'I always believed I had it in me to play'
There's a steaming mug of tea in his hand when he opens the door of his suite to let me in. "Shall I make you a cup?" he offers. "Or perhaps you'd prefer Coke or Pepsi?" I turn them all down, firmly but politely, for I'm nervous and can't think of anything but the questions I have for Sourav Ganguly, in this much-postponed interview that's finally arrived. I've rehearsed my questions but immediately make a nervous mistake: "So, 100 Tests must be special for you. You've seen Sachin, Rahul and Sourav reach the milestone ..."
I'm nervous because I sit before a Ganguly who I, like many others, had sat in judgment of not long ago, and pronounced his career finished. Now Ganguly Mark II is on the verge of playing his 100th Test, and has been India's best batsman in the year gone by. But he puts me at ease, at once disarmingly warm and polite, asking about my career and family. Once I begin to ask questions, and he to answer, it all becomes simple once more. Because he's not expecting an apology. He has been the same person, through different phases of batting; in some ways he's been through it all. And yet, he wants to see more.
Does 100 Tests mean a lot to you? You've seen Sachin, Rahul and Anil reach this milestone already.
Yeah, it does. It's a huge milestone for any cricketer, and not many in Indian cricket have achieved it. Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Kapil Dev, and among the current lot Anil [Kumble], Sachin [Tendulkar] and Rahul [Dravid]. So it will be good to join that club.
Among the names you have mentioned in the current crop, you've had a rougher ride than the others. So in some way do you look at it as a journey against the odds? Someone from Bengal playing 100 Tests ...
We as a state have not produced many big players. But I hope in the future we start doing that, because places like Bombay and Karnataka and Delhi have produced Test players one after the other. In a state where cricket is so well-loved, it's important that we keep producing players who turn up and play for India.
Let's just divide your career into a few phases. First there's 1992 to 1996, when you played one game and then were dropped, then 1996 when you made your Test debut and went on till 2000, then captaincy from 2000 to 2005, and finally 2005 to now. Talk us through the many ages of Ganguly.
In 1992 I was pretty young. I went to Australia, hardly got to play any cricket, just played one one-day international and then got left out. I played domestic cricket for four years. I was young then and it didn't matter a lot to me then, being left out. Then I came back in 1996 and obviously had a good start to my Test career and then played on. In 2000 I became captain and stayed till 2005, and this was a very successful time in Indian cricket, so it was a satisfying tenure for me. I was left out again in 2005. [I'm] happy to be back and performing as I have been since I made my comeback.
Do you think captaincy came to you a bit early?
Yes. I was just five seasons old in international cricket. Sachin didn't want to lead the side after that Australia series [1999-2000] and I was the vice-captain then. I was a certainty in both forms of the game, so from that point of view I was the choice. But in terms of the number of years I had played for India, it was a bit early.
You took over at a tough time, at the end of match-fixing. You pledged on TV that your team was clean and would continue to be clean. Was that a tough time to take charge?
Yes it was. It surprised me at that stage because I was not even aware that these things could actually happen. For those reasons we got a crop of young players. Yuvraj [Singh], Zaheer [Khan] came into the scene in 2000. There were only four seniors in the side in me, Sachin, Rahul and Anil. To build a team helped us. Players like [Virender] Sehwag, Harbhajan [Singh], Ashish Nehra did the job in one-day cricket. And the benefits are being reaped now. These guys have since become match-winners.
You've spoken a bit about youngsters coming through in that period. But the batting also did well; the results were strong. Against Australia, the best team in the world, India won at home and drew away. Was that a golden age for Indian cricket?
Yes, of course. And we beat Pakistan in Pakistan after 50 years and we went to the World Cup final. We played two mini-World Cup finals in that time. People like Sachin, Rahul, [VVS] Laxman and Sehwag were batting at their best. That probably helped the team.
|"In 1992 I was a young boy, 18 or 19, and it didn't matter to me. I was happy playing for Bengal and just playing first-class cricket. At that age you don't worry about anything. When I lost my place in the side in 2005, it was different "|
Your leadership played a big role in this. Especially what you did with the younger players. What did you do differently?
I just set them free. As a captain I had certain ideas - which I see pretty much in Kumble now. I was a firm believer that every cricketer needs to get a fair chance. I had decided that I was going to take the pressure off the players and let them play freely. Which really helped them do justice to their talent. At the same time I had Rahul, Sachin, Anil and Laxman, who themselves were playing outstanding cricket.
What you brought to the team and what you are are different things. You're a polite, mild-mannered person but your team was rough and ready for a scrap.
I realised that we played well when we were aggressive. When we took the foot off the accelerator, we were a completely different team. We needed to get the team charged up and we got results against Australia in 2001. They came here ... Steve Waugh had won everywhere but here [in India]. He was putting pressure on the team and we were a young side and they knew they were the top team. The only way we could have done well against them was by being aggressive.
One of the things that was always spoken of in Indian cricket was regionalism. But your reign as captain saw an end to that, to a large extent.
To be honest, when I played cricket even before I was captain, I didn't notice much. Maybe I was too young to do that. When I became captain my entire responsibility was to pick the best possible 15 for India. I wanted to do that and I had no pressures from anywhere to pick someone or drop someone. I made it pretty clear that if I'm captain, the best team has to play.
Another important thing that happened at the time was the appointment of India's first foreign coach. You had your differences with John Wright, but in hindsight, and especially in the light of what followed, it was a very healthy working relationship, wasn't it?
We worked very well. We had mutual respect for each other. There will be differences in opinion. He'll have an opinion on something and I'll try and give my side of the story. At the end of the day, I always feel it's the captain that counts. Because I have to take decisions in the middle.
John was a fantastic person. He was responsible in changing the outlook of Indian cricket. He made the boys realise that winning overseas is important, and that it was not just about winning at home. He was responsible in getting Harbhajan to bowl the way he did against Australia in 2001.
Towards the end of your tenure you seemed to be weighed down by it all, especially when your own batting form dipped. Would you agree with that assessment?
When you don't perform well as captain, in any country, and particularly in the subcontinent, you will have pressures. Probably it's a coincidence that in the last phase of my captaincy I didn't perform well with the bat. But during my entire tenure I tried to keep captaincy and batting separate. When I went out to bat I never thought I was captain. Even when I did not score with the bat, I knew I had to take decisions on the field that would make the team win. In the later stages it was just a coincidence that I lost the captaincy when my batting form was not good.
Wright has since admitted that he probably stayed on longer than he should have. Do you think maybe there was a similar situation with you and the captaincy?
No, I don't think so. John wanted to go after the Pakistan series [in 2003-04]. But that had a lot more to do with family reasons than cricket. He had two young children, and to be honest, he had been away from New Zealand for four or five years. We used to go on tour and then return home, but he used to return to India, which was away from home. From that point of view it was harder for him because we would invariably go home, he wouldn't.
You were out of the side from 1992 to 1996. Then again, you were out in 2005. How would you compare the two phases?
They're two completely different things. In 1992 I was a young boy, 18 or 19, and it didn't matter to me. I was happy playing for Bengal and just playing first-class cricket. At that age you don't worry about anything. When I lost my place in the side in 2005, it was different. I was 32, I'd lost my captaincy - for whatever reasons; there was a lot of controversy going around. That was not a very happy way to lose my place in the side. Those two situations were completely different.
What kept you going when you were left out the second time around? What sort of work did you do?
I worked on my game and I got a lot of time for myself. When I was away from the hustle and bustle of international cricket, the hotels, airports, day-in and day-out, that's a different grind. The fatigue ... I was completely out of the system, but I always believed I had it in me to play. There were a lot of tough tours coming and I knew that if people don't do well, my turn will come. It was just a belief and hope and things could have gone the other way as well. But that's what destiny is all about.
From the outside it appears that you're a lot calmer at the crease now. Your composure is intact. Is this a change since you made your comeback?
It depends, Anand. When you play well, a lot of things look good. When you're not playing well, you try things and it doesn't work. That's why this is sport. Obviously I have more time to myself now and captaincy does take a load in India. As a captain you have to handle the team, your own game, media, selection, getting tours working - so it is not easy. Now I have more time for myself, to work on my game. I can think about what I need to do to help the team which keeps me mentally fresh.
So you would agree that batting is a lot about keeping your mind free and sorting the mental aspects?
Yeah, of course. Anything is about keeping your mind free. The more you start thinking about other things, it doesn't help.
|"To be honest, I've not seen anything special, except for Yuvraj and Sehwag in the batting, and Harbhajan, Sreesanth and RP. Zaheer is a seasoned campaigner, so I'm not including him in this bracket. We need some more quality players coming through, especially in terms of batting"|
Which of your innings since your comeback has given you the most satisfaction? And you have a few to choose from.
To be very honest the first knock in Johannesburg was very crucial. It was my comeback and it was a difficult wicket and we won a Test match in South Africa for the first time. My knock in Nottingham, when me and Sachin had a crucial stand, that was satisfying - also in a match India won. A hundred at Eden Gardens, my first hundred at home, that was satisfying. Also my first double-hundred, [after] we were 61 for 4 ... it's been good.
You're not known for your fitness, but still you've had a long career. What's the secret of your longevity?
I have done my fitness work. I'm not as fit as a Mohammad Kaif or as some of these younger guys are. When we started our cricket, the idea of fitness was completely different. It has changed over the years. People like me and Rahul have worked on our fitness. We may not be the quickest on the field. But we do our cardio and weights, which actually helps when you bat.
Your technique is not as compact as Sachin's or Rahul's. Have you had to work that much harder?
No, it's not as compact. My technique was never as compact as those two, but I have other gifts. My timing. I could hit the good balls for four and maybe other people may not have had this ability. I had to adjust my game accordingly.
I've realised what my strengths are and what my strengths are not, and played accordingly. By God's grace I had this natural ability of being a very good player on the off side. That helped in international cricket, because that's the channel where bowlers like to bowl and try to get you out. Every player is going to be different, but every player should find a way to get runs. I've just found my way.
You've spoken about some of the difficulties in leading India. What's the most difficult part?
The most difficult part of leading India is time management. And you have to be thick-skinned. You cannot worry about what's going on around you. You have to lead with your best intentions. You have to wake up in the morning or go to sleep in the night thinking, "Today I've done what is the best for the good of Indian cricket." There will be opinions. Thousands of people are watching, people are making livelihoods out of this game, so there will be criticism. If you start going through all of them, then you'll have a very tough time. You have to learn how to switch yourself off from all this and do what is good for the game.
Rahul Dravid has said that the reactions of the fans and the media sometimes lacks proportion. Would you agree?
I've had my ways of dealing with this. And I've told Jam this once before as well. You should not be worried about how the media and public react. They can react however they want. It's how you as captain react to what they say that's important. You have to learn to keep yourself out of all this.
To digress for a second: I have criticised you repeatedly over the years, in my writing and on television. I'm seen to be anti-Ganguly. Why are you sitting down with me and speaking to me?
No, no, no. I have never thought like that. I have never worried about criticism. If I don't play well, I don't expect you to write that I've played well. What only matters is that it should not get personal. Anand, I'm a pretty free person. I don't have hiccups like this and I don't carry baggage. Even with my team-mates, when I was captain, I would get angry with them on the field at times, but off the field I'd go out of my way to back them. I've got no issues with criticism. Sometimes it helps.
What is preventing India, with its large talent pool and vast resources, from becoming a dominant force in world cricket?
I think we have become more dominant over time. Playing at home we've always been very good. But our performance overseas in the last five-seven years has changed. I was reading recently, probably on your website, that India has won more matches overseas than any team other than Australia, in recent times. That's a pretty good sign. But we need some quality players. We've had a crop of players - Tendulkar, Dravid, myself, Laxman, Anil, in the 34-35 years bracket - who have been outstanding for Indian cricket. We need some consistent talent coming through. To be honest, I've not seen anything special, except for Yuvraj and Sehwag in the batting, and Harbhajan, Sreesanth and RP. Zaheer is a seasoned campaigner, so I'm not including him in this bracket. We need some more quality players coming through, especially in terms of batting.
If you could change something about Indian cricket what would it be?
Try and take the pressure off the players as much as possible. Let them play as freely as they can.
Anand Vasu is an associate editor at Cricinfo