Hard edge inside
When Sourav Ganguly agreed to captain India in spring 2000, he was in effect answering this advertisement, never publicly put forth by the BCCI:
Are you a problem-solver? Seeking challenging employment? Look no further:
WANTED: A messiah.
QUALIFICATIONS: Must be able to part water, if not walk on it.
JOB DESCRIPTION: Take a team NOT of your own choice, of modest talent, with minimal back-up, and teach it to win. Immediately.
JOB SECURITY: Surely you jest.
Despite the hiccup in South Africa, people say Ganguly, just a year and a half in the job, is not Indian cricket's answered prayer.
Of course he isn't. Who could be?
To judge Sourav Ganguly as captain in isolation - South Africa revealed India's fragile skills more than the captain's ineffectiveness - is like valuing Napoleon's instincts as a general purely in the context of Waterloo. He was given the helm of an unsteady ship (a frustrated Tendulkar having had enough), has been denied security of tenure and is constantly second-guessed. It is a job in which the only guarantee is a lifetime prescription for antacids. By that measure Ganguly (helped by John Wright's influence) has wrought a minor miracle.
He has won six Tests of 12; only Mohammad Azharuddin (14 of 47), Sunil Gavaskar (nine of 47) and Tiger Pataudi (nine of 40) have won more. He already has as many Test victories abroad - three - as any Indian captain, though one might quibble about the opposition - Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka - and mention he has not led in England, Australia and the West Indies.
He has ridiculed cynics by holding his nerve, and thus his team's, in defeating the world's best side. He has brought a hard-edged passion to a squad that needed long hours on a therapist's couch. Even Steve Waugh, clearly not a signatory to Ganguly's fan club, writes in his new book that India has "a new steeliness".
Ganguly has done much of this without a full side: the fast bowlers erratic, the wicketkeepers playing musical chairs, a national advertisement for openers unanswered, the fielding deadly-dull, a wag-less tail and the top batsmen inconsistent. To win battles armed with a toothpick and a pea-shooter has taken a certain audacity. Not bad for a fellow who (some would say) lacks self-discipline, mocks convention, embraces controversy, has an inflated Test batting average and has done for India's reputation what Martina Hingis has done for Swiss finishing schools.
With Ganguly, the truth is always uncertain. A few weeks ago, rumour has it, he was invited to a function marking the inauguration of the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. As captain of the touring team it was incumbent on him to attend. But he excused himself saying he was sleepy. The story proved apocryphal but it gained credence because it was so very Ganguly.
There are aspects of leadership Ganguly is not familiar with, or chooses to ignore; he does not so much set out to be unconventional as he is uninterested in what convention demands. He is well-spoken and charming, but lacks erudition. Steve Waugh went to meet Edward de Bono in London; one presumes the great lateral thinker's works do not quite interest Ganguly. He does not strike you as a man powered by a sense of history, consumed by ideas.
Yet not all men are philosophers; some, like Ganguly (without whose assent, it must be said, we might not have had a foreign coach) who once pulled on the covers himself in Sri Lanka to protect a pitch his team would bat on last, are men of action. He will get things done - like ensuring that India had 16 men in South Africa and not 15 - and drive his team. He is almost boyishly exuberant, his passion is infectious. Yet occasionally, as his behaviour suggests - and this does not include trigger-happy Mike Denness's incomprehensible Wild West justice - he fails to to draw the line.
The more you unravel Ganguly, the more it seems there is a lot of good to his captaincy; but the good is inextricably linked with the bad: as if his strengths are in some measure also his weaknesses.
He has no respect, some believe, for cricket's canons. His repeated lateness for the toss this spring was much debated (rudeness/tactic/sloppiness), yet people who know Ganguly say he's always late. And that while he may not arrive for the team bus on time, he is not unconcerned if someone else is unpunctual.
But captains, as Tiger Pataudi once said, "either push from the back or lead from the front." In the Indian context, Ganguly must be the latter. In one sense this means performance, in another it means setting the example, being on time, being disciplined; specially in a team that requires the glue of discipline. Lifting a team demands that the captain set high standards and Ganguly's reputation for not being the hardest of workers is self-defeating.
Yet, on the field Ganguly is suddenly quicker on his feet, driven forward by his instincts, confident of himself and unafraid of ideas and of taking risks. Tactically, he is proactive, constantly "attacking" as a team-mate says. As former Test player, Arun Lal, puts it: "Sourav's major strength is that he is not shackled by tradition or any other factor. He's extremely unorthodox and refreshingly instinctive. He is known to change a bowler right after getting a wicket, if he thinks the situation demands it."
This paradoxical nature exists even with his team and officials: his behaviour can seemingly grate, but his manner also hides his effectiveness. Unlike many Indian captains, Ganguly is not handicapped by fear of controversy: he is not shy of rattling the establishment or of offering painful truths; yet sometimes he forgets to hold his tongue.
He will flay his team publicly, as he has done in South Africa, labelling the batting "a disgrace" and impaling his bowlers on a stake. He will stand arms akimbo and scowl, and it has been said that he loses faith in players quickly, making them insecure around him. Articulating to the world the need for a better wicketkeeper-batsman when Deep Dasgupta had just joined the team may have been honest but ill-timed. Similarly, his bravado in advertising his willingness to open the innings, thus censuring by extension those who wouldn't, looked silly when he didn't open.
Yet this same man will leave notes for team-mates telling them how good they are, invite them to his room to watch movies together, list on paper before the South Africa tour what he expects from each player and calm a nervous Das before his Test debut - a sensitivity he is often not credited with. Players might swallow every unkind rebuke, for they are reassured he carries his pugnacity into selection meetings - he fights for them.
A bowler has been heard saying there is "zameen and aasman ka farak" in Ganguly's team. VVS Laxman says, "The kind of security he gives you is amazing, and that's exactly what you want from your captain. He encourages every guy. Before he got his 100 (in Sri Lanka), Sehwag was going through a lean trot and it was Ganguly who pumped him up and kept faith in him and you know what happened."
When the Australians landed in India, some parts of the media trapped Sourav Ganguly in a cliche: he was the rich man's son, slouching with hands in silk pockets, Steve Waugh the working class hero with grime under his nails. It was a comparison not so much inaccurate as glib.
Ganguly is by accident a child of luxury, though perhaps he is accustomed to self-indulgence: even contemplating leaving a losing team on tour to see his child was unwise. His imperious manner, a naive flirtation with an actress and a terseness with critics (he loves praise) give rise to the suspicion that he sees Indian cricket as his personal fiefdom.
But in a world beset by bickering and vacillation, Ganguly has sensibly adopted a take-charge attitude: in a land of too many generals and too few soldiers, he is setting the equation right. As he said once, "I`m ready to take risks, and if they don't work, I'm willing to take the blame."
Also he is hardly some unholy despot. At team meetings he is known to listen, even to views he does not subscribe to. He is described as "completely unbiased" when picking a team. And as a team-mate says, "it's a myth that he's the most autocratic captain we've had."
The princely view also does not reconcile itself with his toughness. After becoming captain last year, he told me: "I can never have more pressure than the day I played in England in 1996. It was my first Test and, if I didn't score runs, possibly my last." The rest we know, and it signalled that his belly was not all soft.
Ganguly has startled opposing teams with his refusal to step back, his willingness to duel with bare fists. He has no fear of tilting at windmills and only his unblinking competitiveness has pushed a band of somewhat unsure Sancho Panzas to follow him.
For a land emotional about cricket, our teams have been oddly subdued, meeting every `f... you' on the field with a genteel `good evening'. Humility and good manners are hardly vices, nor do they equate to weakness, but occasionally an unsheathed blade carries its own message.
Certainly he surprised the Australians. John Buchanan, while critical of Ganguly's behaviour, admitted some weeks ago, "Ganguly brought something to the Indian side that we tended to undersell: a steeliness, a resolve, an arrogance; it doesn't matter (who he is playing) but he'll compete".
The West has for long been comfortable enforcing the cliche of the subcontinental cricketer as meek, uncomplaining and fatalistic about defeat. It has taken courage for Ganguly to break a boring stereotype.
Sourav Ganguly admitted to me once that he enjoys watching himself bat: "I love to watch myself hit a cover drive, to watch myself hit a hundred." There have been few such days lately and to watch him fend rising balls is acutely embarrassing.
His recent Test scores do no justice to a man compared to God on the off side: 22, 4, 5, 9, 0, 15, 4, 18, 98*, 1, 30, 14, 30, 42. His Test average of 45.54 when not captain has plummeted to 28.9 when captain, yet his one-day average of 42.95 when not captain, has risen to 46.89 when captain.
He has met claims that he is a better one-day batsman than a Test player, and that his form merits concern, with scorn, but sarcasm is a poor weapon against fact. Earlier on the South African tour he said, "Two innings ago, I was 98 not out in a match which India won (in Sri Lanka), so I don't know what is the good form and the bad form they talk about." In India, he rebuked critics saying, "suddenly there are a lot of Don Bradmans out there".
It was quite the wrong name to summon up, for it was Bradman who wrote in Farewell to Cricket: "If a skipper has need to worry about his own position, it must detract from his ability to make untrammelled decisions."
Some might draw a hasty parallel with the once-struggling Mark Taylor, but the comparison is skewed: unlike Ganguly, Taylor was a great captain, had the players to absorb his failure and led a winning team. Despite all that, the volume of dissent grew with every failed Taylor innings, and Ganguly will begin to hear it too, if he hasn't already. Poor form will erode his confidence and shake his authority; respect for him will diminish and players will be less likely to digest criticism from a captain whose place has become disputable. A feeble team requires a sure captain.
BCCI boss Jagmohan Dalmiya recently agonised about India's poor performances, sounding almost surprised - "they have such immense talent". One presumes he was looking at another team. India has Tendulkar, a handful of other talent, and then more gaps than Manchester United's defence. National despair over performances like the ones in South Africa is misplaced, for it arrives from an overestimation: the truth is, we are simply not good enough. But we should be. India has the population and the funds, but it also has the BCCI which is adroit at turning gold into straw. India's stagnation is a question to be addressed in boardrooms, not on the field; to that extent, Ganguly is absolved of much responsibility. To replace him with someone else is a bit like Italy changing a Prime Minister.
Dalmiya is intrinsic to Ganguly's survival: he knows the futility of changing captains; by virtue of a common geography - both hail from Calcutta - he knows Ganguly too, which allows the captain to sidestep red tape and get things done. That Ganguly can laughingly say, "Wright is not going to lose his job", suggests both an arrogance and a confidence that his opinion counts; these are, possibly, also what India needs.
Despite our dislike for some things he does, India needs to back its captain. We forget that Allan Border was for long perceived as a limited captain; so was Steve Waugh for a year.
But if India must keep the faith, Ganguly, like Border and Waugh, must repay it. As much as he, a man both infuriating and exciting, has done well, he needs to evolve. He must cajole officials, not alienate them; be the first one into practice and the last one out; temper his exuberance with wisdom; find his batting grace again; reflect, not just react; and bind a nation to his impossible dream.
Sourav Ganguly is an unfinished painting, a sculpture halfway done, a work in progress, and what he wants to eventually become is up to him.
He is also, still, the best man to lead India.