A fighter to the core

K. R. DEEPAK

Sourav Ganguly’s comeback in international cricket represents a triumph of the spirit. Written off by many, he penned a fresh script. It was as much about proving the doubters wrong as reminding himself of his own ability. He kept the fire burning, writes S. Dinakar.

Little Sana was enjoying the by-play between shadow and light. Mother Dona smiled. Father Sourav Ganguly sipped a cup of tea. A happy family appeared to be relaxing in an open restaurant in the heart of a hotel straight from the days of the Raj in Faisalabad.

Sunlight sneaked in on occasions and the curtains were swayed by a stiff breeze. At that very moment, the team-management and the lone selector walked across to the room on the adjoining side to pick the playing XI for the second Test of the 2006 series in Pakistan.

A million things must have crossed Ganguly’s mind. His exterior revealed little. He ruffled Sana’s hair, told her tales that made her laugh. Then he entered into a conversation with Dona.

One knew Ganguly’s place was on the line. India wanted to play an extra bowler for a batsman on a flat Faisalabad pitch and the former captain was vulnerable. It was a sad scenario. The next morning, Ganguly was dropped.

A couple of nights earlier, he had emerged from the shadows for a quick munch at an obscure hotel on the Lahore-Faisalabad highway. It was a foggy winter night but his steely gaze appeared to pierce the darkness. These were the eyes of a tiger.

Ganguly’s comeback in international cricket, which began in South Africa late last year, represents a triumph of the spirit. Written off by many, he penned a fresh script. It was as much about proving the doubters wrong as reminding himself of his own ability. He kept the fire burning.

Beneath all those layers, he is a sensitive man. Not many captains would turn around to a bunch of journalists at the end of a press conference and say, “I am sorry.”

India had suffered its fourth successive ODI defeat against New Zealand in that paradise called Queenstown. It was a collective failure by a side that could not adapt to the conditions in Kiwiland. Ganguly took the blame himself. As captain, he considered himself responsible. The Dada backed his men, earned respect in return, and was a leader.

This is precisely why during the period he was away, a significant section of the team supported his recall in private conversations. A couple of cricketers aired their views in public.

Yet, Greg Chappell was right in several aspects. Years of cricket had taken its toll on Ganguly’s body and he struggled with a chronic groin strain. This adversely affected Ganguly’s training sessions; he was not pushing himself like Chappell wanted him to during training sessions.

Ganguly is a gifted batsman, but his technique had chinks. A younger Ganguly could get away with his methods. Now he was in his mid-30s and had reached a phase when he could not survive on eye and timing alone. The left-hander required to tighten up his game.

The confrontation with Chappell was unfortunate but it made Ganguly introspect as a cricketer. During the time he was away, Ganguly worked on his fitness and technique. A television job and a fat contract was an easy option, but Kolkata’s favourite son chose the harder path. He wanted to play for India again.

Here, we travel to another story. In the late 1990s, the Indian team’s conditioning camp was on in Chennai. Ganguly had left behind his personal music system in Kolkata and requested this writer to lend him his system.

He asked for just one compact disc; a spirit-lifting composition about India and its sacrifice by a famous composer. Days later, he confessed he listened to it more than a hundred times.

Ganguly is passionate about India. He once lamented that the India cap was being given away too easily to the youngsters. He was of the view that the youngsters should be made to earn it.

Watch Ganguly adjust his cap, its golden crest gleaming, on the field and his sense of pride is unmistakable. He values the cap.

His urge to represent the country again shone through when he dashed from Johannesburg to Potchefstroom to make it to the Indian practice session, ahead of the game against South Africa ‘A’ late last year. Then he withstood a barrage of bouncers and precise corridor bowling to produce an innings of charm and technique on a lively pitch. His comeback was truly on.

In the Test series that followed, Ganguly was solid without losing flair. His back-lift was shorter and straighter and his stance was more upright. His changed stance and back-lift meant he was playing closer to his body and was surer outside the off-stump. The new-look Ganguly was a revelation in South Africa. He was playing his cricket with great intensity. Chappell was impressed. The wily coach confessed that he had not seen Ganguly bat better.

The Dada was batting with great self-belief and confidence. Ganguly has his problems against the short-pitched balls but he does not run towards the off-side or back off towards square-leg like some seemingly accomplished batsmen of the past did. The Dada pulls the short-pitched balls, ducks or takes it on the body. He might not appear entirely convincing against the lifters from the fast bowlers but, as he points out, he rarely gets out to these deliveries.

In South Africa, England and India, in contrasting conditions, Ganguly has conjured up gems for the country. He adds much to the line-up as a left-hander in the middle-order, breaks the rhythm of the bowlers, forces them to shift line. The southpaw has used his feet well, struck off either foot. He has built partnerships and rallied with the lower order.

This year has been eventful for Ganguly. He became the first Indian left-hander to cross 6000 Test runs. He has gone past the 1000-run mark in Tests for the year. The Dada notched up his first Test hundred at the Eden Gardens, and in Bangalore, he missed being the first Indian, after Sunil Gavaskar, to notch up a double century and a century in a Test by just nine runs.

Ganguly is India’s most successful left-handed batsman by a distance and has the highest individual score by a southpaw — 239 against Pakistan in Bangalore recently — for the country in Tests.

Whether the ball bounced and seamed around (in South Africa) or swung (in England) or kept low (in India), Ganguly has been secure both in offence and defence. He has been middling the ball and finding the gaps with a natural fluency irrespective of the bounce in the wicket.

Ganguly’s stump to stump bowling with subtle two-way movement indicates his clever mind. The effort he puts in, unmindful of picking up an injury, displays his commitment.

Ganguly’s inbuilt aggression should fire India up against an aggressive opponent in the series down under. Do not be surprised if this Tiger roars in the land of the Kangaroo.