Of a captain with "attitude"

NIRMAL SHEKAR

AS HE raised his bat on reaching his hundred to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd at a ground - the Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi - that is a grotesque scar on the face of the game in India, you could, at once, have heard as much jeering as perhaps cheering in millions of drawing rooms all round the country, from Guwahati to Chennai and from Mumbai to Trivandrum.

AFP

The last time the man had scored a Test century, Hansie Cronje was still deemed to possess the same moral fibre as the Pope and Virender Sehwag could have walked all the way down a crowded platform at the Old Delhi railway station with a bat in hand and without a single soul recognising him.

Yet, as the Indian captain signalled a much-awaited return to form in the Test arena last fortnight at New Delhi, it was difficult to overcome the feeling that the occasion might have set off as much mourning as it may have triggered revelry among Indian cricket fans.

In the event, not long after Sourav Chandidas Ganguly put his captain's bat where his mouth is, so to say, in Test match cricket with a century against Zimbabwe - his first as captain, the hundred coming two years and 145 days after his last, a time during which Ganguly played 23 Tests without a three-figure innings - this seems as good a time as any to deal with the question that's long agitated my mind.

Is Ganguly the most hated captain in the entire history of Indian cricket at the international level?

Now, flip that question: How many Indian captains have been as celebrated and well-loved, too, as the man from Kolkata?

And, finally, round them off: Has any Indian cricket team ever had a leader who has been quite as equally loathed and loved as is Ganguly today?

He is a man they love to hate. Equally, he is a man they love to love. Visit any of the of the fan websites. Take a look at the Letters to the Editor columns in the sports sections of newspapers. Listen to the critics and commentators.

It won't be long before you realise that there are two Gangulys: Ganguly the hero and Ganguly the villain, Ganguly the saviour of Indian cricket and Ganguly the destroyer of the country's favourite sport, Ganguly the assertive, all-conquering champion and Ganguly the foul-mouthed, sulking non-performer.

Few Indian cricketers - not merely captains - may have ever forced fans and critics alike to such emotional extremes as has the 29-year old from Kolkata who, on his first tour of Australia - when he needed no more than a shave a week to handle his facial growth - was so painfully shy and introverted that many wondered how he'd manage in a high-profile sport where less-than-media-savvy players without a natural love of bright lights constantly suffered.

Ganguly, of course, has come a long way from those early days when, as a man, he was about as aggressive as Michael Atherton or Rahul Dravid would be expected to be at the crease when it falls upon them to save a Test for their country on Day Five. Those were days when Indian cricket's Boy-who-had-everything simply retreated into his shell when things didn't go his way.

And look at him now. Ganguly's in-your-face attitude and studied aggressive posture are enough to make a battle-hardened Gladiator like Steve Waugh wince. And the sort of sporting aggro symbolised by Ganguly's words and actions seem to have rubbed off on the young off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, who has done wonderfully well under his captain.

My friends in the U.S. sportswriting community would have labelled Ganguly the "Captain with Attitude" if he happened to lead the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Lakers.

Surely, a bit of a prima donna who is deeply convinced about his own specialness and struts about with all the supreme confidence that comes with such a belief, Ganguly is perhaps the first Indian cricket captain who consistently thinks - even if there is no real basis for this - that he and his team are as good as, if not better than, the best in the business.

Whether he is sulking or celebrating, Ganguly's demeanour somehow makes his detractors want to say: "Ah, there he is, that cocky prima donna. Who does he think he is?"

And the fact that it is a man nicknamed "Maharaj", one from a cosy upper-class background who was born with an expensive Gunn & Moore bat in his cradle, so to say, who seems hell-bent on wiping out the post-colonial hangovers vis a vis Indian attitudes on a cricket field is an irony that may not be lost on many.

Yet, the point about all this is, the so-called "attitude" becomes a subject of derision when it is not matched by performance. And it is this huge gap that Ganguly has struggled to bridge for so long in Test cricket. The century against Zimbabwe is a start, but he has a long, long way to go - both as a batsman and as a visionary leader - before the gap can be said to have been bridged.

In three decades in sports journalism, I have seen all manner of prima donnas and men-with-attitude, right from Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe down to Javed Miandad and Ian Botham, from Ayrton Senna down to Lleyton Hewitt and Michael Schumacher.

But, to a man, all these were/are performing giants who walked the talk, so to say. Connors's abusive language and gestures and McEnroe's infamous tantrums would never have been tolerated if they were not such great players who delivered on the court time and again. Their performance matched their self-confidence.

Bad and boorish behaviour is deemed entertainment when it comes from charismatic, legendary players whose sporting skills match the best in the sport's history. But the prima donna acts tend to backfire when a sportsman struggles to perform as has Ganguly - who is no McEnroe in the charisma sweepstakes - for the most part of his reign as Test captain.

When an all-time great giant like Maradona or Schumacher gets carried away by his sense of self-importance, outsized ego and self-deluding self-worth, it somehow seems excusable. But when someone who, as captain, has huffed and puffed to match a utility all-rounder's limited overs cricket batting average in the exalted realm of Test cricket sports a I-can-do-no-wrong attitude, it is about as impressive as a pedestrian circus clown act.

That is really the point about sporting aggression and the so-called "attitude". They have to be used to unleash positive energy and spur an individual and a team to greater performance levels.

In Ganguly's case, if he is as unpopular as he is, then it is precisely because this has not happened consistently. On the other hand, if the Indian captain still has millions of supporters who see him as the leader of the avante garde, it is because his we-are-as-good-as-the-best attitude has rubbed off on some young men - particularly Harbhajan Singh.

Then again, the we-are-as-good-as-the-best attitude can be translated into reality only when a man like Ganguly sits down to think about why we are not as good as the best, which, in the present context, in Test Cricket, is Steve Waugh's Australia.

In the event, it is all down to walking the talk. If you can't do that, brave words and assertive posturing will only help trigger another round of derisive laughter.