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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • rishav on November 12, 2008, 13:23 GMT

    everything ok about dada but being a true fan of him i felt miserable when dada was dismissed on a duck. but why media comainting on this. have he not played well through these long years. dada said one match made his carrier dark. i fell no my cricketing idol. upssssssssssssss whole bengal idol

  • Rajesh on November 12, 2008, 12:57 GMT

    Well..... I have read many posts here, some praising Ganguly and some pointing out that Ganguly may not be as great as he is portrayed to be now..... But one thing is sure...... Saurav really matured a lot during his last few playing years..... And when he finished he was not just a better player but had evolved into a much more mature and mellowed human being too...... Good Luck for your future endeavors Saurav.

  • Arnab on November 12, 2008, 11:38 GMT

    dear are right when you say bengal has hardly produced any cricketers representing India till sourav..infact there was hardly anyone significant from the eastern region...but thats the whole point of this article...after ganguly, young players from this region have started believing that they can make it too...we already had a bunch of players from lesser known places/states (orissa for eg) representing India..the current captain Dhoni is from Jharkhand..before Ganguly's time these were really unheard representation was hardly beyond mumbai/karnataka..and that is why sourav is a role model...young players from this region can now hope...or should I say, dare to dream...something u obviously won't understand...

  • Arnab on November 12, 2008, 11:13 GMT

    continued from my previous post...dearquicksingle, i seriously don't get u'r point when u say he nurtured some guys for his own he is at fault in bringing up & backing (to the hilt) up guys like shewag, harbhajan, yuvraj,zaheer...not to mention dhoni...these players have acknowledged that many times in their career...that also suggests he did have that narrow minded regionalistic approach which was so evident before his time... Ganguly has been a great servent of Indian cricket...pls have the courtesy to show him some respect...i believe i'm not being 'too radical' in asking that...

  • rajan on November 12, 2008, 7:41 GMT

    Continued from my previous post.....I must add that none of the posts criticizing my opinion have bothered to answer my questions. They have simply lambasted the post in the manner intolerant radicals do. One more question: Do you guys disagree that Ganguly behaved like a small time feudal chief (given his upbringing) where he nurtured some guys in the dressing room and worked to leverage and secure his place as a batsman as he felt others could be a threat. I have posed a question in my other post as to how middle order batsmen did not develop (or - were not nurtured deliberately) during his time. Is it a mere coincidence you feel, my friends here? Where was the killer instinct at Nagpur when he refused to play for India. is that a great model of love for your country?can my friends who dislike my views here, answer that. Or if you want to still look the other way and praise someone blindly without even questioning the follies he created,I cannot say more.

  • rajan on November 12, 2008, 7:30 GMT

    I think a few people have been utterly shocked by my views on Sourav and cant seem to tolerate a difference in point of view. Well, thats my point - we need to ask questions...was Sourav that good as he is being made out to be, or is it the sentimentality of the occasion that gets the better of some of our cricket bloggers. Bengal hasnt produced any sportsman of note in 30 years and here is someone who comes along and plays for India.Its kinda natural for the state to look up to him as a symbol of their presence in the Indian sports pantheon, but look deeper...isnt it an innate insecurity that elevates a regular Indian sportsman to a superhuman status. Karnataka doesnt go gaga over Kumble or Dravid as much because they've had Padukone some years ago...or Vishwanath or Srinath etc. Sourav should've inspired a whole generation of cricketers in Bengal. Has he done that? No, unless u feel Manoj Tiwary is the next Sachin Tendulkar! Thats why I say he's far away from the local cricket idiom!

  • SGBatsForever on November 12, 2008, 0:17 GMT

    Thank you Soumya for a wonderful piece on my favorite sportsman, Saurav C. Ganguly. Sourav Ganguly is one of the finest batsman and greatest captains in the history of the game- his numbers speak for themselves. Thank you Dada for so many inspirational and enjoyable moments over the last decade. We love you for them. As for quicksingle and his moronic comments- Ganguly was not as great a leader as Imran Khan, he was much much greater. Thank you Sourav and all the best wishes for a happy and more successful retirement. I cannot wait to see you in the IPL. God Bless you an yours.

  • Chota on November 11, 2008, 22:53 GMT

    Ganguly was an awesome player. Even though I'm a Pakistani supporter, I used to watch Ganguly play beautiful strokes. He has scored more than 11000 runs in tests and over 7000 runs in ODI's. This shows how great he was as a batsman PLUS as a bowler!

  • Chota on November 11, 2008, 22:48 GMT

    Well said "bharatM". I totally agree with you. Ganguly was, without any doubt, one of the greatest players India had EVER had! Good Luck with the future DADA!

  • Jash on November 11, 2008, 20:45 GMT

    ganguly was the man .. you all know that he and tendulkar had best opening pair in ODI's .. its not about just bengal if you read carefully the writer is just trying to convey how ganguly had made bengal proud .. that is true he was the most successful captain ever in Indian cricket history .. and the team selectors have ignored him to max extent just because he did bad in series against srilanka .. even sachin and dravid did pretty bad ... anyways i think he made a good decision of retirement

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