No one divides like Ganguly
Apart from Sachin Tendulkar, no other Indian cricketer has inspired such devotion. Even after he quit the Test arena, with an innings of 85 and a first-ball duck, "Dada" would be lavished with admiration wherever he went. I've been at IPL games in Mohali and Bangalore where other opposition players would be booed and jeered. But for the man perceived as Indian cricket's lionheart, there was only adoration.
It's hard to say whether the IPL franchises were right to ignore him, especially at the inflated asking price of US$400,000. But for a generation that watched him for more than a decade, it's probably just as well that he has drawn a line under his career. There are few sights sadder than that of the ageing warrior. I remember Darren Lehmann turning out in a couple of games for the Rajasthan Royals. A once-brilliant strokeplayer reduced to wretched slogger. Matthew Hayden was little better towards the end of the last IPL season. Sourav Ganguly played the odd fine cameo but was a misfit for the most part, fluent drives and cuts traded for ugly heaves and hoicks.
It would be ironic if the Knight Riders improved and clinched a semi-final place without him. But whether they do or don't, his legacy extends far beyond the little fishbowl of the IPL. Each time India win a Test match or consolidate that No. 1 ranking, they're adding bricks to an edifice that Ganguly and John Wright laid the foundation for. Starting with Eden Gardens in 2001, by way of Kandy later that year and Headingley in 2002, all the way to the Gabba and beyond to Rawalpindi, where a first-ever series win on Pakistani soil was clinched. They can deny him an IPL contract, but not his place at the very heart of India's cricket history.
It wouldn't be far wrong to say that the IPL debacle that led to his retirement was probably the first time Ganguly had failed to prove his detractors wrong. Right from his early days in international cricket, that was what defined him, this uncanny ability to make the naysayers look stupid. Nobody did redemption or resurrection quite like him.
The IPL isn't international cricket, though. It's cold-eyed business. A 38-year-old who hadn't played at the highest level for two years just didn't represent good value, especially once he had increased his base price to twice what it was originally. There's also been a tendency among team owners to see themselves as the stars of the show, an unfortunate trend probably based on US sport and new-age football figures like Roman Abramovich.
But no matter how many t-shirts as you print with Khan on the back, it's the players that the hardcore fans identify with. In that respect, some of the franchises have taken a huge gamble with fan loyalty. Bangalore has no high-profile local name, and neither does Delhi, apart from Virender Sehwag. As for Kings XI, there's little balle balle there with Yuvraj Singh decamping to Pune.
In a country so in thrall to personalities, it could be dangerous to assume that a "brand" or "badge" will survive no matter who plays under the standard. Ganguly may not have illuminated the first three seasons of the IPL, but his presence in the Knight Riders' ranks filled stadiums and earned unflinching loyalty.
For the franchise owners, it represents the ultimate devil-and-deep-blue-sea choice. Do you continue to invest in a fading star to appeal to the parochial or do you move on and build the best squad that you can? Club sport is deeply entwined with local pride, and football teams like those in the Premiership have only been able to move on from that after decades of building up a fan base.
Even within the Kolkata hierarchy, no one divided loyalties quite like Ganguly did. He polarised opinion to such an extent that everything about him was larger than life, even the reporting. To some eyes he was a great captain and a tactical genius. To others, who begrudged him every little success, he was just the man lucky enough to be in charge of the finest team India had ever assembled.
The truth, as always, was somewhere in the grey area in between. Mike Brearley or Mark Taylor he most certainly was not, but there was a pride about him, and an ability to inspire loyalty that made him the ideal leader for the generation that shed India's inferiority complex abroad.
As we roll back the years, it's hard to look beyond his finest hour. For nearly two decades before they lapsed back into mediocrity, Australian cricket had a simple formula to take care of visiting teams. Host the first Test at the Gabba and hit them so hard that they went into a stupor from which they couldn't hope to recover. When India toured in 2003-04, it had been exactly 15 years since Australia lost a Test in Brisbane, and a truncated opening day ended with the scoreboard showing 262 for 2.
The prophets on the sports desk at the Courier Mail came up with this headline for the next morning's paper: "Indian Summer Over?" It rained for most of the next two days, but when India slipped to 62 for 3 on the fourth morning, that prediction looked like it might yet come true. Then, Ganguly, who had been told to expect plenty of "chin music", came to the crease and marked his guard.
Not even his most ardent fan would say that he had an intimidating presence. Viv Richards or Chris Gayle he was not. But from the moment he worked the third ball he faced from Nathan Bracken for three, there was something about his demeanour that suggested a man you wouldn't want to barge into on an ill-lit street.
His batting at its best had always been touched by amazing grace, but as Bracken, Jason Gillespie and Andy Bichel wound up and gave him the full-barrel treatment, you could glimpse the steely-eyed intensity. It was the same strength of will that had allowed the normally proportioned Springbok scrum-half, Joost van der Westhuizen, to tackle and stop the human locomotive that was Jonah Lomu in the rugby World Cup final of 1995.
Bichel hit him on the shoulder, and other short balls prompted awkward evasive action. But in between times Ganguly batted like the prince that Geoff Boycott always claimed he was. Not one bowler was spared as he struck 18 fours in a 196-ball 144. By the time he was sixth man out in the final hour of the day's play, India were six ahead. The summer was far from over.
Minutes before he raised his hundred, I'd gone down to the stands where the Fanatics stood, waving their Boxing Kangaroo flags. Some of them had history with Ganguly. On the tour of India in 2001, when India did a Houdini at the Eden Gardens, one of them had told me that they had footage of Ganguly and Harbhajan Singh showing them the middle finger after the victory.
The men and women I was surrounded by weren't admirers. It was fairly apparent that they'd love nothing better than seeing him run out for 99. But when he wasn't, after he had charged between the wickets to make his ground and then run a third of the way to the sightscreen to celebrate, I asked one of the flag-wavers what he thought of the man.
"He's a bastard" was the reply. After a small pause, he added: "But what a magnificent bastard."
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo