Today, arguably India’s most influential captain ever to have played the game, Sourav Ganguly, the ‘Prince of Kolkata’, turns 44, eight years after he retired from international cricket. Fittingly, his last Test match was against Australia – a team that he had riled to a fault, and a culture that had strengthened his legacy by being riled.
Early 1992, the Australian Summer. Benson and Hedges World Series between three exciting cricket teams: India, Australia and West Indies. India lose their captain Mohammad Azharuddin, their fourth wicket, with the score on just 35. In walks a skinny 18-year old Bengali left-hander. Only two years ago, this teenager was in the news for refusing to carry drinks out to his team as a substitute because it was “below his social status”. The ‘Maharaja’, as he was often known as a kid in Calcutta owing to his affluent family background, had taken his moniker too seriously.
Five minutes later, he walked back more of a pauper than the prince he would once be known as. He had scored three runs. Sourav Ganguly wouldn’t play in another international match for another four years. His “attitude” was a problem, they said. Many tried to ignore the sheer weight of runs he scored in domestic cricket. In 1996, however, he was recalled for India’s tour of England. He was 22, and wiser, they hoped. He played a single ODI again, and was destined to sit out the three-match Test series until a volatile Navjot Singh Sidhu walked out of the tour citing bad treatment by his captain. Ganguly made his Test debut at Lord’s along with another future Indian captain, Rahul Dravid. 131 runs later, Ganguly walked back as only the third-ever debutant to score a century on debut at the Mecca of cricket.
The rest, as they say, is history. Dada was soon elevated to the position of an opener, along with Sachin Tendulkar, and never looked back. Together, they formed the greatest ever opening pair since West Indies’ Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes. In 1999, his 183 at Taunton against defending World Champions Sri Lanka marked him as perhaps the most dangerous left-hander in world cricket. He plundered many more records, became the fastest to reach 9000 ODI runs over his career, and never let any of his averages dip below 40.
But the greatness of Ganguly lay in how fragile his flaws made him. Soon after he took over the captaincy from Tendulkar in 2000, his ‘arrogance’ finally seemed to have found a rightful place. He invigorated his young team to use the same arrogance and high-handedness against irritated opponents, thereby creating a Team India rarely seen before. Under him, they learned to show up the best and trust in their own confidence. He unearthed Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag, Mohammed Kaif, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra, giving them extended runs – laying the foundation for a team that reached the World Cup Final in 2003. But earlier that year, in a disastrous tour of New Zealand, many will remember how Ganguly struggled outside off stump to Daryl Tuffey. He was helpless, and on the verge of losing his game altogether. They lost the ODI series to an inferior team 5-2, and the Test series 2-0. Good times followed, of course.
A year ago, many had become familiar with Ganguly’s particularly hairy chest at Lord’s – where it all began – when he waved his shirt angrily after India’s miraculous win of the Natwest Trophy Final. This was, what many called, a Ganguly moment – one of several over the years. He kickstarted what was supposed to be a doomed tour of Australia in 2003 with a brave and terrific 144 at Brisbane, making India believe they could not only draw (which they did, 1-1) but win the series in Australia. They came very close, and as it turned out, Ganguly ended up winning more matches as captain than he lost overseas (11 to 10), a remarkable achievement, given that India had just won one single match overseas (1992, Sri Lanka) in the last decade. Under him, they drew in England, won in West Indies, drew in Australia, won in Pakistan, drew in Sri Lanka.
Quite simply, Ganguly laid the foundation for the next generation (MS Dhoni) to take India to the top of world cricket. Further proof of his reading of the art of leadership lay in how fellow seniors Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble failed to replicate his success under Greg Chappell before Dhoni took over after the 2007 World Cup debacle. Many remember Ganguly as the man who rose after being dropped in 2005, the man who had to appear in a TV advertisement to emotionally blackmail fans into remembering him, and the cricketer who returned with pure grit and gumption – qualities that were earlier missing in his elegant, airy exterior.
Personally, I do remember Dada, the captain, for representing a sort of young, brash India that was the need of the moment. But an enduring memory will be his last match – India v/s Australia at Nagpur, the series in which the Test captaincy was passed on from Kumble to Dhoni. India was 1-0 up, and Ganguly scored 85 in his penultimate innings. He walked out to bat in the second innings, his final innings ever, and got out for a first-ball duck. Reminiscent of Don Bradman, except that he wasn’t – and didn’t need to – chase any records anymore.
Appropriately, he left Indian cricket in a healthier state than he joined it. They defeated the world champions, and were but a series away from attaining the top Test rank for the first time ever in their history.
And that, for many, is a legacy worth leaving – despite not being part of a World Cup winning or Test-dominating squad. The builder is often as important as the eventual leader.