For Sourav Ganguly, the final Nagpur Test against Australia was not only a chance to go out of the scene with a series win, but an opportunity to exorcise some demons.
Four years earlier, the old stadium was the scene of a debacle that started Ganguly’s inglorious fall from the captaincy and plunged Indian cricket into four years of indifferent performance. Trailing 0-1 after two Tests against Australia, India arrived to see a greentop, reputedly a payback from the Vidarbha Cricket Association to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for a lost political battle.
Ganguly mysteriously withdrew from the Test at late notice, with cynics contending that he had run away to avoid defeat. Amid the chaos, India ceded the Border-Gavaskar Trophy with a crushing 342-run loss.
In 2005, India squandered the Test series against Pakistan with an insipid last-day collapse. Ganguly was then banned for slow over rates. With India struggling, Ganguly’s fading batsmanship came under scrutiny.
Then, Greg Chappell became coach. Struggling for runs, Ganguly privately asked him for a frank opinion. Told that his form did not merit selection, Ganguly angrily went public. The dispute turned into a soap opera encompassing leaked emails, orchestrated peace summits, riots and gag orders. Ganguly was humiliatingly stripped of the captaincy and dropped.
In a little more than a year, the verdict on Ganguly’s legacy had savagely turned. Ganguly became widely reviled and ridiculed. Amid the political machinations and a downturn in performance, his contributions to Indian cricket and his record 21 Test wins were forgotten.
Ganguly had taken the reins of the Indian team in the 2000 season after a ruinous match fixing scandal and five consecutive Test defeats. In his first season in control, India ended Australia’s famed run of 16 consecutive wins after being forced to follow on in the epic Eden Gardens Test in Kolkata. Against the odds, they won the series, primarily due to Ganguly protégé Harbhajan Singh, who had been resuscitated from disciplinary oblivion at the captain’s behest.
Ganguly then led India to the 2003 World Cup final, before overseeing a drawn series in Australia and a triumph over Pakistan. This yielded India’s first Test win in Australia for 22 years. The latter was India’s first series win in Pakistan.
Such results were symptomatic of Ganguly’s captaincy, which saw significant improvement in India’s away record. He instilled backbone into his troops, and India was no longer seen as a soft team that spontaneously unravelled amid alien conditions. This was typified by a stirring win at Headingley, England, in 2002, when Ganguly elected to bat on a greentop and declined the light so that he could force a result.
However, Ganguly’s fighting spirit was based not on cold ruthlessness and efficiency, but a mix of belligerence and brinkmanship in the mould of Sri Lanka’s Arjuna Ranatunga. He preferred angry young men, such as Harbhajan and Yuvraj Singh. Instead of trying to emulate and surpass rival pacesetters, he attempted to take them down through an attitude of defiance. This was exhibited in his testy rivalry with Steve Waugh, and his infamous shirt take-off at Lord’s.
When one is in decline, the limitations of such an approach tend to be magnified to such an extent that it appears grotesque, even ridiculous. Ganguly’s disregard for rational planning and attention to detail in favour of hairy-chested confrontation began to bite. Weighed down by inept fielding and fitness, an ageing ODI team was exposed.
Coupled with the intrigue that perpetually surrounds BCCI, Ganguly’s legacy was battered, dogged by accusations that he was destroying Indian cricket with a “divide and rule” strategy. Never one to accept defeat, Ganguly dug in. A year later, the youngsters fell upon hard times and Ganguly was resuscitated. He batted with a productivity not seen for years. Against Pakistan, he scored a century and double century to be named man of the series.
After India lost in Sri Lanka in August, rumblings about the seniors resurfaced. Ganguly appeared to be gone, but was retained for the Australia series. Prior to the first Test, he parried suggestions that the seniors were being forced out. As the journalists finished, Ganguly said: “Just one last thing...this is going to be my last series. I’ve decided to quit...hopefully we’ll go on a winning note.” Needless to say, it wasn’t the last theatrical twist in his career.
Ganguly was then quoted as saying that “every Tom, Dick and Harry is playing in the team...some…have changed their hairstyle more than they have scored”. Was he referring to Mahendra Singh Dhoni?
Despite the distractions, Ganguly batted productively, with a poise and serenity that belied the pressure on his position. His most influential contributions came in partnership with new captain Dhoni, whose batting had also been questioned, in the two victorious Tests, helping to consolidate India’s position
Towards the end of the final Test, Dhoni allowed Ganguly to marshal the troops for one last time. Harbhajan winkled out the winning wicket, LBW without offering a shot, the exact same ending to Ganguly’s most famous triumph at Eden Gardens seven years ago. The passing of the torch was a fairy tale finish for Ganguly, as though the rumblings in between had never happened.
As Ganguly heads into retirement on a high, Dhoni’s India has the chance to vie for supremacy. The series was largely won by younger players who display the attitude that Ganguly brought to the 21st century India, more confident of its place in the world.
Gautam Gambhir, Ishant Sharma, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan, the most prominent figures in India’s triumph, rattled Australia with bat and ball and attitude. They exhibited a Gangulyesque style of overt and primal aggression. Such an unsubtle style is limiting, not least through bans and fines.
Despite these limitations, Ganguly did what was needed at the time—galvanizing an uncertain group of skilful cricketers, giving them a sense of purpose that enabled them to fight outside their comfort zone and in foreign lands. Now that a foundation exists, a more sophisticated approach is needed for further progress. India will hope that Dhoni can channel the Ganguly-instilled fight in a more refined manner.
B.L. Nguyen is a freelance cricket writer based in Adelaide,
Australia. He blogs at Yellowmonkeysbananabucket.blogspot.com