| Bowling like a Bengali
Bengalis have long felt a sense of victimhood, of somehow being denied or deprived by the rest of India. But through what he has done with the bat, and with his team, the cricketer Sourav Ganguly has taken ample revenge for the slights suffered by Bengal down the ages. The shifting of the capital to Delhi, the eclipse of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the discrimination in the release of funds by the Centre ' all these insults, accumulated over the years, have been washed away in the flood of Sourav's centuries and wins.
To Ganguly, and to his fans, this triumphal march through the cricket grounds of the world is made sweeter by the fact that he had ' to put it politely ' a somewhat unpropitious beginning to his international career. Thus Ganguly was chosen, as a precocious boy-batsman, to tour Australia in 1991. He played one match, performed indifferently, and was drop- ped. For another game he was asked to serve as twelfth man. It is said that he resented being asked to carry trays and open bottles, on the grounds that in his ancient big bari in Behala he was called 'Maharaj'.
After that Australian tour, Ganguly retreated to Ranji Trophy ' apparently for good. In about 1993 I saw him play against Delhi at the Ferozshah Kotla. He hit some sumptuous cover drives, got to fifty, but then was bowled attempting a cross-bat heave. Here was yet another Bengali batsman whose temperament would not allow him to do justice to his talents. So thought I, and so, for a long time, thought the selectors as well.
Then, in 1996, Ganguly was surprisingly chosen for the England tour of that year. It was whispered that the selectors weren't for it, and gave way only on Jagmohan Dalmia's insistence. This rumour, if true, shows that nepotism sometimes finds unexpected reward. Sourav batted well against the counties and, when chosen for the tests, scored two chanceless hundreds. Rahul Dravid, who batted with him for long periods on that tour, announced to the world that 'on the off-side there is only God and Ganguly'. (There was also Zaheer Abbas, but then Rahul was born too late to see that fellow bat.)
The runs he made, and the manner in which he made them, established Ganguly as a player of quality in test cricket. But soon he was making his mark in one-day cricket as well. With Sachin Tendulkar he forged a spectacularly effective opening partnership which could decide a match within an hour of its starting. In this form of cricket the God of the Off showed that he could blaze away on the leg-side too. No cricketer since the great Viv Richards has so comfortably cleared the boundaries of the biggest grounds in the world.
Arguably, the most important of all Sourav's centuries ' in any form of the game ' was the 144 he made in Brisbane in the first test of the series of 2003-04. India had been comprehensively walloped on their previous tour of Australia, a result that all expected to be repeated this time around as well. It might have been, too, had Sourav followed Dravid and Tendulkar and also got out cheaply in the first innings of this first test. But he played with a steely resolve that few had seen in his game before. He batted with less fluency than usual, but to altogether greater effect, taking India to a first-innings lead, and giving his mates the stiffening to seriously compete later in the series.
The records of cricket will mostly speak of Sourav Ganguly as a batsman, but for me, the most characteristic of all his traits is how and what he bowls. For from the days of the great Shute Banerjee, Bengalis have looked down on spin bowling as somehow not manly enough. There is a fine line of new ball bowlers produced by Bengal down the years ' from Kamal Bhattacharjee and Montu Banerjee through D.S. Mukherjee and Samir Chakravarty to Barun Burman and Subroto Porel. Sourav naturally knows of this tradition and in his own way tries to uphold it. He is not a big man, yet he tries to bowl fast. He rushes up to the crease in twenty tiny steps, and, with a whirl of the arms, sends down stuff at just short of medium pace. He may bat like a citizen of the world, but he bowls like a Bengali. And, being a Bengali, he might treasure, as much as many of his centuries, the two Australian wickets he took on the first morning of the Calcutta test of 1998, when he was asked to open the bowling with Javagal Srinath.
While his fellow Bengalis exult in what Ganguly has done for their collective self-esteem, the great man himself is now at something of a crossroads. To this historian and cricket-lover, Sourav Ganguly's position in Indian cricket, c. 2005, appears to be not dissimilar to that of Jawaharlal Nehru in Indian politics, c. 1957. Having comfortably won his second general election, Nehru then appeared to be completely in control: beloved of his people, sovereign in party and country, and with high standing in the international community. But the more discerning among political commentators had already spotted signs of fallibility; as manifest in an inflexibility of judgment, in a certain shortness of temper, in a lack of openness to criticism, in a penchant for picking favourites and sticking with them through thick and thin.
Cricketers are not prime ministers, and Ganguly is no Nehru. Still, the similarities are intriguing. Ganguly too appears to see criticism as always emanating from prejudiced or hostile quarters. He too loses his shirt (on one famous occasion at Lord's, literally and willingly) rather too often for an international captain. And he too has his own Krishna Menons, favourites whom he has been most reluctant to discipline or drop.
If Nehru had retired in 1958 (as he nearly did), he would be remembered as perhaps the greatest statesman of the 20th century. If Ganguly had given up the captaincy at the end of the historic tour of Pakistan, he would have gone down as unquestionably the most successful cricket captain of India. But he must have felt that he was too young to call it quits then. And why not' He certainly has plenty of cricket left in him. At the time of writing, he remains the best person to lead India, chiefly on account of his record, but also because it is wise not to pass an additional burden to the obvious successor, Rahul Dravid, who is already India's top batsman and one-day wicket-keeper. (Recall what the captaincy once did to Sachin Tendulkar's batsmanship.) Still, it would be nice if Ganguly were to show himself to be more open to criticism, to sense that, now that he is on the wrong side of thirty, it was time to shed the role of the prima donna in favour of what age, status and experience all ask him to become ' a statesman of the game.