Thursday, November 27, 2008

Homage to a fighter extraordinary

The mid eighties were the time when Bengal cricket was eagerly tracking around to find out its representative for the national arena, mostly controlled then by the Bombay lobby. Though Kolkata was famous for its football passion, cricket was not much behind – the city possessed Eden Gardens, a magnificent cricket ground which was also the oldest and biggest in the country, numerous clubs were trying to raise aspirant Bradmans, Trumpers or Larwoods in the vast stretch of the lush green maidan area. Local ‘para’ clubs regularly organized tennis ball cricket tournaments. By and large, the local cricket buffs fulfilled their appetite by involving themselves with devotional affection in this typical ‘goly’ (lane) form of cricket. One day matches (ODIs) were still not so popular and therefore a five day Test match in Eden Gardens was something like a festival. The lucky ones who had managed to grab a day’s ticket packed their lunch early in the morning and floated in the festive wind towards Eden Gardens. The unlucky ones had to keep themselves satisfied with the vernacular newspaper stories which used to devote their entire first page to cover the match and by the passionate radio commentaries. When Doordarshan started telecast Test cricket directly, there were fewer households that had a television set. Those houses which owned one, was invariably swamped by community visitors from 9 o’clock morning to afternoon till the days telecast was over. Fans crowded in front of the majestic Grand Hotel, where the cricketers generally stayed during Test matches to have a glimpse of the celebrity players. While Kolkata had every setting for cricket phobia – all the enthusiasm were falling short because the local heroes were unable to make any visible mark in the national side. After Pankaj Roy, Bengal couldn't produce a cricketer who could wear the India cap for a lengthy spell.

Snehashish Ganguly was a talented cricketer in the mid eighties Kolkata. The elder son of an affluent father – a printer by profession but also a onetime state player and widely known as a cricket enthusiast. Snehashish was a fine left-hander batsman and an occasional right-hand off break bowler. Cricket watchers of Kolkata held high expectation about this local lad. In the 1989-90 seasons, Snehashish played six Ranji Trophy matches, scored 439 runs with two centuries and finished with an average of 73.16. Apart from his father, Snehashish also had an ardent follower in his family – his younger brother Sourav. When Sourav also started playing alongside him in the Bengal team, people used to identify Sourav as the younger brother of Snehashish.

From formation days Sourav was blamed for his arrogance. His teammates of St. Xavier’s School cricket team complained against him to their coach. He grew up in an opulent dwelling where his father had arranged an in-house multi-gym, a batting range and rare cricket videos to watch – a facility most of the budding cricketers seldom get. He was picked for the Bengal team in 1989-90 after his initial stint in the Under 15 tournament where he smashed a century against Orissa. In the next Ranji Trophy season Sourav scored 394 runs with an astonishing near eighty average. In a 1991 Duleep Trophy match against West Zone in Guahati, Sourav hit a tidy knock of unbeaten 124 runs and earned a place in the Indian team under Mohammad Azharuddin for the 1991-92 Australia tour. Quite naturally, his inclusion was ridiculed as a quota selection. Sourav was then 19 years old.

In Australia, Sourav was accused for behaving like a spoilt brat, like a ‘maharaja’ who refused to carry the drinks or baggage of his seniors. Those were the times when a junior member in the side felt obliged to do petty services for the senior members to gratify them. Sourav was definitely not a conventional junior member though there are absolutely no proofs at all that he was ever disrespectful about his seniors. An 'attitude problem' tag was stuck on him from the very beginning of his career. He played one ODI, scored only 3, and failed to impress the selectors for the next four years. Keeping in mind the past treatments delivered to other Bengal players of class – from Shyamsundar Mitra to Sambaran Bannerjee by an extremely politicized and parochial selection process, many considered that Sourav’s international career was finished. But Sourav didn’t think so. The bitter experience of this tour tempered him bit by bit into steel. He had also acquired some basic lessons that he will start implementing eight years later.

His inclusion to the Indian side touring England in 1992 was similarly credited to Jagmohan Dalmiya – the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) strongman from Bengal and the newly emerged Bengal lobby. After the departure of Navjot Singh Sidhu following an ugly spat with captain Azharuddin, Sourav was lucky enough to play his first Test at the Mecca of world cricket – The Lords. The Sourav myth that will rule the mind of millions for the next sixteen years was launched here with a classy 131 and the subsequent century in the next Trent Bridge Test. From 1992 onwards people referred to Snehashish as the elder brother of Sourav. Though Snehashish played 59 first class matches with a near forty average and made 6 centuries, he gradually faded away from the cricket scene.

There is nothing unknown to cricket followers about the controversial career graph of Sourav. The public opinions and emotions about him were always sharp and divided all through his career. But there is a general consensus about one aspect – that this young man had singlehandedly changed the way our national cricket team played its cricket. Only with the exception of the Tiger Pataudi era, the Indian cricket team was universally recognized for its meek and surrendering approach. Indian cricket was mostly observed to follow the achievements of individuals – not for the achievements of a team. Sourav transformed Indian team into a rock solid unit, with a combative and thorny approach which caused lots of uneasiness for many opponent super captains. What cricket journalist Harsha Bhogle observed as the basic persona of Sourav also became the identity of the team he led – not rude and disrespectful but defiant and increasingly confident. This changeover was achieved with a one point strategy that he had picked up from personal experiences of his first tour – nurture young talents, trust their ability and protect them from the parochial trends that have always influenced Indian team building. By doing so, Sourav turned the younger players into daring fighters who in return trusted him deeply. For the next five years after he was named the full-time captain, India played 49 Tests, lost 13 and won 21 which include the 11 wins abroad. Tiger Pataudi, considered by many as India’s finest captain, led in 40 Tests, lost 19 and won 9 including 3 wins abroad. Sunil Gavaskar led in 47 Tests, won 9 and Mohammad Azharuddin captained in 47 Tests and won 14 of them. As a captain, Sourav achieved a winning percentage of 42.86 in Tests and 51.70 in ODIs. In both form of the game Sourav surpassed the achievements of all previous Indian captains.

In his 16 years of international career, Sourav scored 7217 Test runs including 16 centuries with an average of 42.17 and took 32 wickets. He scored 11363 runs in the ODIs including 22 centuries with an average of 41.02 and took 100 wickets. Among those who have scored over 10000 runs in the one day matches, only Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting has a better average than him.

Even after these spectacular successes, Sourav always had to be ‘reselected’ as captain before every series. He was finally sacked in 2005 – first from captaincy and then as a member of the squad. Greg Chappell, the newly appointed coach of the Indian team gradually surfaced to be a manipulative and megalomaniac individual, pooled himself along with the animus administrators like Kiran More and Raj Singh Dungarpur (Dungarpur famously said at that time that, “Chappell is a genius; Sourav is much below him in stature”) and was successful in getting rid of Sourav. Chappell only wanted docile players to maneuver his crummy scheme and his Indian henchmen had to accomplish their personal aversion agenda. Thankfully, it did not take long to prove that Chappell is a total failure. After the disastrous 2007 World Cup performance of India, the scratchy Australian was duly removed from his job. Whereas Sourav, within less than a year after his removal astoundingly bounced back into the team in 2007. He returned with a 98 run ODI score against West Indies, became the top scorer with 534 runs and Man of the Series in the three-Test series against Pakistan. Surprisingly omitted from the ODI side, he scored nearly 2000 Test runs including a double century. He had to prove a point. And he did it in style.

If Sourav had ended his career as soon as he was sacked, he would have been still called a ‘hero’, but apparently a tragic one. History would have looked at him through the ‘great-good-error-downfall’ model of the Aristotelian ‘tragic hero’. But Sourav cannot tend to carry the ‘tragic’ tag along with him for the rest of his life. He has imprinted his own destiny through hard struggle, absolute determination, great courage and outstanding achievements. He has always seized the public imagination as the eternal symbol of the good combating the bad. Why should he like to see his feat as tragic? After the dignified manner in which he drew the final curtain, history will always recall Sourav not as a tragic but a true hero. He leaves behind the legacy of an extraordinary fighter and a wonderful leader who can proudly recall about his team that, “…I know, even when I get it wrong, that my team believes I was wrong in trying to be right.”