Fighter is born
Sourav was initially more attracted to football, being a diehard Mohun Bagan fan. Xavier Paes (the skilful forward) was his idol. Sourav was also a good athlete in school, winning a number of trophies in disciplines like 100 and 200 metres.
He started playing cambis ball cricket with seniors in the family on the concrete pitch when he was about six or seven years old. I can still remember a young Sourav falling down after being hit by a wet heavy ball, getting back on his feet immediately and taking guard. That was the first glimpse I had of Souravs now-fabled determination to fight back on a cricket pitch.
Souravs talent was quite apparent from the word go. Not only did he score a lot of runs in Under-13 and Under-15 tournaments, he used to score them in style. I can remember that at quite a young age he once lifted a ball into the galleries of Eden Gardens. People talk about his timing but he always had a natural power as well, which came to the fore when he danced down the track. A century against Orissa during that period is still etched in memory for its sheer class. He actually scored three hundreds in Under-13 matches. The words of Ranjitda (Ranjit Roy, a veteran sports official of Paikpara), still ring in my ears, E ekta player hobe (This boy will be some player)!
First ball at Eden Gardens
Sourav would accompany me to Eden Gardens on weekends when I started to train there around 1980. He used to sit at the boundary line, retrieve balls and throw them back towards the nets. Those memories came rushing back when a few days back I saw him standing near the boundary line during a Ranji match and throwing a ball back into the ground. Life does come full circle.
Home and away
Many players would get lost in the wilderness despite being talented because they were not properly looked after in the grooming period. But both of us were lucky as we got all the guidance from our father (Chandi Ganguly) and the rest of the family. Actually Baba used to look after the cricket while Ma ensured that our formal education did not suffer.
Apart from the formal coaching that both of us received in Dukhiram Coaching Centre, a couple of visits to England to play matches and train had helped Sourav a lot. In those years Kailash Ghatani (a former cricketer) used to take a team of talented junior cricketers to England for exposure. Sourav was part of the team that also had Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble and Vinod Kambli.
All in the family
Souravs elevation to the big stage was at my expense and that too in a Ranji Trophy final! Sourav was hardly 17 years old. He had just made his debut in local cricket, played well in the trial match and scored 90-odd fluent runs. In the final the team management thought that an all-rounder was required in the team composition and he was inducted — Sourav has always been more than an average bowler — in my place. Just think about the situation as I had already played Irani Trophy and Rest of India and was eager to prove myself in front of the national selectors! It was such a bizarre feeling for the entire family with one brother being replaced by another. I was surprised at being dropped but I thought that at least it was Sourav who was replacing me. The situation was worse for my father as he was CAB secretary at that time and the team was being selected in his room!
Best of Bengal
He played many outstanding knocks for Bengal but the one that comes to mind immediately is the Deodhar Trophy final in Pune against West Zone. Against a very strong team that had Tendulkar, Kambli and Ravi Shastri, Sourav almost single-handedly carried East Zone scoring around 120, hitting three balls out of the ground! In another match, the 1994 Ranji final against Bombay, he scored 80 in the second innings in very difficult conditions; it was quite an innings.
Selected and slammed
The rumour that Sourav might be selected was doing the rounds for some time. We were all elated when he was actually selected for Australia but felt sad that our grandfather could not see him selected. Dadu always wanted that at least one of his grandsons should play for India. He died a week before Maharajs selection. Even our nicknames — Raj for me and Maharaj for Sourav — were given by Dadu. But it was quite a disastrous tour for him where he also faced unnecessary criticism. After being dropped, he was initially very upset as any young player would have been, but came back stronger with family and friends providing all the support. He worked a lot on his batting — the coaching of Debu Mitra was very important — and scored heaps of runs in domestic cricket till he was recalled in 1996.
It has already become part of crickets folklore. Sourav Ganguly loves nothing more than being on a cricket field. I feel this sentiment along with the will to prove that he was very unfairly treated for reasons other than cricket, were the main motivating forces behind his comeback. Self-belief and confidence were the keys to his comeback. He also wanted to play 100 Tests for the country. With the hard work that he put in, he came back as a more mature batsman. Despite being two of the all-time greats in Indian cricket, the sword of selection (or rejection) always used to hang on Sourav and Laxman. How well a relaxed Sourav Ganguly can perform became amply clear in the last series against Australia.
Summer of 1996
Few people know that he was almost being dropped after his name was initially finalised by the selectors for the trip! What I heard was at the end of meeting there was a dispute among some selectors trying to push a player but there was no vacancy. Some selectors suggested that Souravs name be struck off to accommodate this player, though Souravs name was quite high up on the list. The then BCCI president Jagmohan Dalmiya then put his foot down and threatened to adjourn the meeting. The selectors then finalised the 1996 English team with Sourav Ganguly in it.
It was still destinys call as it would have been difficult for him to find a place till Sanjay Manjrekar suffered injuries and Navjot Sidhu left the tour midway. Perhaps it was also destinys call that he made his debut in a country where the condition and pitches were known to him from his early cricketing days.
Though Sourav was very successful in both forms of cricket, I still feel that the batsman Sourav suffered for the captain Sourav as he had to take enormous responsibility to build a team almost from scratch. Indian cricket was in bad shape after match-fixing allegations and Sourav turned it around with strong team performances, not only picking youngsters like Yuvraj, Harbhajan and others but also backing them to the hilt. He introduced the concept of Team India rising above regionalism and motivated the team to play as one unit rather than a bunch of individuals. His performance in Toronto where he got four consecutive Man of the Match awards in 1997 was a major high point. But the icing on the cake was the World Cup in 2003 where India, after starting badly came back and reached the final after 20 years.
The day before he announced his retirement he rang me up saying that he would like to announce his retirement the next day and asked for my opinion. I told him, hang on for couple of minutes, let me talk to Baba. Baba immediately told me, ask him to retire, he must not take more humiliation. I immediately called Maharaj back to convey Babas words.
His retirement came at least one-and-a-half to two years too early. With the form that he had, he could have easily played another 10 to 15 Test matches and scored at least another 1,000 runs and probably a few centuries. But when he was not selected in the Irani Trophy team after a single poor series in Sri Lanka — keeping in mind that the entire team did badly in Sri Lanka — though he was the second highest scorer in Test cricket after Jacques Kallis during the year following his comeback he was really upset. I do not know whether there was any pressure on him to announce his retirement but clearly he could not take any more humiliation.
It is unfortunate that a player of his class had to retire when he still had so much cricket left in him. But having said that the ovation that he got from all across the country and beyond was awesome and few Indian players have got such a farewell.
Life after retirement
He may do a lot of things but he has to be involved with cricket in some form or the other, maybe writing columns, doing commentary, being part of cricket administration and giving more time to our academy. His stint with Kolkata Knight Riders is of course there. He is so passionate about cricket that you may call him Sourav Cricket Ganguly. I am sure that if tomorrow he gets a call from the BCCI president that the country needs him to play a few matches, he will start practising hard from the very next day; change his diet drastically (being a foodie he is really enjoying his food after retirement!) and be ready within two weeks!
Brother to brother
We have always been close. I remember that we used to sleep in the same room when we were young. Then our house had two air-conditioners, one in Dadus room and one in Babas. In the peak of summer we sometimes sneaked into Babas room late at night and slept on the cool mosaic floor. After we were caught in the act a few times, Baba scolded us saying If you cannot brave a bit of heat then how can you dream of becoming cricketers, where you will have to spend the entire day under the sun?
Sourav would always have a discussion with me before taking any major cricket-related decision and I tried to help him out.
We, however, had differences as well; his cricket idol was David Gower while I liked Allan Border a lot!
It has been a real mystery why and how the entire episode happened. I can only say that before that Sourav was really fond of not only Chappells ability as a coach but also the individual. After he came back from a special coaching session with Chappell in Australia, he often narrated how cordial Chappell was with him there, regularly driving down to the hotel where Sourav stayed and picking him up for practice!