The headlines in the sports page of the Hindu newspaper dated June 23, 1996 caught my immediate attention – “A star is born at Lord’s”. I had been following the second test of the India Vs England test series after India’s debacle in the first test helped England take a 1-0 lead in the series. We did not have a cable television connection in our home those days (just Doordarshan) and I was following the match on All India Radio. I had listened to the commentators remarking at the brilliance of a man who had made his test debut at cricket’s most hallowed turf – Lord’s. The newspaper report further embellished upon the debutant whose innings on June 22 caught the world by storm. Indeed, a star was born on that day. His name was Sourav Ganguly.
When the team for the tour of England was picked, the team had a new look. The Indians were going through a low after the ignominious semi-final defeat in the World Cup at the hands of eventual champions Sri Lanka. Mohammad Azharuddin had been retained captain. The team had embarked to England in the hope of winning its first series outside the Indian subcontinent since 1986.
The first test at Birmingham turned out to be a disappointment for India as they lost the match by 8 wickets. The team had to shore up its batting. The team management decided to hand out debuts to two young players in the squad who would go on to become the pillars of Indian batting in the next decade – Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid.
Ganguly had impressed with his bowling when England batted first at Lord’s. He had taken 2 wickets for just 46 runs in 15 overs of probing seam bowling including a wicket off just his 7th ball in test cricket. When he came on to bat on the second day of the test, the Indians were 25 for the loss of Vikram Rathore’s wicket. Ganguly finished the second day on 26 not out with some silken drives and exquisite timing. The speed with which the ball raced to the boundary was unbelievable, to say the least.
On the third morning, he started off from where he left off on the second day. On AIR I could hear the commentators marvelling at his shots which sped to the boundary like rockets. Each ball that gave the width to play his shots was promptly dispatched to the boundary. He was quite adept at playing the short ball as well; his pull shots had the stamp of authority. Soon, he reached a landmark – a debut test hundred. He became the first man to score a century on debut at Lord’s. An enigmatic cricketing journey that would span 12 eventful years had begun.
Soon Ganguly found himself a regular in the test side. He notched up another marvellous century in the third test as well. His one-day stint was not delayed either. He excelled in both forms of the game with his silken batting. The tag of GOD OUTSIDE THE OFF STUMP was soon assigned to him for his shots outside the off stump were deemed to be nothing short of divine. If his batting was all class and elegance, his bowling was a revelation. Sachin Tendulkar had remarked that Ganguly was his batting ally at the top of the order and a secret bowling weapon. His ability to hit the seam consistently and swing the ball fetched him accolades in bowling.
The year 2000 was a watershed in Indian cricket with the match-fixing allegations wreaking havoc. Ganguly was assigned the captaincy of the Indian cricket team after the match-fixing allegations against Azharuddin. He soon realized that captaincy was not a bed of roses but a crown of thorns. However, he was majestically up to the task of reviving Indian cricket from the doldrums to which it had sunk.
India started winning more test matches abroad under the efficient leadership of Ganguly. He was a no-nonsense captain and a defiant leader. He dismissed all the conventional notions of an Indian captain and often took the battle to the opposition. This particular quality endeared himself to his teammates and to the cricketing public both in India and abroad. His man-management skills were exemplary. He backed youngsters to the hilt and was rewarded for his faith in them.
Ganguly catapulted India to an important series win against Australia at home in 2001. The series will forever be remembered for VVS Laxman’s epic 281 and Harbhajan Singh’s bowling but Ganguly’s captaincy in the series was remarkable. He led India to victory in the second test in Kolkata after being asked to follow-on – only the third team ever to win a test match after being asked to follow on. He followed that up with a memorable win in the last test at Chennai.
This win instilled a strong belief in the team that they could beat anyone, anywhere and under any circumstances. He led India to test wins over Zimbabwe, West Indies, England and Australia. He also led India admirably in the one-day version of the game. India won the NatWest Series in England chasing down 326 runs in the final after being in a spot of bother at 146/5 at one stage. Under his leadership India also reached the finals of the World Cup in 2003 where it lost to defending champions Australia.
However, a test series win had eluded the Indian team. It was in this backdrop that India undertook its historic tour of Pakistan in 2004. He led India to a historic series triumph in Pakistan – a feat no other Indian captain could achieve. Coach John Wright was also instrumental in Ganguly’s leadership skills. Their association was one of the memorable moments in his tenure as India captain.
John Wright’s resignation and Greg Chappell’s appointment as coach marked the turning point of his career. He fell out of terms with Chappell. His batting form also waned and soon he found himself out of the team. Cricket pundits wrote him off and indicated that his career was over. However, fate would play a crucial role once again in the life of this elegant cricketer.
Ganguly returned to the team for India’s tour of South Africa in 2006-07 and impressed one and all with his batting. He had announced with his bat that he was not done yet. He also cracked four consecutive half-centuries on his return to the one-day team. He also shone on the tour of England where he finished as the second highest run-getter in the test matches.
The home series against Pakistan later in 2007 saw Ganguly at his best. He plundered runs off the hapless Pakistan bowlers and made his maiden test double hundred. He was here to stay. Talk of retirement of the senior players in the team – Ganguly, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Kumble began to surface in early 2008 following India’s win in the 20-20 World Cup. That side was a young side which convinced the selectors that youngsters are the future of Indian cricket.
The failure of the batsmen – Ganguly included – during India’s recent tour of Sri Lanka prompted speculation that soon the seniors would be asked to retire by the selectors and Ganguly would be the first one to be axed was doing the rounds. He was dropped from the Rest of India team for the Irani trophy and speculation was rife that he would soon hang up his boots. A new selection committee replaced the old one at this time. Ganguly was picked for the test series against Australia.
Ganguly announced in a press conference later that the series against Australia would be his last. He remarked that he had had enough of the selectors’ jokes. He was right, for; nowhere in this world except in India would you find such blatant disrespect for the senior players. The players know when it’s time to retire and they don’t need anyone telling them that this is the time they should retire.
An era of cricket has come to an end at Nagpur. His cricketing career was one of twists and turns but will be remembered for the grace with which he batted and the stout-heartedness with which he led India. He is India’s most successful captain and he changed the way the team approached their cricket. He made the team understand the importance of being aggressive and the team is reaping its rewards now. The present Indian team is set to dominate world cricket but one should not forget that the seeds were sown by Ganguly. Indeed, Sourav Ganguly is the Godfather of aggressive Indian cricket.
Let’s salute a brave cricketer as he walks away from the game. The star at Lord’s is set to fade away and we realize that he is irreplaceable. Let’s wish him all the best for a long life and a bright future. Who knows, he might become a commentator and one might see a star in the commentary box.
Well done and Good Luck, Sourav!!!!