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Stumps for Sourav

20 Aug 2008.

Sorry Sourav, but the sands of time have run out. It’s been an extraordinary career that deserves to be saluted and celebrated, but all good things come to an end.

How many captains have led their team to a series victory over Australia, and also to a World Cup final? How many leaders have presided over a transformation in the fortunes and reputation of their team as Ganguly has done over India’s? It has been an honourable contribution, but the sporting life is transient even as its memories are imperishable. All too soon the indispensable becomes the expendable.

Sourav Gangooly

Sourav Ganguly in Sri Lanka, 2008.
Photo © Hash Milhan/Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/20826826@N00/2790859586

If it is over then it brings to an end a notable and productive period in Indian cricket. Beyond argument it is as captain that Ganguly will chiefly be remembered. It is not intended as an insult to his deft work with the willow, rather a recognition of his achievements as a leader. From the outset he shared with Sunil Gavaskar and Arjuna Ranatunga a willingness to pull the beards of western presumption, an amusing diversion but also a way of instilling self-esteem in his charges. To him it was not serious, for he lacked the resentment that drove along these feisty predecessors. Popularity appealed to him, but he had no truck with populism. It is not in his nature to curry favour. Insofar as he was aristocratic of manner – though not birth – it lay in his refusal to be petty or to hold grudges or to take much notice of debate. He had the confidence to be himself. It sent a powerful message to players inclined towards modesty.

Yet it is a mistake to regard Ganguly as a cricketer from another age, as a man of leisure, out of place in a hectic period, an amateur lost amid professionals. After all he prospered in this age, and must therefore have fulfilled most of its numerous requirements. He has been tangential to his time, not apart from it. He has never wanted to be mechanical, yet retained respect for the hardworking run-collectors. Just that originality was his way forward. He could not succeed as another man.

It doesn’t mean, though, that Ganguly lacked cunning. Often his apparent disdain worked in his favour. Certainly it had a marked effect on opposing fast bowlers.

Somehow the very sight of Ganguly strolling out to bat, looking disconcertingly pleased with himself, caused them to commence snorting and pawing the ground. Opposing leather flingers felt themselves affronted and vowed vengeance. Line and length were abandoned and bone-shakers were sent down, few of them directed at the stumps. By and large opposing captains encouraged the assault, and only afterwards counted the cost. Probably Ganguly had irritated them beforehand. Provocative fields were set, and the crowd became involved, egging on the aggressors or barracking for their man. Ganguly usually managed to look perplexed by all the palaver. But he knew what he was about. He had put the bowlers off their game on the way to the crease.

Had Ganguly been remotely as frail as he seemed, he could not have lasted as long, would have been broken in transit. Along the way, too, he played some of the most rousing innings the game has known. His inspirational hundred in Brisbane all those years ago confirmed the strength of his backbone, while his introductory hundred at Lord’s pointed towards the sweetness of his timing. However vulnerable he looked, he kept taking the lonely journey out to bat. He advanced towards the fire, sometimes fanned its flames.

Even now, his nerve has held. It is not his courage that has faltered, or his eyesight. Rather his feet that have slowed, and sometimes nowadays shots must be played before the correct position has been assumed. Perhaps, too, desire has waned, for a man only has so many performances in him before he starts feeling the pinch. Faltering ambition can have various outlets: mental, physical, even technical. All of them point towards a player no longer able to take that extra step.

In the field Ganguly has become a plod. His running between wickets is similarly sluggish, so much so that an alarmed look comes over his face when a partner so much as suggests a quick single. A devotee of silence might as well be given a gossip magazine. It all points towards the lowering of the curtain.

If the Sri Lankan series is anything to go by, India cannot wait any longer to shake up its prestigious middle order. Yet a collective deterioration was already underway. Although it did not get much attention amid the other hue and cry, Ganguly and Rahul Dravid faltered in Australia. In Dravid’s case bad luck played a part in his downfall; his dismissal in Perth was questionable and his ejection in Sydney was downright disgraceful. No such license could be given to Ganguly, who was dismissed at the SCG by a catch that may have been doubtful – though the edge was clear-cut. Meanwhile others scored piles of runs, not least Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman. It’d be madness to drop either of them.

But the setbacks in Sri Lanka brought matters to a head. Several factors lay behind the failures. Obviously it is easier to open the batting in that neck of the woods than to walk to the wicket with two clever spinners operating in tandem. But Test batsmen must adjust their games to meet whatever challenges arise. These senior players did not apply their experience or live up to their reputations. Nor did their outfielding or work between the wickets have much to commend it. By and large Ganguly was the worst offender.

Accordingly the time has come to break up the most resourceful and capable middle order India has known. Since several batsmen failed it might seem unfair to pick on Ganguly. As a rule, though, the lower a player bats the weaker his position. Nor is Ganguly a reliable catcher at slip, which makes him even more vulnerable than his contemporaries. Moreover his career figures give him less leeway. Dravid averages roughly 12 more runs an innings than him, and he has mostly batted in the critical position of first wicket down. Much the same applies to Tendulkar. India ought to think long and hard before replacing him. Laxman, too, batted superbly in Australia, and sometimes held the lower order together in the most recent series. It also worked for him that he did not play as an icon player in the IPL. Failures of any sort take a toll on a player’s morale, and both Dravid and Ganguly fell short of expectation. Nor has Jacques Kallis fully recovered from his poor showing.

If Ganguly’s time is indeed up then he deserves to be remembered as one of the mightiest warriors to take to the field in the colours of his country. That he did not much resemble a warrior added to the effect. He has been underestimated, even resented by those inclined to confuse sweat with effort. His ability to get under the skin of his opponents was matched by a talent for getting into the minds of his players. He did not seem to worry what anyone thought, so long as his players retained faith in him and the cause. He provoked opponents as a means of showing his youngsters, especially, that there was nothing to fear. At his best he gathered his players into a potent force. It was only when he backed off that it went wrong, for then India played a tentative and doomed game. Mostly he was audacious and adventurous, and India rose with him. But Ganguly’s stint as captain ended long ago, and ever since, he has been on shaky ground.

The article was written by Peter Roebuck for ESPN Cricinfo.
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