The dawn of the new millennium saw Indian cricket crumble to an all-time low. Cricket in the country was torn apart in pieces. The integrity of players and the team was frowned upon in suspicion. Big players like Mohammad Azharuddin, Ajay Jadeja, Manoj Prabhakar and one Test-old Ajay Sharma were banned for involvement in match-fixing. One of India’s greatest cricketers, Kapil Dev even broke down on national television saying that, “I feel ashamed that I played cricket,” after his name was dragged in the match-fixing scandal.
Even Sachin Tendulkar was not ready to lead the side. It was the darkest phase in Indian cricket. Indian fans who worship the sport as a religion were in shock of their life. Everyone was confused -- who is right and who isn’t, who is playing honestly and who isn’t, whom to believe and whom not to? Everything was clouded.
But one man, by the name of Sourav Chandidas Ganguly, came to the fore, ready to take over the thorny reins of the Indian team, when it was badly searching for someone to bring back the lost faith to the sport in the country. And from there began one of the most successful chapters of Indian cricket, which was nothing less than a fairy-tale. The faith was restored and the love for the game got strengthened in the country.
Indians were always seen as the face of ‘Lions at home and Lambs abroad’, but Sourav Ganguly instilled a tremendous level of self-belief in a talented yet directionless team to roar in overseas conditions. From players who were epitomized as the poster boys of ‘tehzeeb’, he turned them into a bunch of players who played a fearlessly hard brand of cricket without ever forgetting or compromising on their tehzeeb.
He gave the greatest gift any captain can give to his team -- he believed in them. From making the Aussie skipper wait to waving his shirt at the Lord’s balcony, he did things which no other Indian captain did. The tag, 'Bengal Tiger' was not only for the sake of his origin, but he showed his lion-heartedness on the field as well.
If unsettling opponents is an art, then Sourav Ganguly was the master of it. He was the last man with whom you would ever want to mess. He gave it right back on the face. He never shied away from speaking his mind and wore his heart on his sleeves. He taught India the culture of tit-for-tat and the nice guys no longer took shit from anyone.
Sourav not only spoke, but delivered and led by example as well. Ganguly’s gutsy century in the 1st Test of the 2003/04 series at Brisbane -- one of the toughest Aussie decks -- set the tone for the series and also infused a belief in the changing room that Indians can bat as well as the Aussies or even better at their place and in front of their people. One of the most successful captains in cricket history, Steve Waugh once said that, “When you see an Indian side with Ganguly in the lineup, you know its game on. You don't have to like or dislike him. You have to respect him.”
From defeating the invincible Aussies in 2001 to the epic 2002 NatWest final win to reaching the 2003 World Cup final to almost winning the 2003/04 Test series Down Under to beating arch-rivals, Pakistan at their kingdom for the first time, Sourav’s leadership changed Indian cricket and its image all over.
Ganguly and the art of spotting and backing talent
Indian greats like MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, and Zaheer Khan are by-products of his captaincy. He had the knack of unearthing rare diamonds and once he saw something special in a player, he would back him to the hilt and didn’t even hesitate to fight out the selectors for his players. And all his players justified his faith in them as well.
Sourav created a culture where players were pursued for their potential and meticulous efforts than merely the results. 'Dada' fought with selectors for Bhajji in 2001 for the home series against Australia, backed Dhoni ahead of Karthik for the 2005 home series against Pakistan and what happened next in is history.
The former skipper even sacrificed his opening position for Sehwag in white-ball cricket and made him open in Tests even though Viru insisted on batting in middle order. Dada backed him and affirmed that even if he fails as an opener, he will not be dropped and be slotted back to the middle order somehow. Sehwag blasted 84 in 2002 Lord’s Test and, as they say, the rest is history.
Ganguly had also compelled selectors to include Anil Kumble in the Indian team for the 2003-04 Australia tour when they were in favour of picking a left-arm spinner. Ganguly has also shared about this incident in the past saying, “I told John if you leave Anil, he may not play for India again. I said I am not going to sign the selection sheet till Anil is in the side.
"The selectors got fed up with me and said if I don’t play well, if the team does not play well and if Kumble does not play well, I will be the first person to go before anyone goes. I said fine, I am ready to take that risk and we will see what happens.”
In that series, Anil Kumble turned out to be the leading wicket-taker.
Yuvraj Singh once famously said that, “I can die for such a captain,” while Sehwag said that “Ganguly sacrificed the opening slot for me, made me Test cricketer." Harbhajan affirmed, “Sourav stood by me when I was struggling. I owe a great deal to him for standing by me at the most important time. He is the one who made it possible for me to return to the team. I can't express my gratitude for him in words."
These quotes exhibit the kind of relationship Sourav shared with his players.
Ganguly: An excellent batsman too
Ganguly’s captaincy overshadowed his credentials as a batsman.
Regarded as the god of off-side, Dada was a blend of touch and power. Like a magician, he could just provide that conjuring touch to the ball on the off-side and the ball would race past the ropes. When it came to spinners, his famous dance down the track not to hit spinners over the ropes but out of the ground made up for his signature ‘Dadagiri’ stroke. Who can forget his mighty sixes against Zimbabwe at Sharjah that cleared the roof thrice in the space of a few overs?
In 1996, the Prince of Kolkata announced his Test arrival in ‘Maharaja’ style at the Mecca of cricket, where he carved his name on the Lord’s honours board with a majestic ton on debut. The southpaw is the third highest run-scorer for India. He has 18,575 international runs at an average of 41 with 38 tons and 107 half-centuries and is the 12th highest run-scorer of all time in international cricket history. Especially in 50-overs format, he is regarded as one of the best batsmen. He is the only ODI player to have won four consecutive Man-of-the-Match awards. Notably, his average never dipped below 40 in red-ball cricket.
Dada never believed in giving up
The Kolkata-born Ganguly ebbed to an all-time low in 2005 after the fall-out with the then coach, Greg Chappell and was axed from the side. When it seemed in all likelihood that the left-hander was past his prime and his career was finished, he proved his detractors wrong yet again. Dada smashed runs in domestic cricket and made a sparkling comeback to the Indian team. In 2007, he stroked 1,000 runs each in ODIs and Tests respectively and was the leading run-scorer (2,346) overall in the calendar year.
In 2008, Ganguly was adjudged the 'Asian Cricketer' and the 'Asian Batsman of the Year' at the Castrol Asian Cricket Awards. Like a phoenix from the ashes, he rose back from almost a dead end on the back of his determination, dedication, and fierce fighting skills to get back to his pinnacle.
Ganguly even hung up his boots on his own terms. He bowed out from international cricket on a high and scored 324 runs at an average of 54 against Australia in his career finale in the 2008/09 victorious home series.
However, Dada polarized opinions like noone else during his days. Many considered him as a batsman who couldn’t play short balls while many made mockery of his poor athleticism on the field. Many called him uncourteous, stubborn and arrogant as well. Yet, he is loved by millions, if hated by hundreds.
Life after cricket
After quitting international cricket, he has been an active part of the administration. Nowadays, Ganguly is heading the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB). His work as the CAB president has been hailed by one and all as he has revamped Eden Gardens for the good.
He is also seen in the commentary box at times. Ganguly also boasts the experience of working as the BCCI Technical committee chairman. Sourav has also turned out to be an active member of various advisory committees of BCCI and has continued to give back to the game in as many ways as possible.
Sourav Ganguly is the pride of India. The nation will always remember him as a game-changer who took India to places. He redefined aggression in the country and inspired and influenced a generation with his bull-headed confidence. He might well have retired from the game, but will never retire from our hearts. You can either love him or hate him but can never ignore him.