Monday, January 17, 2011

Big Brother Batting

"Some felt he couldn't play the bouncer, others swore that he was God on the off-side" – thus begins Sourav Ganguly's bio on Cricinfo.

And for reasons other than intended, it characterises opinions about the man to perfection. As in most of the myths and legends built around this one of a kind cricketer, both these assertions are glorified half truths at two extremes of criticism.

Sourav Ganguly, because of a combination of several parameters, tends to polarise opinions and drive them to the limits of positive and negative axes, till the facts themselves become too dispersed for conclusion. The man himself often got – and still gets – lost somewhere between hyperboles and sarcasms. Delving through the piles of chronicles documented by the media and others for worshipping fan following and sceptic naysayers, it is often difficult to derive the true quality of the player and the leader. The figures too get hidden by the emotional outpourings, much as the player himself often took the backseat with the palpating heart he wore on his sleeve frequently taking charge of the proceedings.

Let me come back to the initial statements.

He was indeed distinctly uncomfortable against the short ball – a well known chink in his armour, and a gaping one. Often, when the wicket offered bounce, batting for him turned into a game of Russian roulette. The moment the rule changed to 2 permissible bouncers per over at the turn of the century, the southpaw changed from a consistent, promising batsman to an eminently pedestrian one. However, one cannot score more than 7000 runs in test cricket without being able to play the bouncer at all. He struggled with it, looked clumsy during the negotiations, regularly succumbed to it – but did sometimes survive to score.

The second part of the statement is a similar half truth at the other end of the spectrum. Rahul Dravid had been impressed enough to utter his oft repeated quote about there being God followed by Sourav Ganguly on the off side. Though I am yet to see God essay a cover drive in the Garden of Eden, the essence of this statement remained true only for balls pitched up and struck between the cover point and mid off. Whenever he played finer and to balls shorter in length, often a very productive slash-steer through the gully area, he looked too streaky and fallible to be compared to the Almighty. The number of times the second gully or the deepish point came into play to bring about his demise is beyond count. He indeed looked heavenly when he drove through the covers, but when he walked back after  being caught in the offside cordon behind or square of the wicket, it was a drastic paradise lost as he and his fans were brought cruelly plummeting to earth.

 In trying to analyse his career, one has to separate emotions from facts, hyperboles from reportage, the captain from the batsman – and as we shall see, the on field captain from the off field one.

Even the statistics need to be finely stripped and scrutinised.

The batting career of the left hander can be broken up into 3 distinct segments. Pre captaincy days which coincided with the one bouncer per over rule. The captaincy days leading to his unceremonious omission. And finally his second wind – a respectable return including some of his best innings.

Looking at figures at this juncture makes sense.
Overall he scored 7212 runs at 42.17 with 16 hundreds. Playing in an era when 50 is the new 40 of batsmanship, and in a batting line up densely packed with some of the greatest batsmen ever produced by India, these numbers are hardly remarkable. However,  Ganguly's importance to Indian cricket lies in very small part as a batsman.

Pre captaincy and pre bouncer days saw him play 35 tests, score a very decent 2505 runs at a creditable average of 45. With the new stalwarts of Indian middle-order starting to gather around the established genius of Sachin Tendulkar, it was definitely a phase when the fab four looked likely to take off. Sourav and Rahul seemed to have completed the groundwork for greatness while VVS was still stumbling along his selectorially challenged initial stretch of what was soon to become a very, very special path.

Then came the captaincy era coinciding with the two bouncers per over rule, when he fended every bowler of decent and not so decent pace, including Dillon and Kallis, off his face. During this period he played 53 matches, and scored 2716 runs at an average of 37, with 5 hundreds of which two came against Zimbabwe. The figures plumb further depths if one takes Zimbabwe and Bangladesh out of the equation. His larger than life image continued to be worshipped by fans – mainly from his state, but the truth was that the batting skills of the big brother of Indian cricket had declined alarmingly. His reign as captain remained successful – and we will discuss this later – but his performances during this period were put in very dark shade by Dravid , who during the same period scored 5732 runs at 65 with 16 hundreds, Sachin 4433 at 56 (13 hundreds), Laxman 3625 at 50 (6 hundreds)  and Sehwag  3709 at  52 (11 hundreds). While the well known human psychological anchoring continued to fib the fable of fab four, to the analytical, India were virtually playing half a batsman short. In the one day game too, there seemed to be alarming deterioration in his ability to play crucial knocks.
However, these failures to deliver with the bat were for long camouflaged by the 21 Test match victories, and the amazing run up to the final of the World Cup. And as was predictable to all but the man himself and his fans in denial, when the team stopped winning, the unproductive willow came under scanner and scrutiny, and when he was replaced at the helm, there was soon no longer a place for him in the team.

The final stretch is considered to be the redemption of the man – a back to basics approach when he demonstrated that his run scoring ability was not entirely defunct. Wiith Dravid's prolific form deserting him, at long last Sourav Ganguly could shine as one of the leading lights of the vaunted middle order. In the 25 Tests after his return, he scored 1991 runs full of character, at an average of 46 with 4 hundreds, of which only one was against Bangladesh. He looked solid, put a non-negotiable high price on his wicket, and strikingly, his rejuvenated bat doing almost all of the talking. Even as the fans and the vernacular media elevated his solid performances to the level of the second coming of their messiah, the man who during the first half of the decade had been the loud speaker of Indian cricket remained audibly silent.

In spite of the flashy start with two centuries in his first two Test matches, it was really towards the end of his career that Sourav Ganguly played some of his best innings. The 102 against Australia at Mohali and the 87 against South Africa in Kanpur during the last couple of years showed a face of the batsman his ardent worshippers had always imagined through expectant extrapolation, one that had never manifested itself earlier. This was the stolid batsman that may have ended up with a couple of more thousands under his belt and an average several notches higher. One cannot help but wonder whether India's climb to number one might have been faster if this had been the Sourav Ganguly batting with the rest of the Indian greats in their prime between 2000 and 2005. Would Indian cricket have been better served if an underperforming skipper had not continually walked in at number 5 ahead of a Laxman at his best?

Critics went further than that. Is not Sourav Ganguly the captain largely a figment of imagined greatness? With the removal of minnows did not his win-loss ratio tumble down to a modest 12-12 from an impressive 21-13? Does not Dhoni  sport a far better record while also averaging a lot more with the bat as captain, even when his main job is wicket keeping? Is not the image of his shirt waving triumph - forever lnked to the myth of his exceptional captaincy -  in a three-nation Natwest Trophy his only tournament win in a five year reign? Haven't his only series victories away from India come against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh - that too a depleted Zimbabwe?

Well, as with the rest of the legends surrounding the man, the story of his captaincy also drives people to extremes of opinions. While his run to the World Cup final is a milestone of unlimited pride for his followers, there are sceptics who point out that India's semi final opponent was Kenya and that under him the team never became the number one in Tests - in spite of the aging superstars of today being then in their prime, with the now retired additional fire-power of Srinath and Kumble. While ardent admirers give him all the credit for the transformation of Harbhajan Singh into a bowler of class, there are others who point out that he could never utilise a rare talent like Murali Karthik.

I have said already that Ganguly's contribution to Indian cricket goes much beyond his batting – which in spite of ending with a muffled bang remained pretty much an unfulfilled promise. While his captaincy record is indeed fluffed up with back to back tours of Zimbabwe and multiple encounters in Bangladesh, nevertheless his contribution was priceless at a critical juncture in the history of Indian cricket.
Ganguly's fan following stems from the qualities India love. Loud, passionate, melodramatic – the recipe for thousands of Bollywood blockbusters. And in the psyche of the traditional Indian fan, with glaring cinema posters forming the background of formative years, a hero is seldom expected to be subtle and is always someone who cannot be faulted. So, even when he is ousted after averaging in his 30s for over five years and 50 tests, there is public outrage and burning of effigies. When he comes back as a better batsman, it is not a result of the constructive time in domestic cricket to iron out the grotesque wrinkles that had crept into his batsmanship – it is all about proving Greg Chappel wrong. Even Harsha Bhogle, repeatedly reminded by experts that a batsman has go back to first class games to recover his form, kept publicly harping his doubts on the motivation required to drag oneself to a Siliguri Ranji outing after getting used to MCG, Lords and Durban. Ganguly the man had grown so much in stature that such ridiculously small endeavours became unthinkable. Lokendra Pratap Sahi, scathing in his criticism of Chappel, argued that 'icons' cannot be handled like mere mortals.

And this is what irritated the other section of cricket followers. When even a Sachin Tendulkar can reflect on his game and change his technique to come back a more prolific batsman, why should a separate yardstick be used for someone who consistently performed below par for nearly two third of his career.

Yet, it was the passion of the man, which had the unfortunate result in provoking insane public outrage and misguided burning of effigies, that ended up as the building block of what has made India the side it is today.

The cherished image of the man at the pinnacle is when he stands bare breasted on the pavilion of Lords, with the blue Indian jersey propelled by his adrenaline charged hands into fast and furious orbits around his ecstatic face. Another gesture which polarised fans into two diametrically opposite extremes of thought. The sophisticated followers would like to see a bat in his hand and not his own shirt, while for the frenzied fans, he had become a rock star to whose beat they gleefully stepped.

However, this was what Ganguly had set out to prove. If Flintoff has the audacity to do it in our backyard, so do I in your citadel, in your revered Mecca of cricket, in the sacred warehouse of all your traditions. India under him was no longer the talented, soft spoken pushovers. With the team building itself into a balanced, formidable and phenomenally talented group of cricketers, he provided the desperately needed missing spark. The spark to stand up against the global 'gamesmanship' which had long kept the nation down to a storehouse of fascinating talent reined in by the conventions of humility, respect and deference. What he did was to provide the threshold energy for the fetters of colonial decency and deference to be collectively broken through more than fifty years after independence.

What this meant was when Mike Dennes banned six Indian players for excessive appealing and ball tampering, the team was not ready to take it lying down irrespective of the so called British fairness associated with the decision. If the ICC believed that there were two sets of rules applicable on the field, manly gamesmanship of the honest young white lads that transformed into behaviour bringing the spirit of the game into disrepute when repeated by erstwhile colonies, if they could not lower their supercilious heads to look closely at the difference in the cultural texture of the subcontinent, Indians had developed the gall to stand up to it and divide the cricket world into two if necessary.

After the Mike Dennes affair, Steve Waugh commented that whatever Sachin Tendulkar had been doing with the ball had not looked good on TV. Sourav responded, "He should shut up and concentrate on Australian cricket." There had been no Indian captain of this drastic directness sans any sign of deference.

If an Australian captain had the noble privilege to engage in mental disintegration of opponents, Sourav Ganguly did have the pioneering Indian balls to be late for toss, dispute over the result of the flip of the coin and get permanently established under the fair skin of hitherto unchecked and unchallenged bullies. Never mind that he seldom managed to emulate Steve Waugh with the bat, his toungue matched him stroke for stroke.

When these mind games were transferred on field, however, the results were mixed. Whenever his dear friend from county cricket, Andrew Flintoff, walked out to bat in India, Ganguly perched himself under his nose at silly point, feet firmly placed on the nerves of the big allrounder, and yielded excellent results. However, during the tantalising decider against the Aussies in Chennai, on the final morning, attempting the same mental tactics, the captain promptly dropped two sitters at the same fielding position. Yes, often gamesmanship got better of the player, and subtle tactical brilliance on the pitch was often substituted by passionate palpitating heart dictating proceedings on the field. Yet, the amount of transformation he engineered could be excused the couple of goof ups.

Many argue that all the glory of his captaincy might have been washed away with the flow of champagne that the Aussies had stored up in the pavilion of the Eden Gardens had VVS and Rahul not come up with that unbelievable fight-back. True, the actual victory had hardly anything to do with his captaincy on the field. The previous match at Wankhede had been lost arguably because of poor bowling changes when Hayden and Gilchrist had been at the wicket at 99 for 5. In the decider he all but lost the match with two dropped catches and surprisingly careless batting in the second innings. But, when Indians vanquished the Aussies, it was as much due to the on-field brilliance of Laxman, Dravid, Sachin and Harbhajan as the contribution of Ganguly in reining in the mind games of the opponents, not mincing words in the press conferences and overturning all those traditions of hospitality and being the temperate gentleman that had for so many years held India to heroic performances in defeat.

A captain is as good as his team, but Ganguly went a step further by providing his bunch of brilliant people the luxury to concentrate on their trade. Sachin Tendulkar with his genius, Rahul Dravid with his consistency, VVS Laxman with his sublime skills, Anil Kumble with his metronomic match winning abilities engineered India into a powerhouse. None of them lost the image of the soft spoken gentlemen they were. What Sourav Ganguly ensured was that they were able to carry on their excellence while he slashed away at the evil tentacles of psychological manoeuvres of opponents which had earlier targeted the behavioural politeness of these performers to win the day through gamesmanship to start with an immense upperhand even before a ball was bowled. The new crop of talents, Sehwag and Harbhajan, who were nurtured by the big brother himself, showed a completely new facet of the Indian cricketer. They were as competitive and sometimes more proficient in mind games than their rivals. The team had learnt to give it back in kind as far as mental disintegration was concerned. Sourav's candid, unapologetic and articulate voice also thwarted another force that have had excellent success in keeping Indian success stories limited - that of the excellent homegrown domestic press. Crticisms now had a single point of contact off which they bounced back, the players just played to win.

While the fans, especially from the excitable Bengal who have had too few cricketing heroes, normally wax eloquent about Sourav Ganguly's captaincy record abroad, there are people who point out substantial holes in the numbers.
Why is it that his only true overseas series victories have come in Zimbabwe and Bangladesh? Why is it that India has lost series in West Indies, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and drawn against a much weaker England during his reign? People also point out that the Indian victory in Pakistan was largely engineered by Dravid, who led the side in the first two tests and scored 270 in the third. They also analyse mercilessly to point out that under Dravid, India won in West Indies and England, under Dhoni in Sri Lanka and New Zealand – things they never achieved under Ganguly. Is his captaincy record abroad an urban legend born in Kolkata, like so many stories about the man?

A closer look at statistics reveal 5 wins against 9 defeats in 21 away tests  if one eliminates Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, with poor results in New Zealand, South Africa and West Indies. India did not perform well under him overseas, irrespective of the spin put on the record by the media. It is true that under Dravid or Dhoni, India has been more successful on tours even when playing with weaker sides. However, again, the contribution of Sourav Ganguly lies not in the numbers, but somewhere else.

I have discussed the changes  in the mindset brought about by Dada during the two series against Australia and England at home. His contribution in this aspect was even more remarkable abroad. He always went overseas to win, even if the ultimate outcome not always turned out to be positive. In Australia, following a painfully predictable script, Indians were struggling in Brisbane, four wickets down, when Sourav put his head down to make 144. As with the rest of the achievements of this man, this innings also polarises opinion. There are his rooters who use this hundred to demonstrate his pedigree as a batsman who could handle pace and bounce, and there are analysts who point out that it was an Australia without Glen McGrath, Brett Lee and Shane Warne, with Nathan Bracken leading the bowling attack.

But the fact remains that Sourav Ganguly did stand there to pull India out of the mindset that Australia is synonymous to meek surrender. The test petered out to a draw. Dada was back in the pavilion with India at 87 for 4 chasing 555 in the second test. It was again VVS and Dravid who staged the second miraculous association to win it for India. Yet, at a vital point, Sourav had stood there with the bat and shown the world that things had changed.

People criticise his captaincy in the fourth test which allowed the match to slip away from a winning position, not enforcing a follow on, not attacking as much as required. People speak of unimaginative bowling changes and delayed declaration. But, India did come back with a shared series with the almighty Aussies down under.

With time, the character shown in that 144 faded and disappeared altogether from his batting. But, the process of transformation from poor tourists to conquerors had been started and he had been largely the man responsible for it.

India is a unique nation. With the outrageous amount of media and celebrity frenzy, with innumerable Television Channels and less than mediocre ex-cricketers featuring in pathologically perverted shows such as Match Ka Mujrim, captaincy is less of an honour and more of a living nightmare. There is no point in comparing performances of Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara, or even Shaun Pollock as captain with that of Sourav Ganguly. (Pollock indeed happens to average more than Sourav with the bat as a captain) India is a completely different ball game. While Nassir Hussain is all but nominated for knighthood because of losing a series in India by a margin of just 0-1, Tendulkar is criticised for scoring just 88, 103 and 90 in the same 3 test matches. The logic defying parameters of measurement and the heavy yellow pigmentation of journalism in this strange country has to be lived through to be believed. Tendulkar and Dravid average in their fifties as skippers, but they performed nowhere near their best while in the hot seat. Dilip Vengsarkar started with two centuries, but the toils of being the captain of a team touring the West Indies brought a premature end to his greatness as a batsman. During his second stint at the helm, Kapil Dev was a pale shadow of the wicket taking fast bowler that he had been in the early eighties. Mohammed Azharuddin managed the job with his batting blessed by a lacklustre attitude which has been coloured by scandal, and Sunil Gavaskar did spend a lot of troublesome time at the top with the peculiar psychological advantage of enjoying controversy. But, overall, captaining an Indian team is a handful, and a handful of red hot coal at that. Rahul Dravid acknowledged as much when he summarised the intense media focus as 'ridiculous'. Amidst all this, for a long, long while, Sourav Ganguly succeeded in ensuring that Indian cricket was insulated from these home grown recipes of disaster.

It did catch up with the southpaw when the team lost the home series to Australia in 2004, not really helped by his disastrous performances with the bat. Next the side relinquished the lead to Pakistan in a subsequent home series, as he struggled to come to terms with the innocuous leg spinners of Shahid Afridi. By then, he was in denial, unable to accept that something was terribly wrong with his batting. And when he was shown the door, neither was the dismissal handled with the minutest modicum of tact, nor did he have the sense to leave with dignity. The way the entire episode was carried out speaks unpleasant volumes about the structure and mindset of the Indian cricket administration and the flock of scavenging vultures that is the country’s media.

The sceptre changed hands, the big brother was banished to the deglamourised backwaters of domestic cricket. It speaks as much for the tenacity and skills of the man as for the ineptitude of replacements like Yuvaraj Singh and Suresh Raina that he came back stronger and performed commendably. Yet, to me, all that is a pleasing epilogue of his important contributions. He had played his major part already … during 2000 to 2004, teaching the Indian team to play with the intent to win. They were no longer supposed to smile politely as opposition teams and their ex-cricketers and journalists messed with their sensibilities, but at the slightest provocation were capable of giving them enough reason not to. As a newcomer, he had not pulled his verbal punches when four test wonders had lectured him about temperament. As captain, he ensured that his team was not only shielded from the self destructive avalanche of criticism that the Indian media and ex-players excel in, they could also tweak the publicity for their own purpose.

Indian cricket needs captains who are not supposed to be the best batsman or bowler in the team. Who can thus have the breathing space to deal with the bloodsucking combination of the corporate interest, scavenging media and hyper expectant fans so that the great names in the team can continue to perform and win matches. Perhaps that is why Dhoni is having a real run of success at the helm.

The question that rises naturally is whether Ganguly, in order to play that role, sacrificed himself as a player? Did we trade a great batsman to end up with a successful captain with a decent but unremarkable record with the bat?

Diehard fans would say his record is still remarkable, logical admirers would like to believe in the story of the sacrifice… but to me these questions make no sense. Was it the burden of captaincy or was it the two bouncer per over rule that transformed him as a batsman? Or was it a combination of both?
These lead to many more uncomfortable questions that cannot be answered.
Would Vinod Kambli, who played 14 matches and boasted an average of 54 with 4 hundreds, make more than 7000 and 16 hundreds if given a run for 100 more tests? What about Pravin Amre?
We can argue till cows come home, but we we will never know.

Lastly, I will not breathe even one word about the IPL circus that surrounds the man now. In the career of a major pillar of modern Indian cricket, IPL is less than a footnote or trivia. It is a joke. Jesse Owens ran against horses to earn his bread after his Olympic days. Does Sourav Ganguly need to run with the less than noble animals like the Lalit Modis and the film personalities? It is a personal choice, but not within the periphery of interest of a true 'cricket' fan.