Clock is ticking fast for a remarkable leader

Alas, Sourav Ganguly's form has deteriorated to such an extent that bowlers lick their lips whenever he takes guard, writes PETER ROEBUCK.

SOURAV GANGULY's time is up as Indian captain. He has led with distinction, taking his team almost to the summit of the game. Such a man is not lightly to be cast aside. Unfortunately, his form has deserted him and his team has been unable to take that final step — "one small step for man, one giant leap for Indian cricket!" — from promise to fulfilment. Accordingly, the time has come for the baton to pass into the hands of another.

Over the years this column has been a supporter of this feisty son of Kolkata. Apart from anything else he has been a source of entertainment. His repeatedly late arrival at the toss during the 2001 home series against Australia could be understood first as reflecting the chaotic state of his personal arrangements and later as a statement not so much of defiance as post-colonial amusement. If no steam was actually seen coming from the ears of the highly indignant visiting captain it was only because the possibility springs not from scientific reality but the imagination of wordsmiths.

Crucially, Ganguly was not merely playing a role. He may look like a prince charming but he was tough enough to play one of the outstanding captain's innings — the century in Brisbane that saved his side and launched a thousand hopes. It is worth bearing in mind that he has been a fine batsman and that the possibility endures that touch might return. At present, though, he looks worn out.

For a long time any mark of respect given to Ganguly was regarded with disdain everywhere except in his homeland, and especially in his dressing-room. How swiftly memories change! Nowadays it is fashionable to attribute numerous qualities to the Bengali, not including constancy. Ganguly had to overcome all manner of prejudices before he could hope to sway opinion in his favour.

Apart from anything else he was rich, a circumstance he could not very well avoid and which in any case is not exactly an offence against the state. Nevertheless, his upbringing raised in antipodean eyes the spectre of the Maharajah lording it over his people. Australians are an egalitarian lot who sit in the front seat of taxis. Ganguly did not help his cause by playing in a friendly against the Australians and then staying at a different hotel from his team-mates and spending most of the match talking into his cell phone! But he'd had the courage to seek an extra encounter with his most fierce critics, a point that was neglected.

Of course, the world champions misread and misunderstood him, a mistake that cost them dear. Perhaps, they forgot that Ganguly comes from a footballing city and could take care of himself in that game of bone-crunching tackles and protruding elbows. Moreover, the notion that those raised with the silver spoon are inevitably soft-centred has been disproved a thousand times in wars and other arenas in which fibre is examined.

Despite his manifest failings Ganguly has served with distinction. In these times of relative prosperity it is easy to forget about his inheritance. When he was appointed captain, Indian cricket was reeling from the revelations about the betrayals of greedy players. Of course, ructions were taking place at board level, though in this era of patronage that goes almost without saying. Also the team had failed to sustain a challenge and needed to find a captain capable of standing up to officialdom whilst also extracting the best from senior players and introducing fresh blood.

Ganguly achieved all of these requirements. Despite the pressures upon him he also managed to score enough runs to justify his place. His team rose through the rankings to take second place in both forms of the game. Obviously credit must also be given to the senior players and the coach but there is no reason to begrudge Ganguly his share of the acclaim. Indian cricket is in his debt.

But a captain is not appointed for life. As he does not pick the time of his coming so he cannot determine the moment of his departing. Not even Steve Waugh could do that. Captains occupy their position on sufferance. Ganguly has been inclined to miss important matches and his slide started with his curious absence from the contest in Nagpur where he complained bitterly about the pitch and then went home. Many felt he left his team in the lurch. Captains conducting themselves this way need to score lots of runs.

Alas, Ganguly's form has deteriorated to such an extent that bowlers lick their lips whenever he takes guard. His two dismissals in Bangalore told a tale of poor thinking, lost confidence and a faulty technique. His bemusement at his downfalls indicated that confusion has taken a grip in his mind. It was the performance of a batsman living on borrowed time.

Not that Ganguly was solely responsible for his team's inability to save the match. Pakistan was superb and deserved every bit of praise that came upon them. India played into their hands by going into their shells once the wonderful Sehwag had been run out. To watch two of the great attacking batsmen of the era — Tendulkar and Laxman — defending grimly with men hovering around the bat on a pitch upon which neither Sehwag nor their opponents had encountered any difficulties defied credulity. Boldness is rewarded in sport.

India's defeat, though, added to the impression that Ganguly has run his race. The choice of the man to replace him is easily made. That it requires a change of heart from your correspondent is a small matter. Wise men do not feel obliged to maintain a position whose redundancy has been exposed. And we must all learn from them. That, though, is a topic for another day.