December 9, 2007

Ganguly's fairytale

Sourav Ganguly is living out a dream at the moment, and nothing he achieves will be a surprise anymore

The most noticeable feature of Sourav Ganguly's batting since his return to international cricket has been his poise © AFP

If you're looking for a clue to what has helped Sourav Ganguly sustain his spectacular run in Test cricket since his return at the fag end of last year, don't bother looking at his footwork or the flow of his bat. Take, instead, a close look at his eyes while he is batting. They speak of a calmness that borders on serenity, and a combination of composure and resolve. You could see it in his comeback innings in Johannesburg, which fetched him an unbeaten 51, and you could see it through his epic innings in Bangalore that marked a new high in his career.

In his bowling, and on the field, we have seen the more familiar Ganguly; excitable, emotional, even fiery. He has appealed cantankerously and celebrated his wickets and catches with child-like gusto. His batting hasn't lacked his natural flair - in fact, he has been batting with greater freedom than he did in the period leading up to his temporary banishment - but the most noticeable feature about his cricket has been his poise. It hasn't left him even after he has occasionally been cornered into an awkward position by a short ball.

He has let himself go only once: it was an emotional moment, getting to his first hundred before his adoring home fans. But his celebration after he got to his first double-hundred, a landmark he sought and will cherish, was far more subdued. There was the raising of the arms and the acknowledgment of applause from his team-mates and the crowd. But then there was also a series of little pumps of the fist, and a waving of the helmet. Those were for himself. There was an air of fulfillment, of a man celebrating privately in public. His smile touched a million hearts: his struggle to regain his place, and some would say his honour, have been among the most stirring and uplifting stories in cricket.

Let's be done with the numbers first. Incredibly for a man who was given up for dead, 2007 has been his most successful year statistically. Potentially he has three innings left still, and he has already scored 932 runs at 62.13. His most prolific year to date has been 2002, when he managed 945 runs - but it took him 16 Tests back then. Put together, 2005 and 2006 yielded him only 422 runs from 11 Tests at 28.13, and that included a painstaking hundred against a hopeless Zimbabwean bowling attack.

The manner of his removal, first from captaincy and then from the team, continues to rankle with his supporters, and surely with him. But it is undeniable that from that low has emerged this high. It was perhaps a bit disingenuous for Greg Chappell to claim credit for Ganguly's revival, but in the cold light of the day, the exile, the sheer indignation of it, did make the revival possible, and ultimately far more poignant.

The credit for it must go entirely to Ganguly, for few rational observers would have seen it coming. It wasn't just that the runs had dried up; his skills, his responses, seemed to have deserted him, and he bore the look of a haunted man.

He owes his return to a change in the selection committee, but the rest of the story is about a man who simply refused to surrender to what seemed inevitable to most. Much can be said about his improved footwork and the decisiveness of his stroke-making, but in the end, it has been a triumph of spirit, of incredible strength of mind and faith.

Ganguly is living out a fairytale at the moment, and nothing he achieves will be a surprise anymore. There are many, me included, who believed Ganguly's time as an international cricketer was over. We owe him an apology and a salute

Remarkably, in a batting line-up featuring Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, Ganguly has been India's best batsman since his return. Not merely for consistency and the number of runs scored - during the course of his double-hundred he became India's leading run--getter this year - but for the assuredness of the manner in which he has made them. His half-century in his return Test in Johannesburg, though subdued and a bit laboured, helped India to what ultimately turned out to be a match-winning first-innings total in a low-scoring Test. And in the decisive Test in Cape Town, only he looked fluent and in control in the fateful second innings; his dismissal induced a crawl that proved terminal.

In England he had a series of vital contributions, and none better than a 79 on a challenging pitch in the second Test at Trent Bridge. Apart from Zaheer Khan's inspired swing bowling, my warmest memory from that match is of Ganguly's square-driving.

Michael Vaughan set an off-side trap, with four men between cover and gully, and Ganguly teased and mocked him by caressing, punching and guiding the ball repeatedly through that cordon: one to the right of point, then one to the left, and then a couple between the two gullies. He was denied a hundred by a wrong decision, and his response to that dismissal told a story. In an earlier time he would have left kicking and stomping; here he did so with an ironic, rueful smile. The protest was registered, but without causing offence.

Admittedly his hundreds in the current series have come against feeble opponents. The pitch at Kolkata offered nothing to the bowlers, and Shoaib Akhtar was drained by illness. But at Bangalore he was not so much up against the bowlers as the match situation. He provided the calm cushion for Yuvraj Singh to flow at the other end without ever sacrificing his own strokes.

Personally, my favourite Ganguly innings of the series is a small but vital one. It came during the run-chase in the final innings of the first Test. Shoaib had just cleaned up Rahul Dravid with a ripper; India had over a hundred runs to get; and Tendulkar was finding non-existent demons in the pitch. In this banana-skin situation, typical to India, Ganguly, who had fallen cheaply in the first innings, set about cutting down the target nervelessly, with deliciously timed fours against Shoaib, Mohammad Sami, and Danish Kaneria.

The toughest challenge lies ahead. Australia will come hard at him, and the pitches will test his skills. But he is living out a fairytale at the moment, and nothing he achieves will be a surprise anymore. There are many, me included, who believed Ganguly's time as an international cricketer was over. We owe him an apology and a salute.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo