FUTURE TENSE

It is possible Sourav Ganguly is not done yet, that a proud man has more to offer, that adversity will renew him, that a man who has known hard times will step forth and reinvent himself and his team. There is much to do, but, if nothing else, Ganguly has earned his chance to put things right, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

MAYBE it is time for Sourav Ganguly to find an empty room and a solitary chair away from the clamour of his vast joint family that is Indian cricket, and ponder the unfinished cricketing journey he is on.

AFP

Just maybe for a moment he must forget about his restaurant and the necessity for a so-called "makeover" his agent speaks about and instead reflect on what made him a fine captain and remember the challenges that confronted him and how he stared them down.

Sourav Ganguly is at the crossroads of his career and perhaps the answers to his future direction lie in the road back to his past. His captaincy is under debate and with reason, and not every critic has an agenda and not every accusation is part of a conspiracy. His team's destiny is in his hands, and so is his, and if he has shown fortitude before, then now he must again.

The Indian captain has mud-wrestled with adversity through his career and prevailed, and no doubt pride still runs powerfully in his veins. Years ago, when he was announced as captain, he said in an interview to this writer that "I never thought I would lead India. When I came back from Australia in 1992, I honestly never thought I'd play for India again."

It is time Sourav Ganguly's bat did some talking. -- Pic. AFP-

But he remade himself as a batsman and challenged our imaginations by earning a statistical record as captain that surpassed his predecessors. India's best captain is a useless term for numbers in themselves pay no respect to opposition, they are ignorant of the talent at a captain's disposal, they do not speak of pitches. Yet India has seven wins under his stewardship abroad, out of 21 in total, and it cannot be shrugged off.

The beguiling bhadralok in white has been India's most colourful and captivating leader, a contrary fellow who has left us both refreshed and bewildered by his idiosyncratic style. A man from a traditional family has become a symbol of some unorthodoxy, a fellow of reputed meekness has earned grudging acknowledgment from Steve Waugh three years ago that India has a "new steeliness".

He has been late for tosses and nets but quick to stand by his players, a fellow ambivalent about personal discipline yet who has helped forge disparate men into an ambitious collective. He is a proud Bengali but has ignored the customary lure of parochialism, he is seen as somewhat timid in the face of faster bowling yet has invested his team with an interesting cockiness.

Richie Benaud once suggested captaincy was 90 per cent luck and Ganguly, not a philosopher or man of grand ideas or indeed a reputed reader of books, has listened well. Fortune is supposed to favour the brave, whatever it has lent him a hand. His batsmen flowered during his era, he was given (and found) young men of defiant purpose, he was assisted by a coach who brought an order he perhaps could not, he was handed a fitness trainer who got even him to touch his toes though sometimes his fielding suggests he'd rather not, and he was given sustained and unqualified support from his older men, a luxury not afforded to many of his predecessors. He will do well to not forget it.

Thus his leadership cannot solely account for India's more rigorous approach in recent times, yet by that measure we cannot hold him singularly responsible for his team's constant hiccup over the past few months. But such is the nature of captaincy, especially in India, that a man either has a halo around his head or simply we want his head.

The fact is that for all the drumbeats about a New India, a sweet phrase and not without some truth, it is also a facade. For Indian cricket to turn its back entirely on its amateurish past requires many generations of striving to cement such a reputation; forget a system that splutters like an early morning auto-rickshaw, the team itself must comprehend that its accomplishments are but a chapter and the book awaits writing. Previous Indian sides must not be their gauge of greatness, but the excellent deeds by teams of stamina from other shores. Ganguly has taken this team further than we thought but not as far as some might think.

Ganguly should not brush off the inspection of his captaincy because even he must know it is somewhat warranted. He is not worthy of over-reaction, but certainly regular scrutiny is part of his job description. India's one-day form since the World Cup has been cause for great concern. Furthermore, it is not so much India's Test series loss to Australia that was bruising, but the theatre that surrounded it.

Ganguly cannot wear the burden of his batsmen's fractured form, but absenting himself from the Mumbai Test, with his team's confidence stolen and crisis breaking down the door, was untimely. Leaders step forth, not back. He has always appeared to lead less by careful deliberation and more by intuition, but here it failed him. His instincts have served him well, but in his backing of Yuvraj as opener and Patel as 'keeper they let him down. Abruptly in sport, a man's strengths emerge as weaknesses.

Ganguly is known to encourage youngsters, but his absence from key Test matches is eroding his popularity in the team. -- Pics. V. V. KRISHNAN & K. BHAGYA PRAKASH-

His alleged filming of an advertisement during the Mumbai Test appears idle conjecture, but if true it is absurd. But most damaging is the assertion that young men in his team, who once swore by him, are now apparently swearing softly at his injuries during crucial Tests. Nagpur and Mumbai were not the first such instances and eventually players read more into it than mere coincidence. Ganguly may casually dismiss opinion from a watching world as fickle, but he must be tuned to the chatter in his dressing room; we may not matter to him, but they do. If he has lost their confidence, he is losing the battle.

South Africa, up next, is not the team it was and it is a blessing for Ganguly, an opportunity to hastily erase the immediate past. In India, we do not have long memories. But pressure is building from elsewhere, too, for his bat has not been speaking the elegant language it once did. Although he has been a fine batsman, his leadership (though Brisbane is not to be easily dismissed) has not arrived from his blade, he is not that sort of captain. Nevertheless, his team is carrying the odd dead weight and he must be careful not be considered in the category. Victory allows personal failures to be glossed over, but defeat brings rude questions on form, and he will be disquieted by the knowledge that if he is not captain he may not automatically demand a place in the side.

Ganguly's great strength, and one to be treasured, was to take a ruptured team, defeated by South Africa at home in 2000, uncertain of its future, surrounded by whispers of match-fixing, and mould it into a worthy unit. He furnished it with purpose, infected it with his rebellion, and stroked the self-belief of his young warriors by supporting them in public and with officials. And, as one of his teammates once said, he understood winning, he seemed unafraid of risk, he helped India believe its destiny was beyond the draw and defeat. Napoleon, who once said "A leader is a dealer in hope", would have approved of that Ganguly.

But as today's Ganguly sits in an empty room in a solitary chair, he must ask himself, is that man he was still there?

It is possible, of course, that his era is very gradually beginning to close. Most captains, whatever their gifts, can only take their teams a certain distance; staleness sets in and fresh voices have their own resonance. At different junctures, different teams need different men to lead them. India needed Ganguly and he answered its call. Now, perhaps, it needs a man to take it forward from where he has brought us. Even for the best of leaders there is a time and place.

It is also possible Ganguly is not done yet, that a proud man has more to offer, that adversity will renew him, that a man who has known hard times will step forth and reinvent himself and his team. A coach will soon be ending his term, openers are needed, faith in him must be restored within the team, personal form must be found. There is much to do, but, if nothing else, Ganguly has earned his chance to put things right.