Very few cricketers have achieved the heights that Sourav Ganguly, who turned 50 during the week that went by, could attain in his five decades of existence in this world. One of the most elegant left-handed batsmen that the game has seen, an eminently successful captain who moulded the national side into a fighting unit, and a top drawer administrator presently heading the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the financial powerhouse that drives the sport globally, the feathers that adorn his cap are as numerous as they are splendid. Not surprisingly, he is seen as an icon by up and coming cricketers and regarded as a legend in his home state of West Bengal.
Despite coming from an affluent family in Kolkata, Ganguly’s path to the top was not strewn with roses. His father Chandidas was one of the leading lights of the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) and his elder brother Snehasish was a successful first-class cricketer. A look at his cricketing life is fascinating in that it shows a graphs of many highs and not inconsiderable number of lows. Ganguly’s USP was that he was able to bounce back stronger after each of those periods when the whole world considered him to be down and out. His bulldog like tenacity, tremendous fortitude and grim determination, all of which he successfully hid under a facade of lazy and relaxed persona, came to the fore on each of these occasions.
A look at Ganguly’s career shows that it comprises four distinct phases. The first was during his early days when he was earmarked as a promising player which helped him to gain entry to the national squad for the tour of Australia in 1991-92, within two years of making his first-class debut during the 1989-90 season. This was seen as a golden opportunity for him to test his wares with the best in the world and prove his class. Among the other young players making this trip to Australia were Sachin Tendulkar, who had made his bow in international cricket two years ago and Javagal Srinath, a rookie fast bowler.
However, this turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for Ganguly. In the first place, he was not the favourite of the Mumbai players and the lobby that promotes them as they believed the place rightfully belonged to Vinod Kambli, another left-hander, who had equipped himself decently in the limited exposures he had in international cricket. Ganguly was not one to kowtow before senior players, fact that was resented by the latter, and he was soon seen as one with an “attitudinal problem”. He did not do much in the only opportunity that he got, making only 3 off 13 deliveries on his One-Day International (ODI) debut, which was against the West Indies.
No tears were shed when Ganguly was left in the cold after this tour. He went back to first-class cricket and toiled in the domestic circuit, scoring runs by the tons to catch the attention of the national selectors. His hard work finally won the reward it merited when he was chosen to be a member of the national side for the tour of England in 1996. But his selection raised a furore as one section of the media alleged that he won this place only due to the strong backing of Jagmohan Dalmiya, who as the BCCI Secretary at that time was the convenor of selection committee meetings.
However, this time around it was a different Ganguly that one saw. His earlier diffident and reticent manner was replaced by self confidence and determination and he showed his class in the only opportunity he got during the ODI series against the hosts, striking a polished 46. This knock paved the way for his inclusion in the playing eleven for the second Test at Lord’s, where he dazzled with a brilliant century (131) on debut, earning praise for his graceful strokeplay from pundits who watched the game. He followed this up with another hundred (136) in the next Test at Nottingham, just to show that his performance at Lord’s was not a flash in the pan. Critics who had smirked at his selection were by then singing paeans for this new sensation in Indian cricket!
This was the beginning of the second phase when Ganguly reached his peak. First, he cemented his place during the next four years, emerging as a reliable middle order in Test cricket while positioning himself as an explosive opening batsman in ODIs. His partnership with Tendulkar at the top of the order invariably gave the side a head start in limited overs matches. His array of strokes on the off side and the ease and grace with which he played them made Rahul Dravid once compare him with God! He, along with Tendulkar and Dravid, came to be regarded as the spine of the Indian batting order.
Ganguly was appointed as captain when Tendulkar decided to step down from this post in early 2000. He led the side with vision and panache and moulded the team into a strong, resilient and fighting unit. He was at the helm during the stormy phase when Indian cricket was shaken to its roots by the match-fixing scandal where several senior players, including former skipper Mohammad Azharuddin, were accused of underperforming and leaking inside information to bookies. The series against the Steve Waugh-led Australia in 2000-01, which restored the popularity of the game and reestablished credibility of the players in public eye, stands out as a milestone in Ganguly’s captaincy. Though not in good form with the bat, he led from the front and even managed to get under the skin of his counterpart to win one of the most closely fought series played in India.
The next four years saw Ganguly being the lord and master of all he surveyed in Indian cricket. Thanks to the support of Dalmiya, he always got the squad he wanted and he repaid the trust placed on him by winning Test matches abroad and leading India to the final of the 2003 ICC World Cup. His best moment as a batsman came during the tour of Australia in 2003-04 where he made light of the much touted observation that he was weak against the fast rising ball by hitting a brilliant 144 in the first Test at Brisbane. India went on to draw the Test series 1-1 and then defeated Pakistan 2-1 on their soil in 2004.
The next phase of Ganguly’s career started in 2005 with the appointment of Greg Chappell as coach of the national side. The two had a bitter fallout with Chappell accusing Ganguly of placing his interests above that of the side. Ganguly lost the captaincy and soon found himself out of the national squad. However, the fighting instincts which had seen him overcome the first debacle of his cricketing life came to the fore again as he fought back by playing domestic cricket, where he showed his mettle. He returned to the side towards the end of 2006 and soon showed how integral he was to the stability of Indian batting line-up. But despite the runs scored in Test matches, it soon became evident that his days in ODI squad were numbered as Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the new skipper, showed his preference for the younger lot of players who were more agile on the field. He did not hide his anguish at this development but had to come to terms with this fact. He announced his retirement from international cricket at the close of the home series against Australia in November, 2008.
Ganguly was not one to fade away from public eye once his playing days were over. After a none too satisfactory stint first with Kolkata Knight Riders and then with Pune Warriors in the IPL, he moved into the arena of cricket administration, when the fourth phase of his life began. He became a member of Cricket Development Committee of the CAB in 2009 and took over as president of CAB when Dalmiya passed away in September, 2015. The shakeup in the top echelons of the BCCI following the implementation of the recommendations of report of Justice Lodha saw Ganguly emerge as the consensus candidate for the post of president of this body and he has been heading it since October, 2019.
It is certain that he will feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction as he looks back after completing the half-century in the crease of life. But Ganguly is not one to rest on laurels nor is he a person who will relinquish the driver’s seat and walk away to anonymity. Though a career in politics appears to be the natural next step for this versatile and hugely popular person, he has not shown any indication of becoming a full time politician. He has till date resisted the efforts of ruling parties, both at the Centre and in his home state, to join their ranks. However, this has not prevented him from maintaining close relationship with the top wigs of both outfits and working with them for the cause of cricket. It would be safer to assume that he is keeping his cards close to his chest and weighing the options available to him before taking the plunge.
Belated birthday greetings to Ganguly and wishing him good health and success in his future endeavours.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)