Sourav Chandidas Ganguly
Sourav Ganguly, known to cricket lovers in India as the "Royal Bengal Tiger" due to his birth in Bengal, the home of the royal bengal tiger, has cricket lovers worldwide split into two camps. They either love him or hate him. Geoffrey Boycott who belongs to the former calls him "The Prince of Calcutta" or more endearingly "My Prince". The Australian Press till recently referred to him as "Lord Snooty" due to his perceived arrogance. All these names in some way or the other befit the man. He makes batting look like an art. There is an air of lazy elegance in his batting which isnt too unlike the Royal Bengal Tiger to which he is at times likened.
Those who have seen him tackle the spinners will have no doubt in their mind that there is no better lofter of the cricket ball than Ganguly. The way he reads the flight of the ball, the elegant unhurried use of the feet to get to the pitch of the ball, the still head and the majestic follow through of the bat as the ball is dispatched to the far corners of the ground is a treat that any cricket lover would go miles to watch.
Against the faster bowlers, he has remained suspect to the short fast ball around the ribcage that has got him into trouble a lot of times. Ganguly, who was an impulsive hooker and puller during his early days had eschewed those shots due to the risk involved. However, these days it is perceived to be one of his weaknesses and is ruthlessly exploited by bowlers around the world. In one thrilling encounter with the South Africans Shaun Pollock would target his ribcage continously in an effort to cramp him for space which would render his striking off side play void. His answer was to sashay down the pitch all the while going towards the leg side to create width for himself and carving the bowler over the point boundary for stunning sixes. He has thus continously adapted his game to tackle the game plan of the bowlers. Their repeated bowling at his legs caused him to employ the ungainly yet effective hoick over the midwicket boundary to stunning effect.
The reason for his problems with the short ball can be traced back to his stance while batting which is an open stance and less side on than most batsmen. While it renders him vulnerable to the short ball it allows him to play some of the most exquisite shots through the offside. His fellow player Rahul Dravid, himself a good exponent of offside play once said, "Through the offside there is first God and then there is Sourav Ganguly." Many will be quick to point out that the Brian Charles Lara,(Brian Lara) is the guy who stakes his claim to that title and I agree partially. Who in his right senses who has seen that majestic cover drive that Lara unleashes on hapless bowlers worldwide can argue otherwise? The shuffle of the feet that makes a mockery of technical manuals of cricket and coaches alike, the high backlift, the rapid arc of the bat as it scythes through the air and meets the ball with precision timing and sends it on its way to the point or cover boundary and the expansive followthrough are all components of a shot that deserves to be on a painter's canvas as much as it deserves to be on the cricket field. However, I would like to compare the Ganguly drive to the Lara drive and will contest that while its the exact antithesis of the Lara drive it shares with it certain characteristics. The lack of feet movement, the languid grace of minimal movement, the lack of a backlift, the minimal followthrough are again components that make a mockery of technical manuals and yet doesnt fail to send the ball to the fence with minimal fuss. The operative word as you would have gathered is minimal.
Debut for India
There was a time when Sourav Ganguly entered the Indian team on what many termed the "quota system", a cruel insinuation that meant that he had got in on the basis of not his talent but the system that makes certain that each region of the country has atleast one representation. One sunny day at Lords changed all that, as Sourav Ganguly in the company of Rahul Dravid, both of whom debuted for India together, pulled India out of trouble. Ganguly went on to score 131 while Dravid fell short of his century by a painful 5 runs falling on 95. However, both of them had signalled their arrival on the world stage. Another 136 in the next test and Ganguly had clearly indicated that the first innings was no flash in the pan.
Opening with Tendulkar
He continued to play for India in the middle order and did pretty well but his true rise to fame occured when he was sent to open in the one day version of the game alongwith Tendulkar. What happened next was stuff legends are made of. Ganguly and Tendulkar went on to become the 4th best opening partnerships of all time and started to be called the S&T firm. While being totally different they complemented each other perfectly. Their record of 15 century stands at an average of 50 runs per match is the statistical proof of their greatness. One a right handed maestro who is cool, calm, composed and diplomatic, the other a left handed great who is fiery, emotional, arrogant and wears his heart on his sleeve. They have been instrumental in scripting many famous wins for India. They were responsible for making India the first country to win by 10 wickets in a final when they demolished Zimbabwe and reached their target of 197 in 29 odd overs. Furthermore, they currently hold the record for the highest opening partnership. This many would claim was a golden period for Indian cricket, when in the company of the rock solid Rahul Dravid at the crucial number three spot they built huge partnerships to often bat the opposition out of the game, a fact Sri Lanka and New Zealand would attest to after being at the receiving end. They were soon referred to as the "Big Three" of Indian Cricket. Sadly for India this period did not translate into the number of wins it should have due to the lack of a good middle order which meant that teams knew that once they sent the top three to the hutch India would invariably collapse.
Ganguly had however, greater things waiting for him. The mantle of the Indian captaincy fell on him after Tendulkar resigned in disgust. Indian cricket was in shambles when Ganguly took over with India just having lost its first home series in many years to the South Africans. It was in such tumultous times that Ganguly took over the reigns and he galvanised the team into a fighting combative unit. To his advantage he had the support of Tendulkar and Dravid. He went about injecting fresh blood into the team and more importantly backed them to do well. He would make sure that the youngsters got a decent run in the team to prove their mettle. He stuck with players like Yuvraj, Zaheer, Harbhajan, Nehra, Pathan and Balaji and they have all repaid their captain's faith in them at some point or the other. The stories that involve Ganguly and selection of youngsters are the kind folklores are made of. It is rumored that before the Australian tour to India Ganguly dragged coach John Wright to the nets to see a young off spinner called Harbhajan Singh who had been kicked out of the National Cricket Academy on disciplinary grounds. What followed is now history as Harbhajan took 32 wickets in three matches, especially the test at Eden Gardens as India won one of the most thrilling test series the world has seen. In an inspiring move during the Nairobi ICC Knockout Trophy Ganguly blooded two youngsters, Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan. Both are now permanent fixtures in the side having won games for their country single handedly. Similar stories abound regarding Mohammad Kaif for whose sake Dravid was asked to keep wickets in what is still a controversial topic in Indian cricket. Indian cricket had turned a new leaf. It had discarded its reliance on spinners and regularly sported a bowling attack composed of three pacers and one spinner. Ganguly maintained correctly that to win abroad India needed pacers who could trouble international sides. It was this conviction that led him to leave either Kumble or Harbhajan, both world class spinners in their own right, in order to accomodate the third pacer.
The records speak for themselves when it comes to Ganguly's captaincy. India won a Test series outside the subcontinent after more than a decade. They won a Test match against Australia in Australia after 22 years. They were the first team to actually challenge Australia in Australia. They reached the finals of both the Cricket World Cup and the ICC Knockout Trophy. Statistics are only part of the equation when measuring the success of a captain. What has been good to see in this team is their togetherness, their ability to fight back from tough times as was evident in wins against England, South Africa and more recently Sri Lanka and the attitude of never say die which has served them pretty well. It was said after many such wins where they came back from the dead to win a match that this team could walk on water. Their most famous triumph and in many ways the turning point for the side was their win over England in the Natwest finals where chasing a record 326 for victory India had been reduced to 144 for 5. After the fall of Tendulkar's wicket the English team thought that the fight was over and victory remained only a formality. Nobody told the young guns, Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif, two of Ganguly's selections, that. Under the most intense pressure they secured an outrageous victory while their mentor and captain watched from the pavilion. In one emotional moment when the winning runs were scored Ganguly took off his t-shirt football style and went berserk. It was a show of emotion from an emotional man whose decisions had come under fire, and had been vindicated in the end.
There are people who will say that while Ganguly remains a wonderful man management person, strategy has never been his strong point. It is a point Ganguly will be the first to admit. He has never excelled in the tactical department but more than makes up for it with the kind of energy, his passionate desire to win and the self-belief to do it that he has injected into the team. While harsh on his youngsters when they have erred, to the extent of reprimanding them on the pitch, he has always stood by them through thick and thin. It has perhaps earned him the nickname that he will value more than the rest, for it is given by the people who matter the most, his teammates. He is called "dada" by his teammates which loosely translates into "elder brother" which is a reflection of the affection and respect that his teammates hold him in. As for the strategic component he is still learning and improving as a captain.
A further point of controversy remains his abrasive manner which sometimes borders on to boorish and arrogant. He sometimes gets under the skin of the opposition. The Australians would be the first to complain. The Australians under Steve Waugh had perfected the art of sledging to upset their opponents. They would mercilessly sledge opposite teams and players. India, had in the past always been seen as a soft team which would never retaliate. Everything changed under Ganguly. In perhaps one of the most acrimonious test series ever witnessed India under Ganguly retaliated in kind. While sledging remains an ugly component of cricket, the ground reality is that it exists and not enough laws exist to control it. Ganguly's take is that every team does it, so why shouldn't we? Its a lame excuse to give but to be fair to him the one effect it seems to have had on the team is that it is now less affected by sledging.
How will the world finally remember Ganguly? He still has perhaps 5 years to go before he finally hangs up his boots. Will the world remember him as the enigmatic captain of India who transformed the team into one of the top teams in the world or will it remember him as the arrogant abrasive captain who was just blessed with good players? Will the world remember him as the genius of offside play or as the batsman who was undone by the short ball on his body? Will he finally manage to lead India to a World Cup triumph, a feat he came excrutiatingly close to achieving in South Africa. These are questions that only time will answer. However, one thing is certain. The world will know that Indian cricket before and after Ganguly wore markedly different looks. Some like it before, others after. However, results wise everyone will have to agree that the after has been better than before.