October 8, 2008

The prince with the common touch

Ganguly's enduring legacy will be that of a leader who took Indian cricket out of its feudal past

When he was golden: Ganguly gets his hundred at Brisbane in 2004 © Getty Images

In the end, the timing of the retirement was as impeccable as the strokes through cover with which he captivated the game's aficionados in his heyday. Sourav Ganguly's career will be defined by the games he played, and didn't play, against Australia, and he will relish the chance to be part of an Indian side that has the opportunity to equal the feats of the team he led so famously seven years ago. As last stands go, this could be a memorable one.

Assuming he plays all four matches, Ganguly will finish with 113 Test caps. After his maiden tour with the Indian team - to Australia in 1991-92 - ended with an unfavourable report from a manager who would subsequently go on to be the BCCI president, even one cap must have seemed a distant dream. When we look back at the furore that accompanied his selection for the tour of England in 1996, it says more about the mindset of the time than it does about Ganguly the cricketer.

All the insinuations and scathing articles were indicative of a rotten system that could rarely see beyond the cricketing hotbeds of Mumbai, Delhi and Karnataka. If you were from Bengal or Tamil Nadu, or an even lesser state, the chances were that you weren't even a blip on the radar. In many ways Ganguly's second coming and century on debut at Lord's were to herald a shift away from parochialism, a sea change that was completed during his years as captain. These days, if no one bats an eyelid when a boy from Rae Bareilly or another from Kochi dons the India cap, much of the credit must go to the Bengali who became a pan-Indian hero.

Ganguly was no great tactician in the Ian Chappell or Mike Brearley mould, but like Sir Frank Worrell he was able to create a coherent symphony from discordant notes. Much like the West Indies of the 1950s, the Indian team that Ganguly inherited contained many talented individuals with no real sense of collective purpose. With him leading, they came together under the Indian standard, and ushered in what must surely rank as the golden age of Indian cricket.

Though his name will forever be associated with the stopping of Steve Waugh's juggernaut in 2001 and the run to the World Cup final two years later, my favourite Ganguly memory will always be that glorious 144 at the Gabba in 2003.

The days leading up to the Test had been full of innuendo about chin music and Ganguly being the weak link in the line-up. "That's typical of how Australia play their cricket; they play it tough and use their media," he said with fleeting smile on the eve of the game. "Even Steve Waugh gets short-pitched deliveries, and he has got 32 hundreds."

When probed further about the short-ball barrage that he could expect, Ganguly smiled again and said: "When you play cricket, you don't expect everything pitched up to you. We who have played Test cricket for a longer period of time have received short deliveries. I do not think about it. Fortunately or unfortunately, they don't leave the newspaper under the door in my hotel."

Much like the West Indies of the 1950s, the Indian team that Ganguly inherited contained many talented individuals with no real sense of collective purpose. With him leading, they came together under the Indian standard, and ushered in what must surely rank as the golden age of Indian cricket

When he came out to bat in a game severely disrupted by rain, India were reeling at 62 for 3. By the time he departed, having earned grudging respect even from the Fanatics who had seen Andy Bichel, the local hero, taken to the laundromat, India had a healthy lead. Waugh and all of Australia knew that Ganguly was in no mood to blink first.

That innings, full of glorious cuts and languid drives, was emblematic of Ganguly the batsman, who always got a raw deal because his numbers didn't quite stack up next to the other three in a famous middle order. Given how much the captaincy diminished the batting returns of more lauded batsmen like Michael Vaughan and Rahul Dravid, it's only fair to wonder how good a player Ganguly might have been without captaincy's ball and chain.

The figures are revealing. In the 49 Tests in which he led India, he averaged 37.66, well below what you would expect from a batsman of his quality. In 60 other games, he scored at 44.60. That he has made more runs than any other Indian batsman since his return to the Test fold in 2006 merely makes you think of what might have been.

The Ganguly tale has its most turbulent moments in the days when Greg Chappell was India's coach. When he choose Chappell, going against his team-mates' preference for Tom Moody, Ganguly couldn't have imagined the impact it would have on his career. There were mistakes on both sides and it seems churlish to apportion blame, and the most appropriate way to remember the whole sordid episode is as an example of cultural disconnect.

The last year of Ganguly's captaincy saw a marked decline in his batsmanship and raised questions about his ability to galvanise the side, especially in the wake of a withdrawal from the Nagpur Test that stunned even his confidantes in the dressing room. When the captaincy was wrested from him, both his attitude and appetite for the game were questioned. But like Geoffrey Boycott in the days before a triumphant return from self-imposed exile in the 1970s, Ganguly spent the months on the periphery fiercely determined to challenge accepted stereotypes.

When he did return, with a cursory handshake from Chappell at a tour game in Potchefstroom, the sense of purpose was palpable. His doughty half-century helped inspire a famous victory at the Wanderers, and even as India squandered a series-winning chance in Cape Town, he was the only one to bat without fear and hesitancy perched on his shoulders. Reduced to a foot soldier, the former general had rediscovered his appetite for the battlefield.

He batted with elegance and poise in England a few months later, and was magnificent in the home series against Pakistan and South Africa. There were no Brisbane-like heroics in Australia last time round, however.

Little did Ganguly foresee when he put his weight behind Chappell's candidacy for the coach's job, the bitterness that lay ahead © AFP

Given his domination of spin bowlers over the years, the failure in Sri Lanka was surprising, especially given that he was the one specialist batsman not to be dismissed by Ajantha Mendis. That he was repeatedly dismissed by Muttiah Muralitharan, who he had tamed so memorably on his home patch at Kandy in 2001, suggested that both the eyes and reflexes were slowing down. With the curtain having been wrenched down on his one-day career in Australia earlier this year, you wondered if the reservoir of desire had begun to run dry.

After more than a decade at the top Ganguly has nothing to prove. He's come a long way, this favourite son of Kolkata, the "God of the off side" who went on to become India's most successful captain. During the journey he established himself as one of the greats of the one-day game, the exorcist of India's overseas hoodoo and a maverick who upset Waugh and also the old suits at Lord's with those shirtless antics on the red-brick balcony.

It's somehow fitting that the last words will possibly be written in Nagpur, the venue that came to symbolise the Rubicon of his days as a leader. Four years on, he's part of a group that could reclaim modern-day Test cricket's ultimate prize, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Whether he achieves that or not, the legacy is secure.

Many may have described him as a prince, wrongly as a snooty one, but first and foremost he was the leader with the common touch and the man responsible for dragging Indian cricket out of its feudal past. MS Dhoni and many others who subsequently emerged from what Arvind Adiga, the Booker Prize nominee, described as The Darkness, have a lot to thank him for.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo