Ganguly and his men will have to pick themselves up

A captain can so easily inspire a side, but Ganguly, at least on the New Zealand tour, hardly accomplished that. Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

Sourav Ganguly, the captain, and the team have it in them to bounce back. But, after a disastrous time in New Zealand, the high profile World Cup could not have come at a worse time for India, writes S. DINAKAR.

It was 12 years ago, that a skinny lad, barely out of school, travelled with the big boys to Australia, for his early lessons in the choppy waters of international cricket.

On a tough, gruelling campaign, he, rather predictably, did not receive enough opportunities, flew home early, not being considered for the World Cup down under, and soon began a long, agonising four-year wait.

He was written off, bracketed with those who were inducted a touch too young and then found inadequate, and, when the southpaw finally received a recall for the English tour in '96, critics, not insignificant in number, labelled it a quota selection.

Words they had to hurriedly swallow when this left-hander of silken touch, caressed the ball through the off-side field, on a glorious day at Lord's, for a debut hundred. A fine `comeback' it proved, when everybody expected a `go back.'

Sourav Ganguly can surprise people.

However, in the coming days, the flight to South Africa will be as significant to Ganguly as the one to England seven years back. If his career was on the line then, he could be walking on thin ice as captain now.

Once again, it's a question of keeping head over water, but counting Ganguly out at this stage could be a gross error of judgment. The captain and the team have it in them to bounce back, though, after a disastrous time in New Zealand, the high profile World Cup could not have come at a worse time for India.

The expectations are plenty, the stakes will be high, and the pressure on the cricketers to deliver would be enormous. After the pounding at the hands of the Kiwis, Ganguly and his men will have to pick themselves up.

Ganguly's ways and methods at the crease left much to be desired. Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

In New Zealand, the Indians had been blanked in the two-Test series, got walloped 2-5 in the ODIs, yet, more than the lop-sided scorelines, it is the damage inflicted on the mind that needs to be addressed. It will be a tough ask. When self-belief ebbs, so will confidence.

Headhunting, with the captain being the principal target, may be an exciting experience to some, however, we would have to be objective here, taking into account the pros and the cons. This has been an extremely busy year for the captain and the team and they could have been jaded mentally when they landed in New Zealand.

The year 2002 began with a seven-match ODI series against England (home), and these contests were followed by two Tests and five ODIs (home, Zimbabwe), five Tests and three ODIs (in West Indies), NatWest limited overs competition and four Tests (in England), the ICC Champions Trophy (in Sri Lanka), and three Tests and seven ODIs (home, West Indies), in a hectic sequence of series and tournaments.

There was hardly any breathing space as the cricketers packed and unpacked, setting off to different destinations. And a tired body and mind would not have helped the side's cause in New Zealand. Ganguly did confide in the later stages of the tour that he could sense that the boys `were not there' physically during the lone three-day game against the Central Districts in Napier, that preceded the Test series. "The seven-match ODI series against the West Indies, killed us,'' he said.

Indeed, the overworked Indians flew to New Zealand, hours after the decisive seventh game in Vijayawada, where Marlon Samuels' brilliance carried the day for the Caribbeans, and, in the otherwise serene and breathtaking New Zealand, they hardly appeared fresh.

A two-week break ahead of the World Cup, would surely help, however, the Indians would still have played more cricket than most sides, entering the premier one-day competition. Ganguly has a job on hand, and it is here, that he would have to inspire his side with the bat.

To be honest, Ganguly's on-field captaincy - he did ring in the changes well - could not be faulted; it was his ways and methods at the crease that left much to be desired. And in Ganguly's batting lies the key to his captaincy.

There were smart moves from Ganguly on view, such as the extended spell given to off-spinner Harbhajan Singh in the Wellington Test, and the ploy did work well with the Kiwis losing their way, however, the capitulation of the Indian batsmen in the second innings ensured there would be only one result in the game.

It was important for Ganguly to make a statement with bat, and it was here that he came up woefully short during this disastrous campaign. Leaving him exposed to the attacks from the media.

Again, we have to be objective, and in 2002, Ganguly made over a thousand runs in both forms of the game, despite being at the receiving end of some debatable decisions during the home series against the Caribbeans and the abject failures in the two Tests in New Zealand.

He conjured a match winning innings in the Delhi Test, when Zimbabwe threatened to pull off an unlikely victory, batted with resolve if not typical flair in the Caribbean, and did find his touch, timing and range in England, where we once again witnessed those majestic off-drives scorching the turf.

However, it was a totally different tale in New Zealand, where there was plenty of bounce and sideways movement for the pacemen. And here - again we are only being objective - he clearly disappointed.

More than failing, the manner in which he succumbed did send the wrong message. If he nicked into the cordon, driving away from the body, with minimal use of his feet in the Tests, then he performed little better in the ODIs, repeatedly dragging the ball on to his stumps.

There was this instance on the first day of the Wellington Test when he was put down in the cordon in the final over before lunch, but perished before it could be completed, steering the ball into gully's hands. This was poor batting.

Rahul Dravid was oozing confidence at one end, and had Ganguly cashed in on his stroke of luck, and survived till lunch, we could have witnessed a different result in the Test. On such slender threads do tales of success and failure hang. But then, this was a tour when that extra `yard' was clearly missing in Ganguly.

The fact that he perished in remarkably similar fashions, revealed his lack of homework and a baffling reluctance to change his game plan. If the left-hander had played close to the body and batted straight, adhering to the basics - this was demonstrated wonderfully well by the young southpaw Yuvraj Singh - he could have made a difference in a low scoring series.

And, as the one-day series progressed, Ganguly often spoke of none in the Indian line-up, with the exception of Virender Sehwag, being in touch. But then, a captain should first look at how much he has contributed himself. The Prime Minister cannot afford to lay blame on the Ministers, for ultimately, he alone is responsible, accountable.

Time and again, he fell in a tame manner and there were several who asked — `Why is your skipper not showing any fight.' A captain can so easily inspire a side, but Ganguly, at least on the New Zealand tour, hardly accomplished that.

If we take a trip back to those glory days in 2002, Ganguly produced some fine innings for India, and it was his early blitz on the English pacemen that set up India's victory in the famous NatWest Trophy final. It was no different in the Test series and the Champions Trophy duel in Colombo, where he made a well-paced hundred, even as Virender Sehwag went about destroying England bowling. In New Zealand, he appeared a pale shadow of that free-stroking batsman.

The pitches were probably doing a bit too much, and the one for the second Test at Hamilton was slightly wet too when play got underway making toss a huge factor. Save for a handful of occasions, Ganguly was unlucky with the spin of the coin too, but this is a game where you make your own luck.

True, the Indians were skittled out for 99 on a green seaming bouncing pitch, but when they dismissed the Kiwis for 94, actually grabbing a five-run lead, they had to be the favourites for levelling the series.

There was every chance that the Kiwis would have been mentally down, and, if the Indians had set the host a target of around 175, the second Test could have been won. Instead, the Indian batting wilted again, save for some resistance from Tendulkar and Dravid, and a marvellous opportunity slipped away.

Winning sides, strangulate the opposition in these situations; instead the Indians slid down the slippery slope. It is in moments like these that it becomes so crucial for the man in the hot seat to put his hand up. For a captain can so easily lift his men.

The point is, when the skipper, if he is a specialist batsman, does not deliver with the bat, then it is bound to undermine his authority as captain somewhere down the line, and Ganguly should be realistic enough to comprehend this.

For most part, he has been a bold tough-talking captain, who seldom gets intimidated by the opposition, is aggressive in his approach and attitude, and can look a challenge in the eye - in New Zealand, he appeared flat and the lack of form with the willow was definitely the principal cause. Opening in one game, and surfacing in the middle-order the next, hardly helped his cause either.

To be fair to Ganguly, India's best bowler in those conditions, Javagal Srinath, was not available for the Test series, and then, in the ODIs, the absence of Sachin Tendulkar (in the first four games), due to an injured ankle, dented India's prospects, depriving the side of the early momentum.

But then past is past — New Zealand is now history - and there is always that opportunity to make a fresh beginning in South Africa. For that to happen, the Indians will have to rediscover the fire and passion of the NatWest Trophy and the ICC Champions Trophy tournament, where they displayed the resilience to claw their way back from impossible situations.

Ganguly too has his task cut out. A captain with 13 Test wins and a host of one-day triumphs doesn't become 'poor' because of one disastrous series. However, this doesn't suggest that the skipper can afford to ignore the warning signals. Ganguly has to tighten his seat belt.