Fallen IDOL

In dropping Sourav Ganguly, the National selectors were only looking at the future, especially India's upcoming tour to Pakistan. But the process has left a sour taste, and raised a pertinent question. Did he deserve such an inglorious exit, asks VIJAY LOKAPALLY

SOME swear by him; others swear at him. Sourav Ganguly will remain an enigma. The reactions to his exclusion have been on expected lines. By burning effigies of the National selectors, coach, captain, the fans have only adopted a blinkered course in expressing support for Ganguly, who, regardless of the circumstances, did not deserve such an undignified exit from the team.

The hysterical response, under the garb of passion for the game, from the fans should hardly be a surprise in a country where logic takes a back seat when it comes to taking a stand on an issue like this. The selectors have had to look at things in perspective with the emphasis being solely on the future, especially the upcoming tour to Pakistan, but the process has left a sour taste.

"You can't insult a national hero," fumed Dilip Vengsarkar. He was right. What prevented the selectors from avoiding such an ugly development involving the most successful captain ever in Indian cricket? Did he not deserve the kind of farewell the Australians accorded to Steve Waugh? In hindsight, though, the episode only confirmed the Indian failing to accept harsh realities, and also the sad truth that heroes do not always gain respect for their deeds.

The Ganguly affair also laid bare the myth that this was a well-knit team. When a senior cricketer like Ganguly feels "unwanted" and takes leave without a farewell from his `close' mates, you need to take a fresh look at the so-called camaraderie one hears about. A captain who was known to stand up for his players and a man who gave direction to Indian cricket with his innovative leadership was not even given a choice to pick his farewell stage. It was this aspect that stood out sorely.

This was an unprecedented situation really, and one that had its roots in the Ganguly-Greg Chappell spat during the tour to Zimbabwe. By leaking dressing room conversation, Ganguly only lost the faith of the new coach and long time mate Rahul Dravid. When Ganguly sought help from Dravid, the latter is reported to have said: "You were responsible for getting him (Chappell), you handle him now." There lay the irony.

It is true that Chappell was backed by Ganguly and Wright had been Dravid's choice. Not that Wright, the affable Kiwi, had an opinion much different from the current coach but the Kiwi was not brash and unsparing.

It was also an irony that he had to lose his place to Yuvraj Singh, who prospered solely because of Ganguly's unstinted backing. When striving to prove his form, Ganguly was dismissed for a `pair' in the Duleep Trophy by Zaheer Khan, again a beneficiary of his support.

Triumphs against Australia at home in 2001 and conquests overseas, notably the Natwest win in 2002, were attributed to Ganguly's aggressive captaincy. He had raised a team that had tremendous self-belief after discovering new platforms to show its dominance. When he waved his t-shirt from the Lord's balcony in a frenzy that shocked the purists and traditionalists, it was seen as an expression of the new-found confidence that marked India's cricket away from home. The team had begun to win Test matches, if not series, abroad, and Ganguly was seen as the force behind this pleasant development.

It all changed with the departure of Wright, and the arrival of Chappell, who ushered in a phase of professionalism and accountability based on an individual's consistent contributions towards the team's cause. Here, Ganguly lost the race, for he had also lost the backing of the team management.

Ganguly confronted opposition from unexpected quarters. It was as if destiny had conspired against his cricketing future. Injury prevented him from playing the Challenger Series and Dravid found himself elevated as captain much earlier than he would have anticipated.

With Dravid doing a good job against Sri Lanka in the one-day series, the selectors had no choice but to stick with him. None should grudge Dravid the honour, for he led from the front and, for once, gained recognition for good work.

With Chappell hardening his stand against Ganguly, and Dravid too accepting the merit behind the coach's arguments, the comeback drama for Ganguly assumed monstrous proportions. Chappell was consistent in his opinion that Ganguly had "outlived" his utility to the team. The issue got out of hand when the ill-advised Ganguly, with a section of the media completely misleading him, precipitated matters in Zimbabwe. The impulsive behaviour only damaged his reputation.

It was not the first time that a senior cricketer and a former captain was being treated shabbily. `Tiger' Pataudi, Sunil Gavaskar, Bishan Singh bedi, Kapil Dev, Dilip Vengsarkar share similar bitter experiences. Senior cricketers have not been known to fade gracefully.

Mohammed Azharuddin suffered a similar fate when he lost his job and the team management made him out to be an unwanted member in the dressing room. Nayan Mongia's exclusion was linked to the team management's objection to his presence in the dressing room. Quite similar to the current situation with the reasons trotted out to keep Ganguly out being the same when Azharuddin was pushed out.

The national selectors could have come out in better light had they explained the situation to Ganguly. But then none was willing to bell the cat for obvious reasons after what happened in Harare when Ganguly rushed to the media. This was the only reason why Kiran More hesitated to take Ganguly into confidence before the big decision. Here, one thought, the National selectors should have collectively spoken to Ganguly.

The cricketing merit of a sulking Ganguly in the dressing room, not finding a place in the playing eleven, was lost out in the maze of unwarranted polls in the media. If this was not enough, politicians of all hues from the region jumped into the fray to make matters worse. If allowed, it would destroy Indian cricket, for parochialism, the bane of Indian cricket in its nascent years, had been effectively snuffed out for some time now with Ganguly himself being the chief architect, never having pushed for a player from his region. To be fair to Ganguly, he may not have a role in it at all.

As rightly observed by many former greats, including Pataudi, Bedi, Mohinder, Vengsarkar, the poor standing of the current selection committee also aggravated the issue.

When cricketers with the record of having played one, two, or seven matches, not Tests but one-day internationals, conspire to hack just one individual, then sanity takes a back seat, as it happened in the case involving Ganguly, perhaps the most hated Indian cricketer, and perhaps the most loved one too. One cannot deny that he continues to enjoy a love-hate relationship in the cricketing world.

Ganguly was the most successful India captain ever, but not the best. He was also one of the finest left-handers to have graced the field, but not the most attractive. He was also not the perfect cricketer, but he was an integral part of India's rise as a competitive team under former coach John Wright.

He was a rare captain who commanded the backing of both the selectors as well as the administrators. He was rightly known as a players' captain. Sadly, he finds himself a lonely man in his most difficult hour.