November 6, 2008

The many sides of Sourav

Sometimes a rebel, often a creative force, always in the thick of it, Ganguly has been a many-layered character, and his career an astonishing one

Sourav Ganguly seemed on the surface to not take things too seriously, but the fires of competition burned hot in him © AFP

Gangles was fun. Every now and then a fellow feels like tearing off his shirt and waving it around like Mick Jagger with a microphone. Of all places, Sourav Ganguly responded to the urge at Lord's, holiest of cricketing holies. So much for decorum. He might as well have burped in St Paul's. Every now and then a fellow feels an insult coming on. Ganguly was rude to Steve Waugh, captain of all Australia, the mightiest foe of them all. So much for deference. Typically it started as a misjudgment and became an amusement that turned into a strategy.

Ganguly did not mind directing the fire at himself. What could they do? Bowl bumpers? Already every fast bowler worth his salt had tried to knock off his head. He had no lordly lineage but he walked and talked as he pleased, not exactly trying to provoke opponents but unwilling to deny himself. He did not give much ground to the modern game, with its fitness and diving and running between wickets and morning training and all that rot. It was brave of him to remain apart, for it left him exposed to ridicule, forced him to justify himself. But Ganguly was not scared of the pressure. Perhaps he needed the extra pressure the way a veteran car needs a crank. And, just in case, he had the populist touch. If Anil Kumble was the colossus, Sachin Tendulkar the champion, Rahul Dravid the craftsman, VVS Laxman the sorcerer, then Ganguly was the inspiration.

It has been an astonishing career. Some men prefer to follow a predictable path and their stories tell of a slow rise to the top and an equally measured decline. To that end instinct is subdued, contention avoided and risk reduced. That has been altogether too dull for Ganguly. Throughout he has toyed with his fate, tempting it to turn its back on him so that once again he could surprise the world with a stunning restoration. Something in him rebelled against the mundane and the sensible. He needed his life to be full of disasters and rescues, and comebacks and mistakes and memorable moments. To hell with the prosaic. At heart he is a cavalier, albeit of mischievous persuasion.

Taken as a whole, his contribution has been a triumph. It is no small thing for a boy from Kolkata to make it in Indian cricket. Till then local players were regarded as soft touches, and Ganguly himself was so categorised in his early days. Whereas the Mumbai-ites had risen through a rigorous system and the outstation boys had fought every inch of the way, the Bengalis seemed to lack the toughness required to make the grade. Ganguly changed all that. Indeed it was one of the many tasks he set himself. Always he has pitted himself against presumption and always he has prevailed.

Heavens, he even managed to time his departure as sweetly as ever he did any cover-drive. Before the series began he disarmingly announced that these four Tests against Australia were going to be his last. At a stroke his announcement put an end to speculation that he might lose his place. Ganguly is shrewder than he pretends. Just for a day or so it seemed that he might not get his way as reports spread of indiscreet remarks supposedly made about Robin Uthappa's hair, but Ganguly disowned the comments, even the splendid one about "every Tom, Dick and Harry" playing in the team. And so, once again, he lived to fight another day. Mind you, he let them hang in the air for 72 hours! That was typical Ganguly: at once the hero and the villain.

Throughout he has toyed with his fate, tempting it to turn its back on him so that once again he could surprise the world with a stunning restoration. Something in him rebelled against the mundane and the sensible. He needed his life to be full of disasters and rescues

To some extent his manner has distracted attention from his cricket. Above all he has been a fine player whose career tells of determination and perseverance. As a batsman he played numerous influential innings. Often he was at his best on the game's greatest stages (including Lord's, where he first made his mark) or when the chips were down. Then he could concentrate. In less stressful times his batting could be flashy, with shots vaguely executed and the outcome left to the gods. Ganguly was not a collector of runs but a match player. Such men cannot be judged only in terms of tallies.

As captain he was an uplifting figure prepared to stand up for his players. It is easily forgotten that his captaincy started with Indian cricket at its lowest ebb. Hereabouts India was extremely lucky to have at its disposal a superb group of senior players untouched by those dire events, and a new captain free from the insecurity and greed that had undone his predecessor. Accepting money from grubby sources was, one sensed, beneath Ganguly. He just did not move in those circles or think along those lines.

Not that Ganguly alone deserves all the credit for India's swift recovery. Around him could be found a resolute and principled bunch of cricketers. They needed someone to blow the bugle and Ganguly obliged. That is leadership. Alone among the cricketing nations, his Indian side repeatedly troubled the Australians. Under his leadership the team prevailed in England, daring to bat first on a Headingley greentop. Indeed the very image of Indian cricket changed - a process started by Sunil Gavaskar and completed by Ganguly and companions. No longer does anyone talk about timidity against fast bowling or languishing overseas. Driven in varying degrees by pride and professionalism, the now-departing generation acknowledged these weaknesses, confronted them and corrected them.

Always Ganguly was in the thick of it. No matter how often he was discarded he bounced back. No matter how frequently his cricketing obituary was written he found a way back into the team. At times he seemed to relish the headlines forecasting his imminent and final downfall. He is not by nature defiant. It is too petty an emotion. Just that he liked to prove doubters wrong. Criticism spurred him on. Otherwise he was inclined to become lethargic. He revelled in his reputation as an independent man who lived and played by his own lights.

He is not a man easily pinned down. Although it is never wise to suppose a man can be caught in a single adjective, it is much easier with his contemporaries. To watch Rahul Dravid or Virender Sehwag or Anil Kumble play is to know a large part of them. Ganguly liked to keep people guessing. Perhaps it is his background. Is it possible that the son of a wealthy businessman might have had some reservations, even embarrassment, about becoming a professional cricketer? Deep down Ganguly belonged to the old days, not so much of aristocracy as of ease. He cast himself as a sportsman, a player of games, and on the surface did not take it too seriously. And yet the fires of competition burned hot.

In some respects he has been a rebel, against the expectations of his origins, against dutiful modern ways, against the patronising of his country. But he is too large a figure to be motivated by anything as shrivelling as anger. Rather he has been a creative force in the game. As a batsman he was full of neatly executed strokes. It was not in his nature to brutalise the ball. Nor was he a poet caressing it with a delicate touch. Neither extreme attracted him in the slightest. Instead he stroked the ball, guiding it between fieldsmen or lifting it over their heads. It looked effortless but some men like to hide the strain.

Ganguly was at his most effective against the Australians, and his Brisbane hundred in 2003 showed he wasn't as fragile as he seemed © AFP

He has an unusual and unconventional mind. Often he will make the remark that raises eyebrows, causes people to stop and think. After all the hullabaloo of the travesty in Sydney, his stepped back and said that it had shown "how desperately the Australians want to win". All India was in a rage and yet a part of him respected that unbridled determination to prevail. He saw the meaning of the whole thing. Indeed he must have taken satisfaction from it. Australia has worked themselves into a lather over beating India. The rivalry had been largely his creation. And India had stood its ground. He had played his part in that as well.

Ganguly was at his most effective against the Australians. Somehow he sensed that the two nations had a lot in common, though they knew it not. But he felt that his players were unduly intimidated by the reputations and muscularity of these opponents. Accordingly he set out to convince them that the Aussies were human and could be beaten. In India he turned up late for the toss, a cheekiness that began as an accident and became an amusing tactic. It worked. The Australians became riled and started to play the man and not the ball. They had fallen into Ganguly's trap. His players could see that he was neither scared nor scarred, and enjoyed plucking the giant's beard. As captain Ganguly understood the value of gestures, the importance of appearances.

By no means, though, was it all gestures. Ganguly was the real thing, or else he could not have carried his players along with him. In Australia in 2003-04 he knew that his struggling team needed him to lead the way in the critical hour with a captain's innings and in Brisbane he promptly produced a rousing, valorous hundred on a lively pitch against a rampant attack. It was this performance that confirmed, once and for all, that Ganguly was not as fragile as he seemed. A twig can be snapped but not even a tempest can uproot a tree. It also secured the respect of his initially reluctant opponents, who know a fighter when they see one. As far as the Aussies were concerned, Lord Snooty had earned his stripes. It is one thing to talk, quite another to follow up with deeds.

And now he leaves the scene. Although he has batted with silky serenity in this series, it is the right time to go. A man has only so many struggles in him. A player's supporters have only so many battles in them. Perhaps in the last few days of his career he will play his part in India's greatest cricketing feat, the downing of Australia not by miraculous deed but sustained ruthlessness. If so it will be no more than he deserves. Ganguly has been neither a genius or a saint or a great batsman, but he has served with distinction and leaves Indian cricket in a much better state than he found it.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Yoganand on November 8, 2008, 10:18 GMT

    Perhaps no other Indian batsman played with as much grace as G R Vishwanth. And if theres any one who comes close to GRV,its without a doubt Sourav.Indian Cricket owes a lots to Sourav....he taught india the art of winning.He has never been given the credit due to him as a batsman.Over 10000 runs in ODIs and 7000 in Test Cricket is no mean achievement...and yet he is not good enough. with the going of Sourav, a glorious chapter of grace, grit, gumption and fierce love for the country comes to an end......SOURAV. We will miss you .......After Nagpur...the God of the offside to cease to walk the park.......take care did us proud

  • yogesh on November 7, 2008, 20:21 GMT

    Thank you for this great article Peter. I will never forget dada's courage when shoaib akhtar directed a 90+ mph ball onto his ribs and broke them... yet he comes back stronger. I think this is true for each of the great gentlemen - dada, sachin, rahul, vvs,jumbo and even javagal srinath - their commitment and sincerity is overwhelming and i feel so priveleged to have been able to watch play them siddharth points out in an other article, a chapter in my life seems to coming to a close..

  • Ankan on November 7, 2008, 15:01 GMT


    Many thanks for writing such a nice article for Sourav. And he deserves every bit of it. Rather I find it a pity really nowhere in media, his retirement got as much of attention as he deserves. While Kumble's retirement keeps on ranting on some or other newspaper, interviews flood our newschannels or websites, Ganguly, the most ever successful captain of India, goes into sunset rather silently, and that too while he performes, scores centuries and a half and brings india out of danger time and again. Sourav, in the truest possible meaning of the word has been an unsung hero in today's India, which does not remember his feat, does not acknowledge his contributions. But to people like us, he was the one the father of team India that we see mauing the aussies now. Its him, who started the process and we are reaping the benefit. God bless Sourav.

  • Dipankar on November 7, 2008, 8:22 GMT

    There are lots more-mauling the Lankans at Taunton, a classy hundred at Perth, superb outing with the ball in the Sahara Cup in Canada and the numerous comebacks after being written off more times that people think that Elvis is still alive! Sourav remains one of the greats to have played this game.

    Today, when the 'god of offside' calls it a day, as a cricket lover and a fan I want to thank 'Dada' for the wonderful memories, the aggression, the comebacks and most importantly giving life to a sport that was much maligned due to the match fixing controversy. Every time a spinner will bowl I will close my eyes to imagine Sourav coming down the track and hitting the ball out of the park!

  • Dipankar on November 7, 2008, 8:22 GMT

    A lot of people praise Dhoni for his insistence to get in young legs into the team and forget that Sourav as captain handpicked youngsters like Viru, Bhajji, Kaif, Yuvi, Zak and backed them to the hilt.

    Who would forget the famous win against the Aussies, more importantly getting under their skin. For the first time we had witnessed an Indian captain who was aggressive and would not back down from a stand-off. That's the way he played his game, when everyone was talking about his weakness to the short pitched stuff, one remembers him backing off and hit a six off an Ntini short pitched delivery in the CT in South Africa.

    The famous scene at Lords of a bare-chested Indian captain waving his shirt on winning the one-day series against England. For anyone to do that at Lords was frankly unimaginable and for an Indian player even more. A new India was born and Sourav was the leader of the pack. 'Dada' was taking on the cricketing giants and traditions by the horn and proudly too.

  • Dipankar on November 7, 2008, 8:19 GMT

    On a lazy Saturday winter afternoon at the Maidans in Calcutta, my friend told me that Sourav Ganguly was playing at the Kalighat Club ground. After pleading with our coach Haru-da (played a bit of sub-junior and 2nd division cricket myself) we left the nets and ran to watch him play. He had not made it to the Indian side (this was after his famous debut for the one day team in Australia wherein a daily quoted him saying he could not spot the white ball!). We sat quietly near boundary trying to get a glimpse of him, unfortunately he was not batting. I can't remember the opponents but he had them mesmerized with his out swingers and leg cutters. He got 3 wickets and we had to leave for home.I never got to watch him bat in person. A few years later history was created at Lords, a cricketer from Calcutta scored one of the most stylish century one would get to see. Calcuttans had already christened him God! He followed it up with another century in the next Test match and a star was born.

  • Raman on November 7, 2008, 7:45 GMT

    Sourav changed Indian forever with his aggressive captaincy. He underachieved personally though. In Indian cricket, it is a monumental error to think of team than personal landmarks, as illustrated by his contemporaries. However, Sourav achieved what any so-called great could not do - transforming Indian cricket. Beyond doubt, he is an all time great in ODI's. Certainly, the best southpaw of the country so far. The last sentence of Peter showed his arch-baiting nature of Sourav that took the shine of the article completely.

  • liam on November 7, 2008, 6:59 GMT

    Really come on all you Indian supporters that are constantly whinging about biased match official please remeber that it is Indian Umpires that are the reason we have neutral umpires now. And you focus on these desicions yet i could point out that the Singh hat trick in the 2001 series conatined a bizare LBW that pitched outside leg and was hit by Gilchrist and Warnes dismissal at the worst being benefit of the doubt never mind that it hit the ground. Those desicions could have radically changed that match.

    I would also think that the statement that India can now play away from home is incorrect Since 2002 they have played 39 matches away from home with 14 wins 12 lost and 13 draws if you take away the 5 victories against Bangladesh and Zibabwe that leaves a unimpressing 9 wins on the road hardly a fantastic record.

    I would however congragulate Ganguly on a good career he certainly has been a thorn in the Aussies side for a number of years.

  • satyaki on November 7, 2008, 6:18 GMT

    Ganguly has arguably been the greatest influence on Indian cricket in the last 20 years along with Kumble and Sachin. Yes, as a batsman, perhaps Dravid has fared better and Laxman has had his moments. However, one only needs to see the respect he draws from Zaheer, Veeru, Bhajji and the lot, who he stuck by through thick an thin. That will tell you a lot more than words ever will.

    Peter, I think you've hit the nail on the head in this article, and it evokes very strong feelings within, no doubt, a lot of passionate indians and cricket lovers around the world. Lets say "thank you" before we bid farewell to this cricketing giant.

  • Rav on November 7, 2008, 4:46 GMT

    Peter Roebuck has this extraordinary skills in depicting cricketing greats - I am enthralled by Peter's style, substance and his unique phrases - one phrase in this article reads "many a times Ganguly's obituary was written, but each time he found a way to crawl back in" - it is so unique an imprint of Peter Roebuck

    I wonder why Peter has to write this article now - he sensed the retirement of Ganguly in 3 days may deprive him of a golden chance to capture one of cricket's influential figures - When Peter writes about the Fab 4 and Indian cricket he transcends borders, cultures and regions - he is truly unparalleled - a most modern scribe with gift of thought and penmanship

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