Man with a mind of his own

Sourav Ganguly is rarely overtly rude or boorish. That's not his style. But he exudes a high opinion of himself, and an easy-going contempt for those who do not share that opinion, writes MIKE MARQUSEE.

WHAT is it about Sourav Ganguly? No Indian captain has so irritated his opponents — on and off the field of play. He has got spectacularly under the skin of both Englishmen and Australians. And also, remarkably, of his own countrymen. He is India's most successful captain, and at the same time one of its least popular, at least outside Kolkata.

This unpopularity goes way beyond his poor run with the bat and transcends the current rehearsal of the venerable debate about whether any player can be worth his place in the side primarily on the basis of his captaincy role.

At Bangalore, Ganguly was booed by the crowd — even before he rushed down the pitch to be stumped for a single run, at which point the booing multiplied in volume. And there was relish in the booing. The fans positively enjoyed the experience: a classic instance of what the Germans call schadenfreude — taking pleasure in the discomfort of another.

In the stands behind me, a young India supporter proudly flaunted a hand-lettered placard that cleverly played on a topical discussion to take a poke at the Indian captain: "Sourav: have you `outsourced' run-scoring to Bangalore?"

Of course, the Karnataka crowd has a particular beef with Ganguly, as they feel their favourite son Dravid should replace him as captain. But Ganguly's capacity to annoy knows few geographical boundaries. He is a cricketer people love to hate — and the syndrome is only exacerbated by his apparent indifference to their animosity. When Australia's captain Mark Taylor suffered a run of failures at the crease, there was anxiety and sympathy; he was never derided. Likewise, Mike Brearley, a player who commanded a place in the England side solely on the basis of his captaincy skills (his Test average was 22). When Brearley was out for a series of single digit scores, there was much anguished debate about his role, but never the kind of jeering that greets a Ganguly failure on a home ground.

Yet under his leadership, India have enjoyed unprecedented success. They have won nine of 19 series played and lost only five. They have won 19 and drawn 15 of 47 Tests. In the Tests he's played as captain, he's averaged just over 37 with the bat — compared to 45.54 in the 35 Tests he played before becoming captain. That differential is typical of even the best batsmen who have captained their sides over any extended period of time. It's similar to Mark Taylor's figures, and Taylor was and is venerated in Australia. When Ganguly chose to bat on during the afternoon of the fourth day at Kolkata, the commentators carped and moaned and made their disapproval abundantly clear. But Ganguly's judgment was proved correct — both by Afridi's lightning 59 in the final overs of the day, and by the ease with which his bowlers dismissed Pakistan the following morning.

It may well be that his term as captain is drawing to an end, that he should make way in the batting order for Kaif or Yuvraj. It is certainly true that he's a slipshod fielder, and in this respect sets a poor example for the side. But if he loses his post — leaving aside entirely whether it would be wise or not — there would be a loss to cricket.

Sourav Ganguly is an angular, arrogant, awkward character. He sports a pleasant smile that looks to his opponents like a superior smirk. He is polite but never deferential — something of a revolution in the culture of Indian cricket. He sees himself as the equal — if not the superior — of anyone, on or off the field. Refreshingly, he is not mealy-mouthed (the vice of cricketers too eager to please). He's a man with a mind of his own and demands to be treated as such.

Ganguly is rarely overtly rude or boorish. That's not his style. But he exudes a high opinion of himself, and an easy-going contempt for those who do not share that opinion. Understandably, these traits drive his opponents and some of his colleagues mad, but they have been integral to the success he has achieved as captain.

Sometimes Ganguly is praised for introducing a more aggressive attitude into Indian cricket. Certainly, he gives no quarter, but in itself, in 21st century cricket, that is nothing special. Without his tactical resourcefulness, his potent sense of personal and collective merit, and his ability to marshal his forces, the aggression would have counted for little.

So like him or loathe him, Ganguly is the kind of distinctive, intriguing personality that cricket, more than any other sport, showcases to the full. Personally, I'm a fan. I enjoy his capacity to irritate, his mixture of superciliousness and orneriness. I don't want all my cricketers to be amiable shadow-men. But then, I'm not Indian, and my main interest in cricket doesn't lie in whether India wins or loses. You might say I have the luxury of enjoying the psychological spectacle Ganguly provides.