A very different Indian captain

S. DINAKAR.

IT was a stormy press conference under a bright red shamiyana during the conditioning camp in Chennai. And in several respects, it was a meeting that set the tone for Sourav Ganguly's captaincy.

Sourav Ganguly receives the Exide Cup from West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. India won the Test series 2-0 against the Windies.-V. V. KRISHNAN

The sun was beating down, it was a hot sweltering February afternoon and in his chat with the media, the Indian captain was breathing fire. Significantly, he was trading punches with that master of the mind games, Steve Waugh.

The Australian skipper was attempting to intimidate the Indians from back home in Australia, and Ganguly would have none of it. "How does he know what's happening here from Australia?" he thundered, reacting to Steve Waugh's remarks on the preparation of pitches for the series.

On Steve Waugh's rather uncomplimentary observation on the quality of Indian spinners, his repartee was blunt. "I don't give much importance to what he says. Enough talking has been going on. Let's wait for the matches to start."

The formidable Aussies were on a roll then, Steve Waugh nursed a dream to conquer the 'Final Frontier,' and there was a feeling then that by 'being drawn' into a 'war of words' Ganguly was walking straight into the ambush laid by Waugh.

To the surprise of many, the opposite happened. It was the Australians who ended up rattled, taken aback by Ganguly's nerveless ways, his aggression, and his 'eye for an eye' approach. This was a very different Indian captain.

And in the epic three-Test home series, in February-March 2001, it was the Indians who eventually halted the Aussie juggernaut, clinching a dramatic decider in Chennai. A series that was both the genesis, and the catalyst of things to come.

It was clear that here was a man, perfectly willing to put himself in 'the line of fire', endure the resultant flak and a lack of recognition, if his methods would actually benefit the side. As the leader, he was not averse to taking the dirt on his shirt.

In a country where 'hate campaigns' are not uncommon, Ganguly received little credit for that remarkable series win over Australia, not that it mattered to him. "I am not in search of recognition as skipper. People keep talking in the Indian cricket scene. There are a lot of opinions. I just carry on with my work. Leading India is a great honour in itself," he told The Sportstar during the tour of Sri Lanka last year.

He will never be the Mr. Nice Guy, that several of his predecessors were - the 'Dada' is much too combative for that. Instead, he will always be someone who would stand by the men he believed in, give or ask for any quarter on the cricket field.

At last, recognition too appears to be coming his way, with even his detractors realising that here finally was a captain who could deliver. When India, under Ganguly, clinched the three-Test series against the West Indies 2-0, it meant the man from Kolkata was just one short of the record for the maximum Test wins by an Indian skipper - Mohammed Azharuddin's 14 victories.

In terms of win percentage, Ganguly tops, averaging over 40. It would be wrong to compare skippers though, for that would amount to comparing the various eras. The quick-thinking Tiger Pataudi provided India with a path-breaking first series victory on foreign soil in New Zealand, '67, the rather deceptive Ajit Wadekar, though pilloried in some quarters for being too defensive, actually led India to two much cherished overseas series triumphs, over the West Indies and England in '71, the resilient Sunil Gavaskar moulded India into a well-knit unit that often proved tough to beat and could cash in on openings, like in Melbourne against Australia in '80, the often impulsive Kapil Dev inspired his side to the World Cup triumph in '83, and Mohammed Azharuddin, though the final phase of his career was tainted by the match-fixing scandal, enjoyed a stupendous run at home - between '93 and '95.

Ganguly understands that the game is principally cerebral in nature - the battle of wits is of prime importance - and it is this realisation that has kept him in good stead "You have to play the game well between the ears (in the mind). All the players at this level have the basic ability. It all boils down to how you can handle the pressure," he once told The Sportstar.

Indeed, Ganguly and his men have handled the pressure situations well, over the last 12 months, in both forms of the game. The side has defeated England, Zimbabwe, and now the West Indies at home, won a Test in the West Indies after 26 long years though it eventually went down in the series, and roared back to level the Test series in England, with a stirring win at Leeds.

In the ODIs, the Indians have been winning and doing so consistently, sharing the six-match home series with England, overcoming Zimbabwe 3-2, humbling the Windies 2-1 in the Caribbean, conjuring that 'believe it or not' triumph in the summit clash of the NatWest Trophy over a shell-shocked England, and displaying a tigerish resolve to emerge the joint winner in the ICC Champions Trophy.

The game is all about confidence and self-belief at the moment, these vital commodities are not in short supply in the Indian side. This was amply reflected in the recently concluded Test series against the West Indies.

Harbhajan Singh was the star-performer with the ball, and in the blossoming of this affable Sardar, Ganguly's role has been crucial. It was on the eve of that eventful series against Australia in 2001, that Ganguly fought for the inclusion of the off-spinner, who was emerging from the shadows after a dark phase, in the side - a master-stroke as the later events proved.

The captains have a critical part to play in grooming a spinner here it is worth remembering that Abdul Qadir, that versatile Pakistani leggie, was an under-achiever in Tests, until Imran Khan instilled self-belief in him.

Ganguly's influence on Harbhajan's career has been tremendous, and the two do share a special bond. When Harbhajan, with twenty scalps in three matches, walked up to collect his Man of the Series award at the conclusion of the Kolkata Test, none would have been happier than the skipper, who has limitless faith in this Punjab cricketer.

Zaheer Khan's vital breakthroughs in Mumbai and Chennai, where the left-arm paceman, charging in with purpose, seamed the ball both ways at a lively speed, would also have pleased the skipper no end. Ganguly's decision to give Zaheer a fling with an old ball in Mumbai, resulted in a West Indian collapse, with bowler responding to the challenge. Ganguly was pro-active in his captaincy, and in Chennai, his rapid shuffling of the attack on the first day, did succeed in breaking the threatening Hooper-Chanderpaul partnership.

The team-management has been laying plenty of stress on 'finding out' batsmen, and Hooper's dismissal justified the idea of having a short cover to the West Indian captain, and get Zaheer to bowl at him from over-the-wicket. Hooper, a touch square-on in his stance, has a tendency to open up while driving.

Ganguly has matured as a skipper even as he is graduating as a leader of men. In this exercise, vice-captain Rahul Dravid had been a source of strength. There were ill-founded rumours of a rift between the two during the Sri Lankan campaign in 2001, but the duo began their Test career together at Lord's, in a glorious fashion at that, six years ago, and respect each other too much to bother about such loose talk.

Dravid has been in astonishing form this season, and though he missed his fifth successive Test hundred in Chennai, his exact 100 at the Wankhede Stadium, took the game away from the West Indies. It was a series where the seniors pulled their weight, with Anil Kumble running through the West Indies on the opening day at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium, and then Sachin Tendulkar and V.V.S. Laxman, stringing together that match-saving partnership, when India was on the brink at the Eden Gardens.

While the red-hot Virender Sehwag dismissed the West Indian attack ruthlessly in Mumbai, the talented 17-year-old Parthiv Patel took wing, snapping up flying catches, effecting a lightning stumping, and batting with pluck down the order, not even flinching against the new ball. Finally, a wicket-keeper batsman with loads of promise.

The present Indian side, both in Tests and ODIs, has a fine blend of youth and experience, and Ganguly does deserve a big chunk of credit. He has been firm in his decision-making, on matters such as Tendulkar's batting slot on the ODIs, and this is a healthy sign in a captain. A wavering skipper serves little.

Importantly, Ganguly has revealed a distinct dislike for parochial considerations. Even a casual glance at the players he has supported over the last two years - Harbhajan, Sehwag, Yuveraj, Kaif, Nehra, Bangar - indicates he has backed a cricketer for his talent alone. And the captain has invariably been proved right. In India, this is as crucial an attribute as leadership skills.

His relationship with the likes of Harbhajan, Yuveraj and Kaif, is a symbiotic one. When the occasion demanded it, Ganguly has been harsh with the 'Young Guns' too; earlier on during his tenure, he did mention that the India cap was coming easily to some of the youngsters.

Ganguly has five 'away wins' so far, and even if the victory in the one-off Test at Dhaka doesn't count for much, the ones in Kandy, Bulawayo, Port of Spain and Leeds, were all special. At Kandy's Asgiriya Stadium, Ganguly shook off self-doubts to strike a match-winning fourth innings unbeaten 98, counter-attacking the Sri Lankan bowlers, Muttiah Muralitharan included.

The wins at Bulawayo, Port of Spain, and Leeds were all away from the sub-continent, however, the failure to win the series against Zimbabwe and the eventual series setback in the Caribbean rankles Ganguly. The Leeds victory, that enabled India to level the series in England, was a heartening all-round effort though.

Significantly, India has started to win Tests on foreign soil, even if a series victory is proving to be elusive. The signs are positive and the 'away series' victory might surface sooner than later.

On a personal front, the skipper has managed to work his way out of indifferent form; he battled hard for runs in the West Indies, seldom hesitating to pull the short-pitched deliveries from the quicks, and timed the ball sweetly in England, his left-handed elegance seen in all its beauty as he caressed the ball through the off-side field. Against the West Indians, Ganguly was at the receiving end of debatable decisions, but then, India's series win would have cheered him up. Indeed, nothing makes him happier than an Indian win - he can remove his shirt, even fall in a heap over his team-mates!

And nothing disappoints him more than watching his side hurtling towards defeat - he can mouth words in anger and can run into trouble with the umpires and the match-referee. He is an emotional man, wears his heart on his sleeves.

As Team India is well on its way to becoming a strong, resourceful side, the roles of coach John Wright, a soft-spoken person but a hard-taskmaster, physio Andrew Liepus, and fitness trainer Adrian le Roux, have to be acknowledged. The present Indian team is arguably the nation's fittest outfit ever.

The coming days will be important for both Ganguly and India. And you can trust him not to bite the bullet. Indeed, he is the kind who doesn't duck issues, can look you in the eye and field the most difficult of questions. When he is up against it, Sourav Ganguly does not blink.