Sourav Ganguly’s retirement is a good time to reflect on the way in which so much cricket-writing is based on the odd premise that character is destiny. Since cricket-writing is a minor form even within sports-writing, it isn’t surprising that it borrows ideas from older, more substantial, genres such as the novel. The realist novel proceeds on this premise, and a great deal of its time is spent teasing out character because that elusive thing is seen as the springboard for the action of fiction. Who you are determines what you do.
Cricket-writers have appropriated this idea and run with it. In cricket-writing this idea has been elaborated: not only does character determine performance, it also dictates where a player will be placed in cricket’s pantheon, its hall of fame. Character determines outcomes; further, particular kinds of character, dictate (or ought to dictate) particular sorts of outcomes. So flamboyant batsmen, however good, do less well in the character stakes than more formally organized, ‘solid’ players. They are likely to be indiscreet in the matter of shot selection, prone to untimely dismissal, less committed to the team interest. Their performances, their careers, turn on the axis of narcissism, of selfishness.
You can see this in the consensus about Brian Lara. It’s hard to dispute his greatness but despite a dazzling career, studded with heroic rearguard performances in the cause of a team in steep decline, lurking in assessments of his achievement there is always the suggestion that magnificent though he was, he was selfish. It isn’t just cricket-writers who are keen on character, players are too. Ponting explicitly accused Lara of selfishness when he scored his record-breaking quadruple century; Lara, according to Ponting, was someone who put personal landmarks ahead of team results, something that Ponting in particular and Australian players in general never did. This selfishness, in turn, is used to explain Lara’s inability to translate individual genius into team success. And this is as it should be: in the world of cricket-writing, the fundamentally unsound must finally fail.
The careers of Indian cricket’s unidentical twins, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, illustrate cricket-writing’s love affair with ‘character’ as also the term’s uselessness as a way of understanding the game. By the time Ganguly retired, he and Dravid had been fixtures in the Indian team for a dozen years. They made their debuts together in England in 1996 and, unlike the current crop of batting hopefuls, at once became indispensable.
But Ganguly’s character had been the subject of gossip years before 1996, ever since he toured Australia in 1991-92 with the Indian team without playing a Test. Ganguly’s alleged sense of entitlement, his unwillingness to fetch and carry, his poor attitude, his lack of proper deference had become legend by the time he scored his debut century. And the legend endured: right through his career, he was seen as a gifted but incomplete player whose idiosyncratic and flawed technique mirrored a flawed character. This legend was amplified by angry Western journalists like Malcolm Conn and Michael Henderson, made anxious by India’s growing clout in the game, as well as by players-turned-commentators like Ian Chappell.
Dravid, on the other hand, was universally admired because his character, like his batting technique, was sound. If Ganguly was insolent, difficult, mercurial, provocative and flawed, Dravid was well-bred, consistent, a good sport and true. He was the Wall, the team man who gave everything to the cause of the side, a safe slip field, a player who became better as he matured, growing from being a fine defensive batsman into a great one. He was loved when he played a season of county cricket in Kent, in sharp contrast to Ganguly, who seemed to have been loathed during his time in Lancashire.
Had the cricket-writer’s thesis about the relationship between character and destiny been correct, Dravid would have been perfect captaincy material. He was sober, unselfish, intelligent, secure in his ability as a player and sound. Ganguly should have been a disaster as a leader, simply because he was none of these things. He wasn’t as good a player and, on top of that, he was spoilt by privilege, he was a politician networked with the cricket establishment, he was devious and he was the opposite of sound, he was flash.
The trouble is, the emphasis on ‘character’ produces boring fiction and bad cricket-writing. Ganguly turned out to be the most successful captain India has ever had. India beat the Australians at home in 2001 and won cricket matches abroad more frequently than they had ever done before. What’s more, the team won these matches with brio and flair, and Ganguly seemed to actually enjoy being skipper, which was a change from the weighed-down, hyper-careful manner of captains past. The selfish batsman turned out to be a risk-taking, talent-nurturing, unparochial and combative captain.
Dravid, on the other hand, had his successes as captain (most notably, the landmark series wins in the West Indies and England), but his time as leader was marred by his perceived deference to a manipulative coach, Greg Chappell, bad feeling within the team and the sense that the responsibility of captaincy had become an oppressive burden that had begun to tell on his batsmanship. In an odd way, his plight mirrored that of Sachin Tendulkar’s during his time as captain: two great players, widely respected and seen, before their ascension, as potentially great captains, both found the business of leading India oppressive.
The reasons for Ganguly’s success and Dravid’s and Tendulkar’s relative failure, have nothing to do with ‘character’; they have to do with judgment. Tendulkar and Dravid seemed to see captaincy as a matter of technique. This had something to do with their strength as players: they were thinking, technically aware, awesomely complete batsmen. It was almost as if they thought of the captain as a master strategist, thinking up plans and executing them. Dravid in his television interviews rehearsed a set of standard responses that rhetorically reduced cricket to a science: ‘bowl in the right areas’, ‘practise our disciplines’, ‘execute our plans’, etc.
Ganguly succeeded where they failed because he saw that the task of the Indian captain at the time he took over was not to strategize, nor to get the team to knuckle down to disciplined teamwork. No Indian team was suddenly going to turn into a bunch of disciplined Junkers, and Ganguly recognized that. Nor were they going to morph into great athletes like the Australians. Ganguly’s great intuition was to know that Indians needed to purge themselves of the deference that inhibited their play, of the fear of failure that had sent great players like Gavaskar and Tendulkar into a defensive crouch in their stints as captain. His way of doing this was by challenging and provoking the other side, by letting his team know that he didn’t mind a scrap. A lovely but always vulnerable batsman who rode his strengths, Ganguly was used to living with risk, where Dravid and Tendulkar had consolidated their reputations by eliminating it. He was given a team of great performers; his achievement was that he helped them become competitors.
It wasn’t always pretty. The sight of a bare-bodied Ganguly, neck and chest tangled with trinkets, waving his shirt above his head, is a sight I’d like to forget, but, on the other hand, nothing has given me more secret delight than his tactic of infuriating Steve Waugh by keeping him waiting in the middle. Before someone begins muttering about the spirit of the game, let me say that the grotesque sledging that the Indians had endured from the Australians was considerably worse, and Ganguly’s intelligence lay in recognizing that and having the nerve to equalize the terms of trade.
Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly... they are all honourable men, and the commentators who distinguish between them in the matter of ‘character’ are fools. But only one of them leaves Indian cricket a legacy as captain, and that man is Ganguly. Harbhajan, Zaheer, Sehwag, Gambhir and the absent Sreesanth are, metaphorically, his men because they play the game with a nervous aggression and a risky passion that allow their team to barge through victory’s door. He taught Indian cricket not to knock — which wasn’t well-bred, but it worked. What you do determines who you are: on the strength of his career, we can reasonably say that Sourav Ganguly was a fine player and our best captain.