missed playing for the country. But obviously this time when I got dropped it was different. The circumstances in which I got dropped were not very good. I've been part of a successful team for 10 years, and I still believe that I can be a part of this team. So these are two completely different situations.
Can you talk about the period before you were recalled? What was going through your mind? Did you have a deadline for giving up?
I would have tried for a certain period of time - till probably the World Cup. If after that it didn't happen, probably I would have taken other decisions. But at that stage I was trying very hard because I knew I had to perform every time.
At any stage did you seriously think of quitting?
No. I knew that the selection committee would change in September. There were a lot of things involved. As I said, these things were not in my control. I'd just given myself a deadline that I would try till this period of time, and just kept going.
There were a lot of strong emotions involved in your dropping. The nation was divided on the issue. How difficult was it to focus on the cricket?
As I said, these reactions were not in my control. But a lot of the reactions were very positive. Cricket is so huge in this country that there will be reactions at different stages. But it's what you think about yourself. I'm a firm believer that what you think about yourself is most important. Not what others think about you. And I always believed that I would get another opportunity.
People will be tempted to say that your return is because of the failure of the youngsters who were tried.
That's always going to be the case. Two years down the line, if we get dropped, it will be because we've not done well. That's the way this game goes. You perform, you play. If you don't perform, you don't. Obviously the team went through a phase when some guys were not performing, so that opened up the doors.
You joined the team in South Africa when they had lost the one-day series. What was the mood like then?
They were pretty much okay. They knew they hadn't played some good cricket, but they knew they could turn it around also. South Africa is always a difficult place to tour. I also had things on my mind - trying to establish myself back in the team. So we all had different thoughts on our mind.
What about the innings in Potchefstroom? There were many positives there.
It was important because it opened up my place in the Test side. Although it was a side game, it helped me play the Test match.
At the Wanderers, what was going through your mind when you walked out to bat after nearly eight months?
Every time you walk out to bat for India, however many matches you've played, some tension will be there. I've always believed I had it in me to be successful. Somehow I have this ability - whether it's god-given or not, I don't know - but I believe that I can be successful. That's the only way you can be successful. If before playing you believe that you may not be successful, then you'll definitely not be successful. I took it as a challenge, that if I can do well, I can get my place back. And obviously a little bit of luck helped.
Ganguly the batsman as captain and Ganguly the batsman alone. Were they two different people?
In certain phases as captain I've played outstandingly, certain phases I've not played well. But that is more to do with a career over a long period of time than with captaincy. And it's going to happen to everyone. Also, captaining India is hard, and it gets harder the longer you stay as captain. But I have made useful contributions as captain. Obviously, when you're not captain, things are different. I've always said captaincy is hard work. And captaining India is the toughest.
If you were to go back to that phase, would you have given up captaincy to be a batsman?
I'm never that sort of a person, who would give up things. I never think that way, because captaining India is a huge honour. And I've played some good knocks as captain and I've always believed that I could play good knocks again. So I never thought of quitting captaincy at that stage for batting. Maybe at some stage I would have, if I had not been dropped, because I'd been captain for too long, I'd say.
If you take away the circumstances in which you were dropped, do you think it was a good thing for Ganguly as a batsman to be dropped?
I don't think so.
Has the successful comeback been possible partly because you were dropped at that time?
No. My comeback is because I still had the ability to perform at this level. And I don't think it's because I was dropped.
Tell us about the Baroda game against Sri Lanka. Dravid and Tendulkar were off the field and you captained for two overs.
I think I knew it would be for only four or five overs. So I was just trying to do the job that Rahul would have done.
Was there any sudden excitement on realising you were captain?
It doesn't excite me anymore.
Coming to the inevitable question: how's your relationship with Greg Chappell?
It's been good. As I said, lots of things happened. But time heals everything. I've come back to the team and am performing, helping the team to win. And that's what a coach requires from a player, and that's what a cricket team needs.
What were things at home like when you were out of the team?
My father is obsessed with the game, obsessed with me playing for India. Luckily my wife is not a great follower of the game, but she was sad that I wasn't playing for the country because she knows how happy I feel when I play for India and perform. From that point of view, she was upset. But it probably hurt my dad more than anybody else, and I'm happy for him that I'm playing well.
Have you changed as a person over the last year?
No. I think I'm a person misunderstood by a lot of people, because of the way I interact on the field - which was the way I thought India would play the best. I think that's happened a lot in my career. I judge myself as a person off the field, not as a person on the field. That hasn't changed.
Has your view towards cricket changed?
Obviously it will change. Performance is the key but I've realised that life's a lot more than just cricket. It's something I've realised over the last year or so. But as I've said, nothing makes me more happy than performing.
What is it like for an Indian captain to go back to playing domestic cricket, playing against 18-19 year olds?
It's tough. It's not easy playing domestic cricket, because of the standard of cricket you've played. But I'm lucky to be playing for Bengal because we've got the best facilities and always have good hotels to stay at. It made my job a bit easier. But you've got to accept one thing - when you're out of the team, the only way to get back is by playing domestic cricket. I have this ability to accept reality very quickly, and probably that part of my character helped me go into domestic cricket and try and make a way back into the side.
A lot of people said, "Why is he doing this to himself, when he can quit in a grand manner?"
There're two ways of looking at it. You can quit and go. But I looked at it as, "I've seen the best, achieved quite a few things for India, let's see if I'm good enough to go through this."
You did a Pepsi advertisement during that period, which prompted lots of negative reaction.
It's just a commercial. It's important to treat a commercial as a commercial. It's got no connection to reality, real life. I've seen a lot of people singing and dancing in commercials, but I think we should not mix up commercials with life.
Did you have to think a lot before doing it?
I said no to them, because I knew what people would think - how it could be and could have been twisted. But in the end I decided to do it because it was obviously really important for the brand.
You've seen the development of the side for more than 10 years. How do you see the current team?
I think the current team that's going for the World Cup is probably the best possible Indian team at the moment. There'll always be a few names here and there who could have been part of the side, who somehow missed the bus, who are probably as good. But that's the way it is, you can only pick so many. But I'm happy we've picked a strong side to go to the West Indies.
This comeback has been special, as if you're riding a wave. You must want to hang on to it forever?
I hope I can play as well as I'm doing now. I know it's not going to continue forever, there will be hiccups at some stage. And it's how quickly I bounce back from that and start performing again. If you play 10 innings and perform six times, I think you've done a good job.
|Performance is the key but I've realised that life's a lot more than just cricket. It's something I've realised over the last year or so|
Have you batted better than this at all?
I think in 1996 I was playing very well. For four-five years I batted very well. In Australia [2003-04] I batted very well. Batted very well in England in 2002, batted very well in the Champions Trophy in 2000, when I first became captain. There have been phases when I've batted as well as this.
Surely you can't have batted better than this?
Why this looks good and different is because of everything that's gone along. It's a package, it's not just one thing. So that probably has made it special. I wouldn't say I've done something really special. I've done something that's made me happy. Because I had to go back to domestic cricket, go through the grind, sometimes have been left out of the team when I felt that I'm probably as good or better than some. But it's just that I've come back to this stage all on my own, and that feels very good.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo