In the first innings of the Nagpur Test, as Sourav Ganguly was batting with remarkable assurance,
an excited senior government official rang up. “You guys in the media have to start a campaign to stop Ganguly from retiring. We can’t let Dada go like this when he is batting like a champion!” In this season of high-pitched cricketing emotion, there has been no farewell quite as dramatic as that of Sourav ‘Dada’ Ganguly. As reams are written, songs are composed and TV images of a bare-bodied Ganguly are endlessly beamed, it’s almost as if his departure from international cricket has become the final episode of a long-running soap that has captivated a nation for 13 tumultuous years.
What is it about Sourav that has struck this emotional chord? It isn’t just the mountain of runs he scored and the matches he won. Although he is easily the finest left-hander to play for the country, there have been other even better players who haven’t quite received the same adulation. Perhaps, the key lies in the fact that Ganguly has been a very different character to the constellation of other great cricketers — the so-called Fab Five — assembled around him. Sachin Tendulkar has always been ‘The Master’, a cricket deity to be worshipped from afar. Rahul Dravid has been ‘The Wall’, solid and dependable, the kind you want as a son-in-law. VVS Laxman has always been Very, Very Special, a man of few words who prefers to let his bat do the talking. Anil Kumble was ‘The Silent Assassin’ who, like Laxman, spoke with his deeds.
Ganguly, on the other hand, is both ‘Maharaj’ and ‘Dada’: feudal lord and paara (neighbourhood) gang leader, both protector and aggressor. He has been alternately perceived as arrogant (remember the stories that were spread of how on his first tour he was not too keen on carrying the drinks trolley) and resilient (has anyone made as many successful comebacks as Ganguly?). He has looked the mighty Aussies in the eye — including the famous incident when he kept Steve Waugh waiting for the toss — and yet has been accused of shying away from fast bowling. At home, he is a most gracious host. And yet he is remembered as the captain who bared his torso on the balcony of Lords. He has pushed for Greg Chappell as coach and has also fought with him. He has been criticised for being selfish, yet arguably no other Indian captain has backed his players more firmly. Perhaps, it’s the complex nature of his personality that makes Ganguly so attractive, a fallible human in a cricket universe populated by robots.
For the Bengali, Ganguly has been a badge of identity in a changing world. New India with its manic aggression and unbridled ambition has little space for the high culture that once defined the Bengali bhadralok. Twenty-five years ago, if there was an opinion poll on who is the greatest living Bengali, there is a fair chance that Satyajit Ray and Amartya Sen would have been the front-runners, both epitomising a Tagorean tradition of fine art and learning. If the Punjabi prided himself on his machismo, the Bengali male thrived on his aesthetic superiority. It prompted a private secretary to Lord Curzon to famously remark that, “Bengalis have the intellect of the Greeks, and the grit of a rabbit.” Sourav broke the stereotype, and how.
Till he arrived on the scene, Bengal’s relationship with cricket was confined to nostalgic tales of Pankaj Roy in the 1950s, and to watching the game passionately at the Eden Gardens. Cursed by political agitation and economic stagnation, Sourav as the ‘Prince of Kolkata’ offered hope to an entire generation of Bengalis, itching to move ahead at Nano speed.
But Sourav has been much more than just a brand ambassador of a new Bengal. Indeed, it is ironic that a cricketer once seen as a beneficiary of a regional quota system was himself above the parochialism of Indian cricket. Perhaps, Ganguly’s greatest contribution is that he was the first captain to look beyond regional loyalties. It’s no coincidence that the rise of Ganguly as captain also saw the emergence of new talent from outside the traditional centres of the sport. For it was Ganguly who provided a ready platform to Indian cricket’s Generation Next, channelling their small-town bravado into on-field success.
Till Ganguly took over the captaincy, the Indian team was usually led by men who preferred to see their role as gentlemen first, players later. Bishen Bedi and Sunil Gavaskar did symbolise player power. But they couldn’t quite change the elite order of the sport. Ganguly was able to achieve the transformation, supported by a group of ambitious cricketers. It wasn’t always edifying. But in a way it was necessary. The act of shirt-removal at Lords may have been inadvertent. But it was a defining moment. It marked the end of the domination of the sport by those who believed they had the divine right to decide on how it was to be played. This was aspirational New India, unwilling to be lectured to, and desperately keen to shake off the burdens of a long-standing inferiority complex. It was as if a boy from Behala was screaming for attention on the world stage, demanding recognition based on merit not lineage.
It is perhaps entirely appropriate then that Mahendra Singh Dhoni was captaining Sourav in his last Test. For like Ganguly, Dhoni, too, has made self-belief and aggression his calling card. The baton may have changed hands, but the Sourav legacy lives on.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-chief, IBN network