The most fascinating Indian cricketer of his generation made an innings today that must count among the more poignant in recent times at any level of cricket. It could mean nothing and yet it meant so much.
Sourav Ganguly came to Rajkot under fire, which over the past 13 years has probably become his natural state of being. At the best of times he hasn't been the most loved of cricketers. Leave aside his fielding and running between the wickets, your average watcher is annoyed with the way he blinks (he wears contact lenses) or smirks.
On the lamentable television show, Match ke Mujrim (Culprits of the Match), he has been voted chief culprit so often that they disqualified him on the last occasion. Nowadays you can log on to the dismal website www.ihateganguly.com, which advertises itself as "a place to mourn, condemn and discuss the pathetic state of Indian cricket embodied by Sourav "No-Fast-Bowling-Please" Ganguly".
Ganguly arrived here in absurdly challenging circumstances. Everybody seemed to know the complete truth about his elbow injury, never mind that the doctors themselves regard such a condition impossible to pronounce on with certainty.
Besides, the absolute absence of vision from the board meant that Indian cricket has been beset with a bizarre captaincy shootout for four months running. Even now, despite the precedent-breaking appointment of Rahul Dravid for two series - in fact, it is just 12 back-to-back one-dayers - nothing is clear. Dravid has virtually not reacted to what should have been a watershed in his life because he doesn't know whether he will be in the seat for the Tests that follow.
Ganguly himself has not said whether he is prepared to forgo captaincy ambitions or not - though his silence probably indicates the latter. Neither the chairman of selectors or the board has bothered to clarify whether India indeed has a new captain or merely a man in charge for the next month. As ever, it has been a case of waiting and watching, cussing and laughing.
So there were the circumstances, and there was the setting - the emptiness at a stadium that is approached through a garden, the one man selling freshly limed chana chorgaram outside the gate, the one lad with the poster professing his willingness to die for Maharaj if needed, the warm and dusty breeze of pure sleep, the blissful languor of proceedings within the larger drama of Indian cricket.
Ganguly was greeted by a pitch several shades greener than is normal for the venue: the association is a rival to the Jagmohan Dalmiya camp. Nor was he up against, like they say hereabouts, a poppatwadi attack. The opponents picked five specialist bowlers. Three have played international cricket, the other two should do soon.
Ganguly countered them with a superb innings from a tricky position. Good and bad, there was all of him here. He converted threes to twos with perfect earnestness. He was clunked on the head. He French-cut often enough. He also played strokes lesser talents can only dream of.
He began last evening with the most emphatic of statements, a rousing slap in front of square. Soon he was in a flap but he stayed alive. He started this morning with swollen feet and poked VRV Singh just fine of gully. Within thirty minutes, on an easing pitch, he was occupying a plane comfortably higher than anyone else in the match - and there are half a dozen here who are or have been in or on the fringes of the national team.
Sarandeep Singh was hoisted onto the shamiana, burnt on the side of his turban and dabbed past slip. Amit Mishra was cut repeatedly in front of square and once inside-outed. Off Amit Bhandari came the sweetest of drives on the rise. Gagandeep Singh, the standout bowler along with VRV, was pulled with something approaching glory.
On 86 Ganguly was dropped but by now he'd begun making room to hit through off. At quarter to twelve he reached a hundred, and his second fifty had come from 44 balls. Soon after lunch he was gone for he does not build big first-class innings. But remember that of the 22 players on either side, only one other pipped fifty in the first innings. Unsurprisingly, he didn't take the field for an hour after tea.
What's left to say about Ganguly? Attacking and defending him have become cottage industries in India. He is deemed to be one thing or the other, rarely both, which, of course, he is, like the rest of everyone. He may have abandoned Freddie Flintoff to his curry. He also makes tea for visitors to his hotel room. He may have rubbed innumerable people the wrong way, but he has also the invaluable facility of making several feel special, a trait that served him remarkably well while shaping a properly motley bunch of individuals into a team worth challenging the best. He has been the most human of leaders.
Alas somewhere he failed to regenerate himself. In about six years his Test and one-day averages fell nine and four points, an indictment particularly severe when you consider that it has been a period of incomparable bounty for batsmen the world over. Coaches more lenient than Greg Chappell could rightly be appalled with his levels of fitness. He scarcely remained in a position to demand more from his players.
What Ganguly has shown at Rajkot without doubt that he is here is to be counted. It is also likely, if not certain, that he will not be able to channel the same kind of intensity into his craft when in charge of a team, particularly one in disarray. Can he withstand the allround physical rigours of international cricket? Is he not, like Nasser Hussain said, fighting the wrong battles? Would he not be better off diverting all his energy to become the very best batsman and fielder and bowler that he can be? Will it not be best for all concerned?
It is high time that he, Dravid, the coach, the team, and indeed, the millions who follow Indian cricket, know exactly what the score is. It would be good to watch Ganguly bat well again. It would be good to see the Indian team happy again.
Rahul Bhattacharya is author of Pundits from Pakistan: On tour with India 2003-04.
Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04