Sunday, 30 November 2008

Ganguly- The Fighter, The Legend

It was a sunny July afternoon. Lord's was bathing in the glow of the warm afternoon sun.

Out in the middle, India were falling apart. Sachin Tendulkar had just been bowled and at 146-5, India needed 180 of 146 balls to win the finals with half their men gone. Yet again, having performed outstandingly throughout the series, the Indians were falling apart when push came to shove. It was barely three months since India, having gone up 1-0 with a historic win in the West Indies (their first test win in the Carribean since 1976), had squandered a lead and lost yet another series abroad. In fact India had not won a test series outside the sub-continent since 1986 and they had not won a single multi-nation series abroad since the same year. This final at Lord's pretty much summed up all that was wrong with Indian cricket.

But two young men, unhindered and unburdened by baggage from the past put on a magnificent partnership and amidst scenes of delirious celebrations, a young Indian side pulled off a path-breaking win. Then came that famous scene that is now the stuff of legend: The Indian captain Saurav Ganguly took off his jersey and celebrated wildly, swirling his jersey in the air and swearing in fury.

For people like me who grew up in the 90s, used to seeing India going through the motions, hobbling from one thrashing to the other the moment they set foot abroad, something extraordinary was happening. India were supposed to meekly fall apart when push came to shove. Indian cricketers were supposed to be polite and easy-going family men who ruffled no feathers. Unbelievably, we had just seen India come back from behind to win an important game abroad and we were now seeing an Indian captain daring to bare and swear in the bastion of the stuffy old world. If there was one single moment that defined the turnaround of India from a talented but directionless and under-performing side to a world-beating one, this was it.

Saurav Ganguly took over the captaincy of the limited overs side in early 2000 when India, fresh from a flogging in Australia, had just surrendered to South Africa their first home series in 15 years, prompting the resignation of the then captain Sachin Tendulkar. Within two weeks, India had astonishingly turned the tide with a sensational limited overs series win against the Proteas. A few months later, and Indian team fresh from the outbreak of the match-fixing controversy and down by the dumps entered the second edition of the Champions Trophy rank underdogs. In two breathtaking weeks, Ganguly and his men smashed Australia and South Africa- the two best sides in the world- storming into the finals, where they lost only due to a sterling all-round performance by Chris Cairns.

Then came the Australians, the mighty, all conquering Australians, who had won 15 tests in a row. India were without a regular opening pair, had a middle order not in the best of form and an attack that looked the weakest India had ever fielded. In short, Ganguly had a side appallingly low on confidence and lower still on firepower, which was blown off in just over 2 days at Bombay. A few days later, India were asked to follow-on, 274 runs behind in the second test and down and out. Defying all history, logic and belief, Ganguly led India to a back from behind 2-1 win that defied all belief and comprehension. A captain with an attack that looked club-level, who had lost all tosses, had toppled the mighty Australians.

Just over a year later came that sensational win in the finals of the Natwest Trophy. A few weeks later, with an ordinary looking attack, Ganguly's India came back with honours even from a series in England. India were winning their first test match in England in 16 years. The next version of the champions trophy , held a few months later, had to be shared with Sri Lanka as India were denied victory by the rains.

Then came the biggest stage of them all: the 2003 World Cup. India were fresh from a disastrous tour of New Zealand, expected to be blown out in the first round itself. But in keeping with what had happened over the last couple of years, the Indian team confounded all critics and experts with an attitude and an energy unprecedented for an Indian team. For the first time in 20 years, India got to the finals of the World Cup, losing only to eventual champions Australia in the course of the campaign. Suddenly, the Indian team had become team India. This was not a collection of 11 individuals, but one single team India.

Then came the ultimate test for captain and team alike: a tour of Australia. The Australians, the absence of Warne and McGrath notwithstanding, announced that there would be a lot of chin music. Ganguly was to be their target: here was a man who had never looked comfortable against short-pitched stuff, looking at taking on fast bowlers on quick, bouncy pitches. Dada took the bull by the horns, promoting himself up to No.5 in the first innings of the first test. Coming in with Australia on top at 62-3, the Prince of Calcutta pulled and cut his way to an against the odds knock of 144 as India took the lead. The tone for the tour had been set. Yet again, the captain had shown his men the way. For the first time in several seasons, a touring captain with a half-decent attack returned home with honours even and the trophy intact, when all other captains before him had come back with battered reputations.

Barely weeks later, Dada led India to their first ever test as well as series win in Pakistan. The man who had taken over a poor side with a solitary win outside home soil in 15 years had come back with honours even from England and Australia, smashed Pakistan in their own backyard and led India to the finals of the world cup. Ganguly was without doubt the greatest captain India had ever had.

And then, almost as rapidly as it sky-rocketed, his stock fell. The Australians, whom Ganguly had trumped at home and held at bay in their own backyard were overpowering his side. With a 0-1 deficit and the series hinging on the outcome of the crucial third test, the captain withdrew amidst controversial circumstances. India lost the game and with it, the series- their first series defeat at home to Australia since 1969. The captain had lost his magic and India had started playing like the team of old. Ganguly's form fell away and the clamour for his head was growing increasingly louder.

Then came Greg Chappel. The disagreement between captain and coach leaked out and the Ganguly/Chappel face off became the stuff of tabloid front pages. The man who had been a national hero and a legendary captain barely two seasons ago was now the villain destroying the fabric of the side he had himself built. Ganguly was dropped and India embarked on an unprecedented run of victories. Dada (elder brother- Ganguly's nickname) had become history.

But like a hitchcockian drama, the script turned around again. The wheels fell off again and India suddenly became a soft target. The chairman of selectors was moved to admit that there was no bench strength. With no one else to turn too, Dada found himself back in a besieged side struggling for confidence. A disastrous world cup followed and Greg Chappel was out. Dada now went from strength to strength. There were few huge scores, but countless crucial contributions.

Time went by, age caught on. Dada was now 36 and no longer looked a batsman who could make huge centuries. After a disastrous tour of Sri Lanka, there was a huge clamour for the heads of the senior batsmen and Ganguly, the oldest of the lot and the softest target was under the greatest pressure. There now came another shock: he was omitted from the team for the Irani Trophy- the first fixture of the Indian first-class season. Given the fact that the game was to be played barely days before an important series against the Australians, the omission all but meant that he wasn't going to be picked for the series. At 36, that effectively meant that Dada's time was up.

Then came another twist: the newly reconstituted selection committee picked Ganguly for the test series against Australia. Typically, opinion on him was clearly divided. For everyone who felt that a fighter like him ought to be given the opportunity to have one final crack at the Australians, there was one who had little doubt that it was time for the old generation to be sent into retirement- Ganguly was the most vulnerable of the senior players.

The man himself, who conducted himself with dignity throughout pulled off one last coup de théâtre. On the eve of the test series, just as a press conference was winding up, dada dropped in a bombshell, starting off with the now legendary words: "just one last thing lads". The man who had divided opinions throughout his career, who had earned at once, dislike and grudging praise throughout his career was finally announcing his retirement in a manner so understated and with a timing so unexpected, that the entire nation was left too shocked to react. For once, there were no divided opinions: the entire country was behind it's beloved Dada now.

Rid of the burden of expectations and nothing left to prove, Dada played with as uncluttered a mind as circumstances had afforded him in many a year. He stubbornly resisted in the second innings at Bangalore to deny Australia a win in the first test. His time delaying tactics earned him the epithet of 'serial offender' from the jingoistic Australian press; his not altogether cordial relationship with the Australians had resumed. Years after being stripped off the captaincy, the man who had annoyed 'icy' Steve Waugh was showing the Australians why the adjective grudging can sometimes be used to describe praise.

Then followed a priceless century at Mohali that denied the Australians an opening, as India routed the world champions by a record 320 runs- their heaviest defeat in nearly two decades. After an ordinary game at Delhi, Dada returned after 4 years to Nagpur: the very city where his career and his reputation had taken a downturn back in 2004. A priceless 85 proved the backbone of the Indian effort, making the difference between 350-375 and the eventuall 441. Two days later, the great man walked out to bat for the very last time in Indian colours amidst a guard of honour from the very opposition he had annoyed and irritated for so long. Fittingly, the end was dramatic, as Ganguly got the leading edge playing across the line to Krezja, falling for a first ball duck. Australia fought back, only to let the pressure off and fell apart.

With 9 wickets down the next afternoon, skipper Dhoni gave dada one last honour: leading the side to the historic moment. Shortly afterwards, the last wicket fell. India had won a series against one of the greatest side the game has ever known after 7 years.

It was the perfect exorcism for Ganguly, redeeming himself at the very place where the dream had soured four seasons earlier. Amidst praise, admiration and not a few teary eyes, the Prince of Calcutta walked away, off the ground into the evening sun. A great captain left behind him a side that was much stronger than the one he took over 8 years earlier and he, more than anyone else, was responsible for that transformation.