If you go beyond the melody of Sourav Ganguly’s off drives and the cacophony of his quarrel with Greg Chappell, the one thing that remains is his will to win. That will put him up there among India’s two most significant cricket captains, along with Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi.
Unlike Pataudi, though, Mr Ganguly got the team that had the ability to win in all conditions. Pataudi took charge of the Indian team at the age of 21, soon after a car accident that damaged his right eye forever, and mended the cracks of regionalism that had kept the team divided till then. He never had the luxury of having a genuine fast bowler, and captained India to its first Test win overseas by playing three spinners.
Mr Ganguly led the Indian team during its golden period, when it had some of the world’s finest batsmen, spinners, and fast bowlers. But that does not take away from his credentials as a captain. Taking charge of the team after a match-fixing scandal, Mr Ganguly, in some way, saved Indian cricket by imposing on it his own personality and will of a winner. It helped that he was himself a highly capable batsman. A genuine ODI great, he also turned many Tests with his batting, and one entire series in Australia in 2003 with a scintillating century in the first Test at Brisbane.
That said, many good Indian teams of the past, led by able players, had come a cropper in overseas conditions; perhaps the most heartbreaking instance was the defeat of Sachin Tendulkar’s team in the West Indies. Ajit Wadekar did lead the Indian team to Test series victories in West Indies and England in 1971, but he is forever talked about more for his luck than tactics or inspirational leadership. Among Mr Ganguly’s immediate predecessors, Mohammad Azharuddin won only at home, and Mr Tendulkar looked so burdened he reminded people of Ian Botham’s travails as captain.
Mr Ganguly, a proud Bengali who revelled in his regional identity, took to captaincy like ilish to water. Coming from a privileged family — his father happily paid for the young Maharaj’s trips to England to play cricket — he had no feeling of inferiority when he came up against players from the developed world. In fact, he found ways to get under their skin, most famously under Stephen Waugh’s, and added his own twists to the Australian’s tale of psychological disintegration.
A critical component of Mr Ganguly’s captaincy was the way he spotted and backed young talent. This led to a healthy assembly line that spouted Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, M S Dhoni, Virender Sehwag, and many more. He made youngsters feel secure by dispelling from their minds the fear of being dropped.
That approach may have its origins in Mr Ganguly’s own choppy induction into international cricket. On the first day of that tour to Australia in 1992, he went out to have dinner with “a legendary Indian cricketer”. It so happened that the legend asked him what he was doing for dinner, and Mr Ganguly did not have the courage to say he had plans. So, they walked the streets of Perth and found a Chinese restaurant that was one of the few still open at that hour. As they ate, the legend told Mr Ganguly he did not deserve to be in the team. On another occasion, Sanjay Manjrekar, who recently came out with a book documenting his own troubles, called Mr Ganguly to his room and gave him the tongue-lashing of his life. Mr Ganguly could not speak a word, and still wonders what that was about.
He was picked for that tour as a batsman who could bowl a bit. In the first month, he became a bowler who could bat a bit. By the end of the second month, he was a net bowler helping the batsmen practise. By this time, he stopped carrying a bat in his kit bag. “After all, what was the point?”
Mr Ganguly had not picked up a bat properly in two months when he was suddenly told that he was in the team to play the West Indies in a one-day game. So, he ran to the dressing room, caught hold of Venkatapathy Raju, the left-arm spinner, and begged him for some throwdowns.
That could scarcely have prepared him for his baptism to international cricket: Three wickets fell quickly and Mr Ganguly walked in to face Malcolm Marshall, the most fearsome fast bowler of his era. When it was India’s turn to bowl, Mr Ganguly was not given a single over, and got no more games on the tour. He waited four years to play for India again.
Unfortunately, the poignance of an outcast’s rise to beloved leader is missing from this book. In recent times, the bar for honest autobiographies by athletes has been set high by Andre Agassi’s Open. Sure, Mr Ganguly’s story lacks the drama of Mr Agassi’s life, replete with drugs, actresses, and a perspective that saw his tennis career as a prison from which he kept trying to escape for 30 years. But, there are flashes: Mr Ganguly’s changing equations with Mr Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, Mr Tendulkar as a gossipmonger, the match-fixing cloud over Indian cricket, his dealings with Shah Rukh Khan (a let-down as a chapter title), managing Shoaib Akhtar, and many others. But, the strokes of Mr Ganguly’s pen are no match for his bat’s melody.
A Century is Not Enough: My Roller-coaster Ride to Success, Sourav Ganguly with Gautam Bhattacharya, Juggernaut
258 pages; Rs 699