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Feature

The many multitudes of Sourav Ganguly

A veteran journalist recalls the BCCI president's playing days, and his relationships with John Wright and Rahul Dravid, in an excerpt from a new book

Pradeep Magazine
16-Dec-2021
Sourav Ganguly walks out of his house in Kolkata, August 12, 2005

Sourav Ganguly outside his home in Behala, Kolkata in 2005  •  Associated Press

I interviewed Sourav Ganguly for the first time in London after the 1999 World Cup. His reputation preceded him: a snooty, temperamental person who had been spoilt by his rich father. This was what people talked about more than his talent. I was determined to find out if this image was accurate, as in my few brief interactions with him until then he had come across as a polite, well-behaved person.
Ganguly has a very disarming, welcoming smile. He may not always arrive for an interview at the promised time, or might ditch you altogether, but once he meets you, he is all courtesy and it is difficult not to like him. That day in London, he was on his best behaviour. Ganguly's fist-pumping, aggressive body language on the field, which he displayed when he became captain later was not associated with Indian cricket then. Off the field he was usually a well-mannered and pleasant person. On that day in England, he was a very satisfied man, having performed well on world cricket's biggest stage.
While I interviewed him in the lobby of the hotel, there were a number of Bengali journalists loitering around in the hope of catching his eye and getting a quote from him. For the vibrant regional press and its cricket journalists, Ganguly was growing in status. The man himself was aware of the significance of the Bengali press, and treated them with a familiarity and warmth that one reserves for one's family.
There was a freelance photographer from Bengal who would keep his luggage in Ganguly's room if he could not find a convenient place to stay on tours, and Ganguly sometimes even let him sleep in his room. There were many others who believed he was their close friend and that he shared his secrets only with them.
As Ganguly grew in stature and began to control and dominate Indian cricket, his relationship with them only strengthened, despite his not having enough time now to indulge them. He knew exactly when to be warm towards them and when to ignore them.
In response to my question about why he did not seem to get annoyed at the constant presence of journalists from Bengal around him, he told me that his home in Behala, Calcutta, was always open to friends and well-wishers, who would come in great numbers to congratulate his parents on their son's achievements. I later discovered his home is a huge mansion with sprawling lawns that could easily host events with hundreds of attendees.
Ganguly understood the needs of the Bengali journalists and the demands their respective newspapers put on them because a local lad was doing so well in the Indian team. "They need a few quotes and a bit of access," he said, "and I am okay with it." It was hard for me to associate arrogance, conceit or self-absorption with Ganguly after that interview.
Ganguly, it should not be forgotten, was made captain of a team that had other strong candidates for the post, including his senior, Anil Kumble. In fact, Kumble perhaps had reason to believe that he was the logical choice, and Rahul Dravid may have felt he was in with an outside chance.
I remember interviewing Dravid in England after India had won the Headingley Test on the 2002 tour. Ganguly had made a statement of positive intent by choosing to bat first in overcast, seaming conditions, and India saw out hostile seam and swing bowling to rack up a huge first-innings score. The innings rode on the technical brilliance of Dravid and Sanjay Bangar, who set a great platform for Sachin Tendulkar and Ganguly.
In the interview, I asked Dravid whether he nursed captaincy ambitions and would at some time in the future want to lead the team. He replied in the affirmative, saying that he, like most players, did wish to captain the national team someday. It was an innocuous and honest answer. In fact, Dravid commanded tremendous respect for the dignified manner he handled himself in public. He always chose his words with great care, not wanting to say anything that could create a controversy.
Later, when I was writing the article, Dravid came to me and said, "Pradeep, please drop that captaincy question." I understood his dilemma and agreed to his request. While there was nothing wrong in what he had said and in no way was he trying to create any discord in the team, he did not want his answer to be misconstrued as being a challenge to Ganguly's throne.

****

John Wright is a tall man with piercing eyes. He generally kept to himself, especially when it came to interacting with journalists. However, with a glass of beer in hand, he would be more warm and friendly, and liberal with his opinions. Yet, even after having spent the previous evening drinking with you, he would sometimes not acknowledge you at the ground the next morning. He could be abrupt, even appearing rude.
He was a committed professional, working in chaotic conditions, where proper planning, training schedules and discipline were terribly lacking. In India, cricket stars could be hard to manage and to succeed a coach had to keep his star players happy. Once, Wright revealed one of the more creative methods he employed to get the players to follow his inputs without ruffling their pride. "I know they are huge stars with big egos," he said. "I have to be careful as they don't like to be given instructions. You don't point out mistakes to people who are like rock stars. I work very subtly on their mind. Plant an idea slowly, till a stage is reached that they come to me and say themselves, 'Hey John, I have decided to do this', and it is the very thing I had wanted them to do in the first place. The difference is that now they believe that it was their own idea and I had nothing to do with it. I didn't mind that, as I had achieved my aim."
I have seen Wright fretting and fuming over Ganguly doing exactly the opposite of the dressing-room strategy out on the field. In the hotel bar after the day's play, Wright would be cursing the captain for not listening to him. But he never let his frustration spill over and destabilise the team.
A lot of the credit for maintaining a healthy balance in the relationship between the coach and the captain and players should go to Ganguly as well. He knew when to stand by his demands and when to give in. Speaking about his later differences with Greg Chappell, Ganguly said, "There were times when Wright would be so upset with me that he wouldn't even talk to me for days." During these periods, Ganguly too would remain quiet and not precipitate matters. Eventually things would return to normal, and "we both would move on".
Ganguly's first-class debut in the 1989-90 Ranji Trophy final had seen him come up against a Delhi team that was foul-mouthed and abusive. They incessantly sledged the Bengal players. In that Delhi team were Kirti Azad, the late Raman Lamba, Manoj Prabhakar, Atul Wassan and Maninder Singh, while the Bengal side included the likes of Arun Lal, Ashok Malhotra and Pranab Roy. Due to a combination of bad light and excruciatingly slow batting by both batting sides, neither team could bat a second time. Ganguly scored a crucial 22 and saw some of the best-known players of his time at their worst behaviour. However, Delhi's intimidating tactics failed, and Bengal won that match. They were crowned Ranji champions for only the second time ever.
Right from that first match, Ganguly had been exposed to the on-field tactics that didn't appear in coaching manuals, and over the years he developed an understanding about what worked and didn't work tactically. He did not always keep faith in strategies drawn up in dressing rooms; his responses on the ground were dictated by his intuitive reading of the moment.
For instance, Harbhajan Singh was proving ineffective during a Test match, and during a session break the coach and captain decided to give the ball to someone else when play resumed. However, just before they went back to the field, Ganguly spotted Harbhajan bowling with great rhythm on the side of the ground. "When the match resumed, I handed the ball to Harbhajan, going against the plan," recalled Ganguly. "He immediately got us wickets." But he accepted that there would be times when his gut feeling would not work. "The coach may then justifiably be upset," he said. "What matters in the end is your intention, the result is not always in your hands." Ganguly said this while his personal battle with Greg Chappell was going on, trying to put the coach-captain relationship in perspective.
The Ganguly-Wright combination was in charge during the 2003 Adelaide Test, where India chased 230 runs for a historic win. I have three very contrasting anecdotes that are revealing about the different emotions that play out in the minds of those in the centre of these high-voltage situations.
At the end of the fourth day, India still needed another 193 for victory. Dravid came to my room at the hotel that evening, probably to take his mind off the pressures of the match. He started a light-hearted conversation but the journalist in me tried to move the talk towards the match. Dravid quickly made it clear that he didn't want to talk or think about the match.
During India's chase, Virender Sehwag played a wild heave against Stuart MacGill and was out for 47, putting the Indian team under pressure. India managed to win the Test on the back of Dravid's unbeaten 72. Ganguly contributed only 12 in a torturous 41 minutes at the crease.
After the victory, the Indian captain was excited, thrilled and in a joyous mood. When I asked how he had soaked in the pressure, he was frank enough to confess, "When I was batting, I was so nervous that I could hardly see the ball." The restless Ganguly had spoken to Dravid during his innings and explained his state of mind. He was grateful to his deputy for taking India to victory.
The third incident occurred later that night, and illustrates Wright's all-consuming passion to see his team follow the processes set in place. If a player deviated from the norm, the coach would be extremely unhappy, even if the end result was a happy one, as it was on that day. Wright was in the bar with trainer Andrew Leipus. I congratulated them and joined the celebrations.
Though very pleased with the victory, he was upset about the manner of Sehwag's dismissal. For Wright it was an unpardonable act to throw away your wicket in attempting such an outrageous shot, that too in a situation where India was chasing a historic win. "What the hell was he thinking," Wright muttered in a string of expletives. I could understand his frustration at the pressure that dismissal had put on the team.
Wright was like that. He would prefer to err on the side of caution. For him, process and discipline were everything.
This is an edited excerpt from Not Just Cricket: A Reporter's Journey through Modern India, by Pradeep Magazine, published by HarperCollins (2021)