Zimbabwe v India, 1st Test, Bulawayo, 3rd day September 15, 2005

Time for Ganguly to choose his sunset

Muted celebrations: Sourav Ganguly's turgid hundred has provided more ammunition to his critics © AFP

How ironic that a first century in almost two years should lead to more questions than answers. By accumulating 101 tortuous runs at a mind-numbingly slow pace, which made the recently retired Mark Richardson look like Action Man, Sourav Ganguly only provided more ammunition to those who question whether he's worthy of a place in the side on batsmanship alone.

Having resumed in a position of rude health at 325 for 3, Ganguly managed just 78 of the 177 runs added in the 62.5 overs before his dismissal. He dawdled 139 balls for a half-century and then fairly scorched the turf by racing to his century in a further 122 deliveries. Along the way, there was time to run out VVS Laxman, who had actually managed to find the fluency that continues to evade Ganguly's best efforts.

To put things into perspective, India's bowlers managed 119 runs from 179 balls faced, with Harbhajan Singh realising that when an opponent is down and out, you put the boot in rather than lend a helping hand. Compared to Ganguly's last century - a rollicking and gloriously defiant knock in testing conditions against a fine Australian attack - this was the dampest of squibs, against bowlers who would perhaps struggle to grace the nets for a Sydney Grade side. Watching a man who had mauled the greatest spinners of his time pat back maidens against non-entities like Keith Dabengwa and Gavin Ewing - he managed 58 from 177 balls - was a chastening experience, and one that reminded you that Father Time can be a cruel old fellow.

In 13 Tests since that Gabba epic, Ganguly had managed just 580 runs at 32.22, a dismal run that contained one innings of real significance to his team - 73 at the MCG in the Boxing Day Test of 2003. Worse still, he had become a figure of ridicule and scorn, even for home crowds: the most vile abuse imaginable shadowed his every step back to the pavilion in Bangalore, after two knocks that would have shamed Courtney Walsh.

His backers may seek to cloud the issue by pointing to innings such as Sachin Tendulkar's at Sydney in January 2004, to illustrate the value of keeping the faith. But even though Tendulkar treated the cover region as a celibate monk would a topless model, he still paced his innings according to the team's needs. Having laboured 212 balls for a century while Laxman rattled along, he needed a further 183 for the double, and then proceeded to cruise along at a run-a-ball with the declaration beckoning. And most crucially, he did so against an attack that read Lee, Gillespie, Bracken and MacGill, not a motley crew of AN Others.

Those who inhabit the cuckoo's nest will also no doubt roll out comparisons to Mark Taylor, who ended a truly wretched run with a fighting second-innings century at Edgbaston in 1997. But while Taylor was far from fluent during a 296-ball 129, his effort came against Darren Gough, Andrew Caddick and Devon Malcolm, who had combined to skittle out Australia for 118 at the first time of asking. Taylor went on to stroke four more centuries, including an epic unbeaten 334 at Peshawar just before the curtain came down. More importantly, he was one of the all-time great slip fielders and a supreme tactician - the best of the modern era.

Ganguly cuts on his way to a 261-ball hundred © AFP

With Ganguly's fielding an embarrassment, and his leadership qualities diminished in the wake of fiascos such as Nagpur, the likes of Mohammad Kaif - one of the few not to run and hide on a green top against Jason Gillespie at his fiercest and finest - are entitled to wonder just how he can be worth a place on batting skill alone. The glory years - best encapsulated by those thrilling centuries on debut in England - are long gone, and this latest painstaking effort did nothing to stir the memory.

Perhaps Ganguly needs to recall how one of his former sparring partners walked away from the twilight. Nasser Hussain scrapped his way to a wonderful match winning century at Lord's against New Zealand, and promptly exited stage left, clearly aware that he was blocking the path of talented individuals like Andrew Strauss.

Indian cricket and many individuals in the team, and on its fringes, owes Ganguly a great deal for leading it into the bright lights of centre-stage from the pitch-black ignominy of match-fixing. But there can be no sentimentality when it comes to the creation of winning teams. Even Stephen Waugh - modern-day cricket's ultimate warrior - was given the proverbial nudge when he started to falter, and the time has surely come to ask Ganguly to prepare the closing lines. It would be a sad sight indeed if the stubbornness and ulterior motives of his backers resulted in a once-great leader being left by the wayside, instead of being cheered all the way into a golden sunset.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Cricinfo