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Dileep Premachandran

Will he or won't he?

Usually, warm-up matches, especially on the final day, are about as fascinating as drying distemper, but when India came out to bat on Monday afternoon at the Bagh-e-Jinnah, there was an interesting sub-plot that made proceedings particularly engrossing



Sourav Ganguly finds himself in yet another uncomfortable situation © Getty Images
Usually, warm-up matches, especially on the final day, are about as fascinating as drying distemper, but when India came out to bat on Monday afternoon at the Bagh-e-Jinnah, there was an interesting sub-plot that made proceedings particularly engrossing. Gautam Gambhir, virtually on trial after a poor series against Sri Lanka, was walking out to bat with Wasim Jaffer, the Mumbai opener who could conceivably replace him in the line-up for the Lahore Test.
Before the two emerged, another with an acute interest in the proceedings had walked past the media tent and into the quaint old pavilion. Sourav Ganguly was warmly wrapped up and sporting a woollen cap, and his countenance was as bereft of sunshine as the sky overhead. Soon after, he and the other team members who had reached Pakistan late departed to train at the National Cricket Academy - adjacent to the Gaddafi Stadium - leaving the others to bring the curtain down on a largely inconsequential game.
For Jaffer, back in the fold after three-and-a-half years in the domestic-cricket wilderness, it was anything but inconsequential. Having matched Gambhir's half-century in the first innings, he came out and played some stunning shots at the second time of asking, timing the ball with a poise and elegance that brought back fading memories of Mohammad Azharuddin. Greg Chappell, another whose batsmanship was often touched by beauty, would have nodded with approval as Jaffer treated Umar Gul and friends with disdain.
Gambhir too played some superb strokes, including two glorious off-drives off Mohammad Irshad, but only after Zulqarnain Haider had twice reprieved him behind the stumps. For those watching, the contest within a contest had only one winner. Jaffer was untroubled and authoritative, while Gambhir always seemed one off-side flail away from a swift exit.
Unless the team management has a fetish about a left-right opening combination, Jaffer, who's in the form of his life, should pad up on Friday. If Gambhir is bailed out, it could only be on the basis of his displays against Pakistan in the last series, which included a very fine innings at Bangalore.
That Test match in Bangalore was Ganguly's nadir, with both Danish Kaneria and Shahid Afridi humiliating him with the turning ball that was once dismissed with such élan. Following close on the heels of the inability to close out the Mohali Test, the Bangalore debacle was to mark the beginning of the end. The slide had started with the last-minute withdrawal against Australia in Nagpur and by Bangalore, terra firma was reached - with a thud.


Wasim Jaffer, in the form of his life, has brought back fading memories of Mohammad Azharuddin © Getty Images
The last-minute intrigues that eased Ganguly's path into the squad for Pakistan don't look like they will have any lasting impact. The team management certainly won't dislodge Yuvraj Singh from the middle order - not after a brace of 70s against Muttiah Muralitharan and company - and despite an Indian TV channel indulging in idle speculation about Ganguly opening, that appears as likely as Shoaib bowling a bouncer-free first spell.
For Ganguly, who started his international career ferrying drinks - or not, if you go by some sources - it's a depressing situation to be in, given that he also missed the first two Tests on the last tour. When he was picked for the squad, some had surmised that he would get the opportunity to go out on the high that his services to Indian cricket deserved. That was never likely, except in the event of more high-level arm-twisting. And instead of a glorious walk into the sunset, or at least the chance of one, Ganguly could well spend the entire tour warming his hands in front of a dressing-room heater.
There are echoes here of baseball's Babe Ruth, who at the age of 40 found himself relentlessly heckled by the same crowds that had once worshipped him. Ruth, the former New York Yankee whose attitude to fitness was even more nonchalant than Ganguly's, was a shuffling, beat-up wreck for most of his time with the lowly Boston Braves, but with only a couple of grains of sand left at the top of the timer, he delved into his Sultan-of-Swat past to slam three home runs in a single game against Pittsburgh. Within a fortnight, he was gone, a memory where there had once been a legend. What Ganguly wouldn't give for such a last exit.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo