''I try my best to support the right guys''

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

SOURAV GANGULY went through a rough period in the last one year. Controversies hit the team and critics gunned for him, holding the captain responsible for the failures overseas, but Ganguly maintained his calm, concentrated on the job even though he did falter on a few occasions.

V. V. KRISHNAN

His record in one-day cricket remained impressive, but it was his inconsistency in Test matches that rattled his seat. Demands for a change in the captaincy grew, but Ganguly had support from within the team. The selectors too decided against a change as Rahul Dravid was projected as the successor, what with Sachin Tendulkar not showing any interest in leading the side.

It was a difficult time for Ganguly. Getting out in the 30s and 40s hardly helped his cause because much was expected of him. The more he tried the more his woes increased until the century against Zimbabwe in the Test at Delhi gave the man some relief. It was not the best of his eight centuries, but it was enough to give the man his confidence back.

The 2-0 series win against Zimbabwe was just a warm up for the tougher assignments ahead. Ganguly acknowledged that the West Indies series would be the one to win followed by the tour to England. The team was focussed on the World Cup and this was just a small step in that direction.

Ganguly spoke to The Sportstar at the end of the series against Zimbabwe. Excerpts:

Question: What would be the gains of the series against Zimbabwe?

Answer: To tell you honestly, plenty. Winning the series itself was a gain. It was tough for us simply because it was a no-win situation. If you win, the critics say that the opposition was weak. If you lose, they rubbish you on all fronts. It is just not easy to please the critics.

Do you play for the sake of satisfying your critics?

Not really. We play with great pride because we represent the nation. Criticism, I know, will always be a part and parcel of the game, but I don't think the team as such has been affected by any kind of writing or commentating.

How difficult was it to cope with the criticism?

It was hard. The critics have their job to do, I know, but sometimes it hurts. I know the job of captaincy comes with lots of responsibility and I have to fight it out.

Where did you get the strength to fight from?

From my past performances. From my past success. I know all days cannot be rosy and what keeps me going is the support from my team.

What do you think are the reasons for you to get this kind of support?

Well, difficult for me to say but I know my mates have faith in me. I don't indulge in any nonsense. I try my best to support the right guys. I try to fight for the right players. It is in the interest of the team that the best boys get picked for the job. I have always backed the youngsters with the aim that they get proper chances to show their potential. I know I would be wrong on certain occasions, but I am honest. The players also know that I back them in the selection meetings.

How do you look at it personally?

There are some low moments in every player's career, but that should not mean I would lock myself in and brood. After all the criticism, the team was happy that we won and that is what matters if you ask me.

What then were the positive points?

As I said the overall cricket that we played. There will be certain grey areas, but then they will always be there for all teams. No team is perfect. And I have never claimed that this team is the best. It is a compact side which is capable of beating the world. That is what we are working at. Talking of positive points, I would like to mention the success of Zaheer Khan and the splendid performance of the spinners (Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh).

Why do you think Zaheer is so important?

There is no doubt that he has loads of talent. There is need to groom him because he is one rare cricketer who has improved with every series. I am convinced he has much greater potential and to achieve that he has to be focussed. His return to the side was quite eventful because it is not easy to make comebacks in international cricket. And Zaheer made an impressive return to the side with his improved bowling.

What else did you like about Zaheer?

His attitude. He wants to bowl aggressively and wants to win matches. He may do it singlehandedly or maybe he would contribute along with the others but what matters is that he wants to try. He is also willing to experiment and learn from every outing. He is not the one who rests on his laurels. I have seen him work hard from close quarters and am convinced that this season he will make good progress as a match-winner.

What about the spinners?

They have always been our strength and this pair of Kumble and Harbhajan stands out for the lethal manner in which it demolishes the opposition.

What would you say is the most important factor?

Both Kumble and Harbhajan are attacking bowlers. They will not bowl to contain. They will not like to play the waiting game. Kumble is at the batsmen all the time and Harbhajan, with his splendid variety, adds teeth to the attack.

Your views on Kumble's comeback...

Absolutely remarkable. Like I said, it is never easy to make a comeback in international cricket but Kumble never gives the impression that he was away. Just see how nicely and quickly he settled into playing his familiar role in the Indian attack. His discipline is an example for all. Does he give the impression of having missed cricket because of a shoulder injury? He is a captain's delight and I am very privileged to have such a wonderful bowler in the side. Why me, the team looks up to him to deliver and he has rarely failed.

Harbhajan too has made rapid progress under your captaincy. What reasons would you attribute to this?

He is another key member of the team. His performance against Australia need not be elaborated here, but let me tell you that he is a bowler who will only improve with time. He has the skills to succeed on all kinds of surfaces and he is working hard on certain aspects of his bowling. Again, it is his attitude which stands out because he went through some difficult times and is now just about begining to realise his immense potential. Give him time and just see how he develops into a matchwinner. He has the ability to run through the side and that can be a great asset as far as the team is concerned. It is always nice to have a bowler like Harbhajan.

Would you say the Indian team is still going through a period of transition?

Not really. If you look at the success rate, the team won 50 per cent of the matches it played. We won Tests overseas too and that was quite an encouraging thing for a young side. In Sri Lanka, the team was without some of the stalwarts and yet we won a Test. It was not too bad.

What was the one negative aspect then, if there was one?

Yes, losing the finals. It was good that we reached the finals in the one-dayers but then losing them rankled because the team had played good cricket in making it that far.

Do you think India plays like a team?

Of course, it does. We play like a team. We have certainly started to play like a team this season.

What makes you feel that India plays like a team?

The performance. We are not depending on individual brilliance. We have discovered a few consistent performers. We have also gained from some players who promise to play the role of all-rounders, which is very essential for the team to do well. We also have some plans for the season, but I will be able to give you a firm opinion only after the series against Zimbabwe is over.

How do you look at the season ahead?

Well, the tour to the West Indies will be important. We have the potential to win there and if that happens it will be an achievement.

But then is not West Indies a team struggling to make an impact?

No doubt it is. I know it is a very different team than what we played against in 1997. It is certainly not the same side, what with Ambrose and Walsh having retired. But it is a very competitive side at home. If Lara reports fit, the West Indies will be a tough team to beat. We will have to play really well to beat them but I am confident this Indian team will set high standards in the season ahead.

As a captain, how responsible would you be?

Well, I will stand by my team. Good or bad, we are a team. Let me repeat that we have won 50 per cent of our international matches in the last two years but have not got the credit for it really.

Why do you say that? I hear and read people...