Silk and steel
Rahul Dravid said it right when he said, "On the off side, first there is god, and then there is Sourav Ganguly."
Sourav burst upon international cricket with two centuries in his first two Tests, and went on to carve a niche for himself as one of the best batsmen in the modern game. With his retirement the game has lost a great player, a strong leader and a colourful and unpredictable character.
Sourav the batsman was an attacker, blessed with time and quick hands, a destructive square- cut and the most elegant of cover-drives. All these attributes I saw when I watched him on TV at Lord's during his debut, completely at ease in the big time, scoring a remarkably mature hundred. This maturity, which I believe comes of self-confidence and mental strength, marked him out as a future captain at a very early stage.
Sourav's batting was all about balance. He had a good stride forward or back, a strong and stable base, a heavy bat to add further to the weight transfer into the shot, and a still head. This enabled him to be dominant on either side of the wicket and to punish any bowler who offered him width.
The only delivery that troubled him consistently through his career - except at the start - was the short ball. The bouncer seemed to make him lose his stability and balance, making it somewhat awkward for him to play it. This perceived weakness has been a hot topic in most dressing rooms during pre-match meetings: how to shake him up with the short-pitched delivery - not always to get him out with it but to make him feel uncomfortable enough to commit an error in the execution of his strokes. The short ball was used extensively against him in Test cricket with some success, and also to a certain degree in ODIs. Whether this was the reason why such an able and talented batsman averaged only in the low 40s in Test cricket is a matter of debate and speculation.
He did manage to overcome this weakness sufficiently and become one of the mainstays of the Indian middle order. In fact, he later evolved his game to take advantage of the short-pitched ball. Though not a natural at the pull and hook, he would at times premeditate his shot based on the assumption that the ball would be short and set himself for it, trusting his eye and hands to rescue him if he guessed wrong. The hundred he scored in Brisbane during the historic tour of 2003-04 was for him a vindication of his self-belief and technique.
It was in the one-day arena that Sourav was most at home. Along with Sachin Tendulkar he formed one of the most feared and successful opening partnerships of all time. He was supremely able to dominate any bowling attack, scoring on both sides of the wicket, unafraid to use his feet to the fast bowlers, arrogantly exploiting the field restrictions by hitting over the top. He handled spin with ease, rotating the strike and clearing the boundary almost at will. I watched him do all this against Sri Lanka at Taunton in the 1999 World Cup, scoring a magnificent 183.
To me, his greatest contribution to Indian cricket was as captain. When first appointed, his attempts to not just earn but also demand respect from the opposition ended up with him spending time in the match referee's room on more than a few occasions.
|His fiery attitude rubbed off on his team-mates and he seemed to create what seemed a new India. A team that believed in playing tough, in winning from any situation; that believed in themselves and each other|
For Sourav, his only responsibility was to win games for India and imbue his team with a new strength of character and self-belief. He knew that his team was good enough to beat any opposition; his challenge was to make his team- mates believe it too. He never walked onto a cricket field to win friends, but instead did so with an arrogance and self-belief that irked almost everyone. He intentionally irritated the opposition. From keeping the opposing captain waiting at the toss, to playing verbal and mental games, he was a master at the art of gamesmanship. All this to give his team an advantage in a competition.
This fiery attitude did rub off on his team-mates and he seemed to create what seemed a new India. A team that believed in playing tough, in winning from any situation; that believed in themselves and each other; a team that revelled under pressure; and above all a team that played to win. His greatest achievement as captain would no doubt be the tour to Australia in 2004. The Indians dominated the Tests, making Australia scramble to save the series in their own backyard. That tour was marked by remarkable performances by Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sachin, but it is the captain who moulded the team into a winning unit.
Sourav's single-minded drive to be the best has coloured the perception others have of him. The people of Kolkata are devoted to their prince, and while some opposition players might not have him on their Christmas lists, they accord him grudging respect. He has annoyed and irked and he has amazed and thrilled. Sourav has not had everything his way. Friction with selectors, with his coach and administrators, has dogged the latter part of his career, and he has risen to meet all the challenges in his own way, with undeniable success.
He has been a magnificent player, not just for India but for all cricket. He has enjoyed great success and undergone myriad trials and tribulations. Fought for his rights and beliefs and led his team with courage and conviction. Now Dada walks away with his head held high, with that ever-present, almost arrogant half-smile, secure in his wonderful achievements, knowing that he did it his way.