December 25, 2007
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The gently exasperating and always engrossing Sourav Ganguly has reached 100 Tests. What a scandal! What about the obit writers! They've been at it for longer than anybody can remember, certainly from much before our centurion had appeared in his first Test. In his current, serenely paternal avatar, you can see him putting a sympathetic arm on their shoulders: "See, it happens..."
Ganguly, at various points of his career, was supposed to have been the teenage upstart who would not carry drinks; the symbol of Jagmohan Dalmiya's awful hegemony over the good game; the captain who backed a dud, name of Yuvraj Singh, because the two shared an agent; and the ex-captain who jeopardised his team's chances at a World Cup by trying to make a few extra bucks on his bat-logo contract. Reading the newspapers you would think the man ought not ever be allowed onto a field, a view match referees too seemed to concur with.
Underestimating Ganguly is among the game's more frequent misjudgements, a point he seems to be almost gleefully alive to. Sooner or later every detractor is charmed, bar perhaps one former coach.
This has been a well-earned century. A hundred Tests is hardly the phenomenon it once was. Forty players have gone past the mark in the last two decades, and ten in the last couple of years alone. But it still speaks of longevity - that is, the capacity to overcome hard times. It is a statistic that privileges character above ability, as sport ultimately must. Close to half of Ganguly's Tests have been while in possession of the maddest job in the business. And every innings from him right now is all the more poignant because there has been something more to his story. It was not the cricketer who was written off; it was the whole man.
Aside from the facts that Greg Chappell neither worked with Ganguly during his comeback and never ever wanted him back in the team, Chappell can be credited with the revival. In other words, Chappell's intervention made it an izzat ka sawaal (question of honour). Thus, our reassuringly lethargic Bengali was stirred into issuing his trainer the instruction, "Make me do anything that I haven't done for the last ten years", and was thereafter seen running about in Eden Gardens with a parachute attached to his rear, or moving into kickboxing stances. More instructive than his batting in first-class cricket was his bowling.
The movement, though, took some defeating. Chappell's management of cricketers may have been suspect, but he was a rousing leader of editors. When the words "cancer", "manipulative", "corrupted" and "past his sell-by date in all ways" find themselves in a single paragraph in an email from coach to journalists, you know what tone this campaign is going to take.
The issue is not whether Ganguly needed to be dropped from captaincy, or even the team, or even that he is doing well now. It was the response. You would have thought there was a civil-rights matter at hand. In fact, this was only a man who had temporarily lost his way. So it was that an editor supporting the revolution might shake his head when Ganguly was among the runs in domestic cricket and gravely pronounce, 'Not good for Indian cricket.' Classic scenes.
|Close to half of Ganguly's Tests have been while in possession of the maddest job in the business. And every innings from him right now is all the more poignant because there has been something more to his story. It was not the cricketer who was written off; it was the whole man|
To watch him put together this fabulous year of batting has been fulfilling. He has confronted pace and bounce in South Africa, swing and seam in England, and the sneaky low pitches in the home series against Pakistan. He has done the rescue act (Johannesburg, Bangalore), played the key match-turner (Johannesburg, Trent Bridge, Delhi), and constructed precisely the epic that even his staunchest supporters thought was beyond him (Bangalore).
At the crease he cuts an uncluttered picture. In his newer stance, adjusted after seeking the opinion of Zaheer Abbas, he stands far more upright, less languid but more effective than before, particularly on the leg. The re-focusing walk towards square leg after every ball is tiring to even watch, but it does the job. He has become an excellent leaver of the ball.
Some of his batting has transcended context. There was something magical about his fifty at The Oval; coming from 11 for 3, with that much-cherished series victory in the slyest danger, it was valuable for what it achieved but memorable for its utter sleekness, the ball sliding off his bat like ice on marble. His second-innings 91 in Bangalore, because of its pace, because it made batting on such a difficult surface look easy, contained a touch of genius. If he carries this form through the Australian tour, this will have been a body of high accomplishment.
And it will also alter the way history judges him. His reputation as possibly the best and certainly the most successful captain India have had was secure, but he was also seen, accurately, as a batsman who could not fully live up to his exceptional talent. With this burst of productivity he has gone past Gundappa Viswanath in runs and centuries, is not far behind Dilip Vengsarkar, and at this moment averages more than either. Players, leaders in particular, are remembered by their image. But there is a kind of finality in figures. Centurions know that better than anybody.