Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Ganguly revolution

By Nirmal Shekar.

The problems of plenty are quite often as difficult to deal with as the problems of poverty in team sports. For, the greater the number of options, the bigger the headache for the team management. As recently as a fortnight ago, you might have laughed at any suggestion that there may be even a semi-serious debate about one Mr. S.C. Ganguly "deserving" to get back into the Indian Test cricket team.
But, then, in the capricious world of sport, which is forever on the fast-forward mode, two weeks can be a long time. And in the time since Sourav Ganguly injured his lower back and flew back to India for treatment, his team has not only toasted its first triple century maker in Tests and its first Test victory on Pakistan soil but has also celebrated the extravagant shot-making skills of the dashing Yuvraj Singh.
Had Ganguly not been forced to vacate his place in a team which he has built, nurtured and led to remarkable triumphs, Yuvraj, for all his talents, may have had to spend a lot of time in the Indian dressing rooms at Multan and Lahore still dreaming of making his first ever Test hundred.
Fate presented the young Punjabi an opportunity and he grabbed it like a determined, gifted champion might be expected to. But his gutsy, sparkling century in the first innings at Lahore has certainly created a few problems for the Indian team management. If Ganguly is fit to play in the final Test at Rawalpindi — which, of course, he is — what do you do to make room for him?
Long-time Ganguly-baiters might be tempted to hang a "No Vacancy" board outside the Indian dressing room at Rawalpindi upon sighting the Indian captain in the vicinity of the Pindi Cricket Stadium.
For, in every street in every city in this country, in every dusty lane in every small town in India, there are as many cricket fans who love to hate Kolkata's `Dada' as there are ones that love to deify him.
Ganguly is that kind of man - when it comes to opinions about the Indian captain, about what he means to the team, about his strengths and weaknesses both as a batsman and as a leader of men, we find that the middle ground is so thinly populated as to be almost irrelevant. We love to inhabit extremes when making judgements on Ganguly.
In the event, it is hardly surprising that there are those, today, who feel that Yuvraj has cemented his place in the side so well and Rahul Dravid has led the team with such confidence and skills that Ganguly may have wasted his time and the BCCI's money by making the trip back to Pakistan.
That, to be frank, is almost malicious. Say what you want about how unfair it may be to dump someone from this side to make way for the returning skipper but that should not in any way stop any of us from acknowledging the fact that a side that will play a crucial series-deciding Test in a few days' time desperately needs its long-time captain back in the ranks.
As successful as Dravid was in Multan, the point is very simple: this is Ganguly's team. This is a side shaped in his image, a team carefully nurtured by the man from Kolkata from the middle-to-lower rungs of the Test ladder to where it is today — in a position to take on and match the best in the game (Australia) in their own backyard.
Of course, in the rather limited context of team selection for the third Test against Pakistan, it may not entirely seem fair to drop X or Y or Z to accommodate Ganguly. Yet someone has to go, for only 11 can take the field at Rawalpindi. And most probably it will be the opener Akash Chopra, who failed in both the innings at Lahore.
Some might argue that the obdurate foot soldier from Delhi played with tremendous determination in Australia and was involved in a century stand for the opening wicket with Virender Sehwag in the first Test in Pakistan. And to shove him out after one failure may be unreasonable. If your perspective is rather narrow, yes, it certainly would appear unfair.
But it would be even more unfair and plainly unjustifiable not to make room for a fit Ganguly who is, inarguably, one of the greatest captains in the history of Indian cricket. And to drop a batsman with a Test average of 28 to let the captain in is not really a crime.
Few Indian captains — if any — have accomplished as much as Ganguly. India is still some way from being a world-beater in the mould of Clive Lloyd's West Indies or Steve Waugh's Australia, both in Tests and in one-day internationals. But in five years Ganguly has turned what has always been a team rich in talent but lacking in character into a wonderful bunch of self-assured pros who go about their business with the unwavering belief that they can match anyone in the game if they played to their potential.
Along the way, now and again, Ganguly has put his foot in his mouth, has taken the wrong turn here and there, has insulted one of the game's giants — Steve Waugh — and has struggled with his own batting form. Many believed he was far too cocky and abrasive to occupy such an exalted position. But Ganguly himself was sure in his mind that he wasn't striving for the Nobel Peace Prize but simply working towards turning the Indian team into a fighting unit. And, through thick and thin, from the heights of the World Cup and Adelaide to the pits of drop-in green-tops in New Zealand, Ganguly has led with the supreme confidence of a born leader of men.
Not surprisingly, the Indian cricket team in recent times has shed the tag it's had to carry for a long time — Heroes at home, Zeroes abroad — like a sorry skin. That six of Ganguly's 14 victories as captain have come outside the country is indeed a very significant piece of statistic.
And Ganguly has led India to 14 victories in just 37 Tests while the man with whom he shares the record, Mohammed Azharuddin, needed 10 more (47) to notch up that many Test victories, a good 13 of them on the spinner-friendly dust tracks at home.
On Tuesday, as he walks out for the toss with Inzamam-ul-Haq at Rawalpindi, Ganguly will be surely aware that the game presents him and India a very special opportunity. Even as Team India will be looking to make history by winning its first ever Test series in Pakistan, its captain will want to become the most successful skipper in India's Test history.
Should Ganguly accomplish that feat, quite a few arguments will cease. No matter that, it will always seem starkly ironic to me that we should have long bemoaned the lack of killer instinct in Indian cricketers and then have failed to celebrate adequately the very person who helped instil this rare virtue in every one of his players.
Welcome back, Sourav Chandidas Ganguly.


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