Vantage point

Thursday, September 15, 2005


This blog has been one of the most loyal and vocal supporters of Sourav Ganguly, hoping that one knock will clean the cobwebs off his cricketing mind and give us back the same elegant, aggressive and combative captain who re-invented Indian cricket over the last five years.

Ironically it is one such knock, a test century, that has brought about the biggest policy change this blog has seen. I too now join the chorus of voices asking that Sourav Ganguly contemplate retirement. After having captained the team to some of its most famous triumphs, he owes himself a graceful exit.

This was not the first time in his career that his place and his ability were under scrutiny. Neither is he the first captain to have faced such a scrutiny. In all the earlier moments of crisis, I believed he would fight back because he had so much fight left inside him. Cricket is a game that gives you lots of opportunities to redeem yourself, and often what sets great players apart from the good ones is the ability to cash in on such opportunities. Ganguly has done that so many times in his career, that it had become difficult to count him out.

Having spent four years outside international cricket after the forgettable 1992 trip down under, he was picked for the 1996 England tour. Allegations were made about nepotism having played a part in his selection, and it was said that he had been taken on the tour as a passenger, and to fill regional quotas. After all, the middle order was by and large set. Sidhu was the specialist opener and Tendulkar had already spoken about how he had great faith in Vikram Rathour to be the next big Indian batting success. Azhar was still an automatic selection. Jadeja was just riding the crest of success after having bashed Waqar Younis and co in the World Cup some months back. And Sanjay Manjrekar, with a good test record, was making a return to the side. It was unlikely Ganguly(or even Dravid) would get a game. But then Sidhu stormed home, and Manjrekar was injured. Ganguly made his debut. This was his opportunity.

And he grabbed the opportunity with both hands, scoring centuries in his first two test matches. That shut up his critics, and Ganguly settled into the team. For the next few tests, though he hit no big centuries, he kept chipping in with fifties. What seems ironic now is the fact that he was not considered an automatic selection into the ODI team and had to bat lower down the order. On a few occasions he was left out of the playing eleven to make way for the then captain's friend Vinod Kambli. For instance, in the inaugural Sahara Cup against Pakistan in Toronto, he played only three of the five matches.

However 1997 onwards, Ganguly took control of his cricketing destiny. In test matches, he hit a purple patch against Sri Lanka, cracking three centuries and a 99 in four successive tests. He also scored a century in the Hamilton test in New Zealand, and even though it was Rahul Dravid who was blazing the trail in the test team, Ganguly did pretty well and kept his average above 50.

It was the one day game where he truly stamped his authority. Starting with the 1997 Sahara Cup where he single-handedly outplayed the Pakistanis, both with the bat and the ball, he not only cemented his place in the side, but also went on to become one of the greatest one day batsmen in the world. Shortly, he was elevated to the opener's position from where he ruled the roost for the next five years or so.

The first big crisis came in the form of the Australian in 2001. Ganguly had just been made captain, and the all-conquering Aussies landed in India looking to beat the only team they hadn't beaten in its own backyard for over three decades. Following the standard norm, the Aussies, and mainly McGrath announced that they would gun for India's out of form captain, who had a suspect technique. He was out of form for sure, his test average having dropped from 50 to 45 before the start of the series. Though India won, ganguly's form remained poor, and slumped even in the one-day game where he had been doing well.

This was the first times questions were asked about his place in the side, and his abilities as a batsman. However he silenced the critics with an unbeaten knock of 98 off 152 balls at Kandy, leading a difficult chase against an attack consisting of Vass, Murali and Fernando. The chase levelled the series, and though India went on to lose the third test and the series, marred by the absence of Tendulkar, Laxman and Kumble, the knock chased away the demons. Note that even though there was a lot of time left (the match ended on the fourth day), Ganguly's runs came at a very decent strike rate. For the next couple of years, he batted decently, with fairly successful series in West Indies and England. He was also hailed as a captain under whom India started winning test matches abroad regularly. His one day form returned too, with a superbly successful series in South Africa where he hit 15 sixes, a lot of them against the fancied Shaun Pollock.

The next crisis came before the series against Australia. He was having a bad run with the bat. However he redeemed himself with back-to-back centuries. The first one, an unbeaten hundred against New Zealand at Ahmedabad, overshadowed by a Dravid double century. The second one, the famous century at Brisbane where he rescued India from a precarious position to get a psychologically vital first innings lead against the World Champs, setting the tone for the rest of the series.

In all these crises when he has fought back, it has been with the defiant spirit, evident of his a self-belief in his ability. Be it the knock at Kandy, or the one at Brisbane, he took on formidable oppositions and came out victorious. He did not lose his natural strokeplay, and watching him was a treat. Not only did he grab the opportunities offered to him, he devoured them with relish.

Which is why yesterday's century is so worrying. If the earlier opportunities were devoured with relish, this one was chewed politely, face askance and with reluctance. Gone was the infectious spark of the underdog fighting back, and the grace of the southpaw getting his touch back. He scratched and struggled against a bowling attack that was a few rungs away from being even first class level. The man who once deposited Muralitharan, Saqlain and Vettori into the stands with ridiculous ease was playing out maidens from someone named Ewing!!

It seems like the effervescent fighting spirit that made him so special has been knocked out of Ganguly. It seems to have been replaced by a bitter feeling of self-pity that has eaten into his batting like a termite. A TV channel was showing some of his early innings. people used to bowl bouncers to him even then. But in those days when he took them on, it was with conviction and the correct footwork. He swivelled, got into correct position and hit in front of square even the bouncers bowled by the great Waseem Akram. Today any bowler digs it in short, and Ganguly gets into an awkward position, and "guides" the ball behind square, often down the throat of an eager fielder. It shows the man is not thinking hard enough about the game. He seems to be thinking more about other things, about how unfair the world is being to him. He had a good run in the county season. He should now go out to bat and back himself to come good.

Sadly, that doesn't seem to be happening. He seems to be losing the will to fight it out gamely. The statement he said, spilling the beans about an internal team meeting prove it further. His heart does not seem to be in it. He had best contemplate a graceful retirement. A few months later the triumphant England team tours India. Ganguly should bat aggressively, marshall his team well, target a victory, and after ahieving it, bow out from international cricket without further clouding his legacy.