November 10, 2008

Eastern son

Sourav Ganguly fired Bengal's imagination. He was a talisman the state had waited too long for

For all Bengal: in Ganguly came the answer to years of prayer for a hometown boy who had made good © AFP

I am writing this in the early-morning Sunday quiet of my Mumbai flat, an eye on the clock, my nerves tingling a bit, the sense of keyed-up anticipation that all addicts know flowing through my system as I wait for the fourth day's play in Nagpur to begin.

I am relishing the wait; the hours leading up to the first ball are an excruciatingly slow, gorgeously pleasurable wind-up. Thank heavens for Test cricket - again: play gets underway as early as 9.30am.

It's a big day in a big game in a big series. But hang on. Isn't there something else too? Yes, at some point later today, Sourav Ganguly is likely to come out to bat for the last time in his international career.

I have just returned from Kolkata, my - and Ganguly's - hometown, and the public discourse over there in clubs, bars and street corners (sorry, that may not be a fabulously representative sample, but those are the places I tend to hang out at when I go to Kolkata on my annual visit) was dominated by the former captain and his decision to quit. Was he pushed? Should he have quit? Couldn't he have played for a little while longer? Oh, Dada!

Hell, the largest-selling Bengali daily put Ganguly in as part of the headline the day Sachin Tendulkar got his 40th Test hundred. (Ganguly was 27 not out at stumps.)

You wouldn't think it talking to the man on the street and reading the Bengali papers but there is among many members of the educated elite in Kolkata a tendency to go against the grain and profess no extra love for Ganguly. The way it works is to specifically say that the masses illogically, irrationally support Ganguly. In a way, this stands to reason: Kolkata is a city of self-conscious irony; it is bashfully apologetic about itself and is suffused with a severe abhorrence of self-congratulation in certain circles.

Several of my friends resort to this sort of thing. I never have. I have always been an admirer of Ganguly's. And I insist that my admiration has nothing to do with being parochial. Nor do I think I need to go against the grain in this respect to exhibit my distinctiveness from the masses.

But I have been thinking about it this morning. And, you know, I've been asking myself if it is at all possible to entirely divorce parochialism of some form or the other from support. Isn't all support a sort of tribalism? Isn't that what it's all about? I mean, I am a big fan of Roger Federer and John McEnroe and Diego Maradona, but with cricket, a sport in which we are actually good? You tell me.

Well, Bengal's fanaticism about Ganguly is to do with parochialism. I am not sure if this is something to be bashfully apologetic about. Sport, you see, as Nick Hornby writes in The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, is part of popular culture, however much some of us try to deny it sometimes. And Bengal has been traditionally big on culture - and tremendously proud of it. If you don't have much else to show - like, say, top industrialists, or a lot of money, what else can you do? Culture is your badge of privilege, of genuine distinction.

Now we always had people who would talk about cricket; who would pride themselves on forming the most literate, intelligent cricket crowd in India (a patent lie. I think it went by a name in the popular press: congnoscenti); who would say that the Eden Gardens had the most atmosphere (a nebulous assertion because one isn't quite certain what "atmosphere" might really, objectively, mean); and who would talk about Kolkata's culture of following cricket in a, well, cultured way.

We had everything, you see. The trouble was, there was no one to follow. We didn't have the players. I mean, okay, Pankaj Roy was from Bengal, but to find people who could recall him in his pomp - well, let's just say you won't find too many of them hanging around at street corners or clubs or bars.

Ganguly fired Bengal's imagination because he was the talisman Bengal had been looking for for decades; he gave us someone to specifically root for. Every state had its players in the national team. Where were Bengal's?

Here was a state that had historically produced nearly no Test players of any stature. In Ganguly came the answer to years of prayer for a hometown boy who had made good. And how good he made. But that's not quite why I admire Ganguly. Or at least that is what I think.

All this I have figured out, keyed up, in the early-morning, Sunday quiet of my Mumbai flat, waiting for play to begin.

I think I am a huge Ganguly fan because of the way he has changed Indian cricket. I have written about this before, but it bears repeating. (Fans can't ever have too much of repetition.)

Becoming captain in November 2000, he forged on the anvil of his spectacular, stare-you-in-the-eye-and-not-blink, tough, provocative leadership a side that went from being crumbling-pitch bullies in India to the team that has beaten the (still) world champions, Australia, on more occasions than any other side in this century; the side that has won around the world; the side that has played with audacity and impunity and courage and guts and beauty.

Indian captains were supposed to be polite, stoic, decent, not overly, demonstrably ambitious, middle class in sensibility if not lineage. Ganguly changed all that.

He was the fulcrum around which the contemporary game's premier confrontation, India versus Australia, was built. Indian cricket was always about silk, about splitting cover and extra cover with neither fielder moving. It took Ganguly to put the steel in it.

Bengal's fanaticism about Ganguly is to do with parochialism. I am not sure if this is something to be bashfully apologetic about. Sport, as Nick Hornby writes, is part of popular culture, however much some of us try to deny it sometimes

This has been a thrilling decade - why, a thrilling century, I realise as I write this - to be an Indian cricket fan. And we shall be remiss if we don't acknowledge the extent of Ganguly's contribution to that fact.

It is probably true that his record as India's most successful captain ever has somewhat obscured and taken the attention away from his achievements as a batsman. His Test average has never fallen below 40. He is India's fourth-highest Test run-scorer and fourth-highest century-maker. He has played more Tests than all but a handful of players in the history of the game, and he has, in them, offered us numerous beautiful, gutsy, unforgettable performances.

Ganguly himself is acutely aware of this fact. A couple of days ago he was quoted as saying (in - where else but? - a Bengali daily) that he has made more than 2000 runs in the past 22 Tests. He is very conscious of his stats. And why not? If others aren't, perhaps not as much as they ought to be, the man who made the most stirring comeback in contemporary Indian cricket ought to be. It's not something to be exactly ashamed of, is it? Or bashfully apologetic about, perhaps?

But the fact remains that more than Ganguly the batsman, it is Ganguly the captain - the "game changer", as the marketing blokes like to call it - I shall remember. And I shall miss him when he is there no more to remind me of how he did what he did.

Wish you luck, Sourav. Have a good one, mate - as your favourite opponents would say - now that it is all over. And thanks for what you gave us.

It's still nearly an hour to go for the start of play.

Soumya Bhattacharya is the editor of Hindustan Times in Mumbai. A (sort of) sequel to his book You Must Like Cricket? will be out in 2009