End of the road?

S. SUBRAMANIUM

In the end, Ganguly perhaps paid the price for holding on too tight to something very dear, not realising it was best to let go. Is it the end? By S. RAM MAHESH.

"I realise I have to make runs. I have to make the most of the opportunities I get." This was Sourav Ganguly in a chat with Sportstar last September in Harare — still captain and probably unaware of the maelstrom he would start by going public in a dark Bulawayo pressroom.

Those words would return to haunt him. For, when he walked out that Karachi evening, his batting spot on the line, he needed a big score. First he needed to survive. That he did for little over twenty minutes despite Shoaib Akhtar's malevolence.

The next day he was caught off an attempted pull. But, in between, he had gutsed it like the fighter he has been: braving blows, concentrating hard, speaking to himself. The second innings saw more of the same, though the cause was lost. Scores of 40 and 39 (vs Sri Lanka in Delhi), 34 and 37 (vs Pakistan, Karachi) in his last four innings in not the easiest situations weren't enough though. He won admirers and found converts, but he hadn't made "the most of the opportunities" he got. He would have had an inkling they were fast drying up. Dropped, his career seems over. Just like that. It's sudden, it was expected — another paradox for a man who is constituted of them.

"Sourav's exclusion was a decision based on performance and keeping in mind the future of the team," said Kiran More, chairman of the selection committee. "He has been a good performer for India, but we are trying to bring in youth" No cricketing issue has generated as much heat, spewed as much vitriol and caused adults to behave in ways not wholly appropriate. For it's easy to love him, it's easy to hate him; most times both feelings coalesce.

The reasons proffered for his omission are well known: the lack of a defining innings in the last two years, a consequence of the decline in his batting; fielding that hasn't matched up to coach Greg Chappell's exacting standards; and the need to phase in youngsters before the moment passes them. But the ugly spat with Chappell and the factional politics of the board has made it impossible to view him through a cricketing prism. `Should he go?' is often `Should he be nudged or shouldered out?'.

The recent success of the team under Rahul Dravid and Chappell, and evidence that their moves — both near-term and long — are paying off has perversely cost Ganguly. The team can ill afford the tension every time he's picked, claims that all is hunky-dory notwithstanding.

"Where is your crown King Nothing?" sang Metallica, and the 33-year-old has lost more. It's unfortunate Sourav Ganguly's many accomplishments are being over run by recent memories. For in his best days, he was a delightful batsman — very good at Test level (5221 runs from 88 matches at 40.78 with 12 centuries) and one of the greatest in the abridged version (10123 runs from 279 matches at 40.65 with 22 hundreds).

But more than the sublime touch through the offside, Ganguly's deeds as India's most successful captain stand out.

Dispensing with the parochialism that had marked his predecessors, he backed men he thought could win matches — bold, brash youngsters in whom he probably saw traces of his younger self.

Authority was confronted, tradition not always respected, and those expecting a studious spectacled Bengali who watched his Ps and Qs bit off more than they could chew. A historic series win in Pakistan, Test wins in Australia, England and the West Indies, and an eight-match winning streak in the 2003 World Cup that ended at Australia's hands in the final are achievements the most mordant critic will appreciate.

In the end, he perhaps paid the price for holding on too tight to something very dear, not realising it was best to let go. Is it the end? No one aware of the palace intrigues of the board, or the resilience of Sourav Ganguly will put his money on it.

To come back from here, however, will take some doing, not all his own.