How 'Ruthless' is Sourav?

RAJU BHARATAN

THE nation was prepared to put its shirt on Sourav Ganguly as 'Captain Bare and Dare' after that razzledazzle NatWest triumph on the Saturday afternoon of July 13 at Lord's. At the same Lord's, almost overnight as it were, did Sourav's India come unstuck in the sterner 'Test of will-power' that followed. If England was allowed to run away with a total of near-500 in that Lord's series opener, it was 600-plus in the second Test at Trent Bridge. The while England's batsmen thus struck almost as they wished at India, Sourav hardly looked cut out for command. This raises the pertinent or impertinent query - Is Sourav a hard-hitting enough captain only once things turn his team's way? Nasser Hussain certainly outpointed Sourav in the first two Tests.

The test of true captaincy lies in getting your team to play well above its known potential. This is where Nasser Hussain scored - no matter how unpopular he be in Indian telly eyes. Nasser Hussain on Channel 4 was a rude reminder of Bill Lawry in Akashvani times. Has there been a visiting captain more detested by Indians than Bill Lawry? Yet super-mean Bill fetched the rubber 3-1 in conditions Indian (through 1969-70) for his Australia against the world's then most dreaded spin trio of Erapalli Prasanna, Bishan Singh Bedi and S. Venkatraghavan (combined five-Test series analysis: 726.3-282-1424-59 - out of the 69 wickets that fell to our bowlers). Proof that, to this day, Sourav is better off playing two spinners in a Test even in England.

Any verdict on Sourav as losing out to Nasser, in sheer ruthlessness of outlook, might seem premature when Ganguly himself - 68 off 149 balls in 233 minutes (11 fours) & 99 off 159 balls in 247 minutes (13 fours) - exemplarily rearguarded India to a draw in the second Test at Trent Bridge. But then by what calibre of opposition was Sourav's India outplayed in the Lord's and Trent Bridge Tests? Nasser Hussain lost key player after key player to injury from the word go. Yet each setback only saw England emerge the stronger for the body-blow. Whereas India (with four batting millionaires leading the way) failed to call the shots the way they should have against what, progressively, was not even England's second string. Mike Brearley, asked to comment on Nasser Hussain as a leader of men, showered generous praise on this maverick while observing that the job could be done without the 'ruthless' streak the current England captain displayed. But I say Nasser was only being as ruthless as he needed to be, knowing the true intrinsic worth of the England Test team with which he was left. No Marcus Trescothick. No Andrew Caddick. No Darren Gough. No Alex Tudor. Then no Graham Thorpe. Each such glitch only seemed to make experimental England stronger in its resolve under Nasser. So much so that, by the end of the second Test, it was Sourav and his India being called upon to pull out something extra (424 for 8 decl.) to draw the Trent Bridge Test, following the early fall of Sachin just blazing away (92 off 113 balls: 17 fours) on the fifth and final day.

Compare and contrast Sourav's grimly defensive leadership here at Nottingham with the ruthless Bengal Tiger stripes he had revealed (when not himself delivering with the bat) against Steve Waugh's Australia in India during March 2001. Sourav then played Steve at his own subterranean game. When Steve said something about the kind of underprepared wickets Australia would be encountering in India, Sourav, with a certain insouciance, demanded to know (Arjuna Ranatunga-like) how the senior Waugh could tell, sitting thousands of miles away. In so speaking his mind, maybe Sourav sowed the wind. The whirlwind he did reap as World Champions Australia proceeded to thrash India by 10 wickets in the first Test at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium. Yet Sourav kept up the wordy duel with Steve. A duel that saw Sourav all but end up as India's mock sword-arm, looking to the mien and manner in which Australia took a 274-run lead, midway through the core Kolkata Test.

From this flashpoint at which V.V.S. Laxman fired with that stupendous 281 (631 minutes, 452 balls, 44 fours) - single-handedly overtaking Australia's 274-run lead with 275 not out by the end of the fourth day - Sourav never let go of the stranglehold he had on the Kangaroo neck. Here Rahul's VVS-emulating Eden 180 (444 minutes, 353 balls, 21 fours) was first grafted and then crafted in a style that made viewers wonder if Dravid had been demoted or 'promoted' batting at No. 6! Alongside came the head-spinning Harbhajan Singh breakthrough (37.5-7-123-7 & 30.3-8-73-6). The rest is history - of Australia as World champions being pulled down from that peerless perch. The point I seek to drive home is that Sourav then, as India's freethinking captain, never ever lost the initiative - once he regained it from an Australia down for the Kolkata count. While in the first two Tests now in England, there was not even an attempt by Sourav to seize the upperhand. How so? Sourav, I say, lost the torch to Nasser now the exact way Steve met his match in Ganguly then. Sourav drew, subconsciously, the wrong captaincy conclusions from India's eye-riveting NatWest win. Just like Steve Waugh (come March 2001) had rested on the Aussie aura of being rock of the world walk after the Kangaroos' 16th successive Test win in the series opener at Mumbai. A leader of Steve Waugh's seasoning should have sensed that Wankhede had been a deceptively easy hurdle to cross, looking to how the curling off-spin of Harbhajan Singh (with the non-Kookaburra ball) troubled the Aussies even here. Actually, in India's dismal defeat at Mumbai, there had been encouraging signs of VVS's being 'to the Laxmanor born' in the way this virtuoso struck down Shane Warne. I mean the way Laxman smashed that meaty Kangaroo for three rasping fours in his ultra-brief knock of 12 during India's second Wankhede go. Yet somehow Steve, even after that Laxman 59 off 84 balls (no fewer than 12 fours) in the first innings, lowered his guard, once Australia took a 274-run lead in the Eden Gardens Test. So much so that Sourav had landed his counterpunch before Steve knew what hit him.

Like Steve then did Sourav now loosen his Hero Honda hold after his blistering 60 (off 43 balls: 10 fours) had set the pace for that sensational NatWest win by India. Jayasuriya's Sri Lanka had been made to feel diminished on the way. Next Nasser's England came to be cut to Yuveraj-Kaif size. I have said it before and I assert it again - overconfidence is a fatal attitude of mind in Cricket, Unlovely Cricket. Never underestimate your adversary, no matter how downtrodden he and his team might look. Steve Waugh misjudged the crest of the wavelength on which he found himself after that March 1, 2001 Wankhede Test win. Now Sourav went into the Test series in England (on the Thursday of July 25, 2002) in a similar jaunty frame of mind. Forgetting that Nasser's England had had his India on the NatWestern run until first Yuveraj (69 off 63 balls: 9 fours, 1 six) and then Mohammed Kaif (not out 87 off 75 balls: 10 fours, 2 sixes) happened. Mind you, Sourav after that dream win becomingly cooled down to observe: "There's a lot of cricket still to be played and anything could happen in the next six months." But being aware of such a Test crease-occupational hazard is one thing, not being carried away by the NatWest scale of ODI win another.

Nasser Hussain, strikingly antithetically, does not relent even after grinding the opposition into the sawdust. Look at the way Nasser learnt from Steve's '274' experience in March 2001 and entertained no illusion whatsoever about India's capacity to hit back even after his England had forged a full 260 runs ahead in the Trent Bridge Test. This put the onerous onus on Sourav's India to fashion a draw. That India managed to hold out unto the Trent Bridge end was thanks, in the main, to the Atlas role that Rahul yet again played to perfection (115 off 244 balls in 340 minutes: 16 fours). Indeed Rahul disturbingly lost rhythm and momentum midway through this Trojan 115, yet stayed put in a vein demonstrating what Test cricket really entails. At 309 for 4 (when Rahul fell lbw to Dominic Cork with India just 49 runs ahead and numberless overs left), the Trent Bridge Test was still open. Or so Nasser made it look the way he ventured to draw the halter around India's Parthivulnerable neck when India was 378 for six. But the boy stood firm on the burning deck.

So there you have it in a groundnutshell - Sourav as a leader found himself ruthlessly outmanoeuvred by Nasser in the first two Tests. After the initial shock of meeting a captain-opponent worthy of his steel grip in Nasser, Sourav headed to Headingley. Here at Headingley is where the manual scoreboard ran out of the 'nought' disc as Freddie Trueman sent India crashing to 0 for 4 on that sad-sack Saturday evening of June 7, 1952. I was then haplessly there at Headingley. In fact, every single ground on which the Indians have so far played in England (including Durham as a Minor County then) I visited during that my maiden overseas tour. Vijay Hazare's India struggled 50 years ago when I was first there. Sourav's India was viewed to agonise no less through the first half of the current Test series.

Vijay Hazare as captain then directed India to play for a draw from the first ball of a Test match! By the time the last ball is now bowled in this Test series, The Oval shape of Sourav's India should be obvious to one and all.