November 18, 2008

The Dark Knight

It has been a very long time, exactly 7 months to be precise. Along with great changes in the cricketing world there were also personal changes which made me stay away from my blog. Something which I am very regretful about is not being able to write about the events in the IPL, which I can hopefully cover in brief in a later post. There were also the Kitply Cup, the Asia Cup and India’s tour of Sri Lanka. While we lost in the finals of the Kitply Cup and the Asia Cup, we won the ODI series in Sri Lanka after having lost the 3 test match series against the same team 2-1. The recently concluded Border-Gavaskar Trophy (India vs. Australia test series) and the ongoing India-England ODI series will also be covered in the near future.

As all of you know, two of India’s cricket greats called it a day during the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. While Sourav Ganguly announced his retirement before the start of the series, Anil Kumble retired immediately after the third test which was held at New Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium, which is the same stadium in which Kumble took an amazing 10/74 against Pakistan in 1999. In this post I will cover Sourav Ganguly, not only because he is my favourite Indian cricketer but also because of the man’s enigmatic approach to the game.

Let’s rewind back to 1996, when a young Ganguly made his test debut along with Rahul Dravid in the second test at Lord’s, the Mecca of cricket, in a 3 test match series during India’s tour of England. India had to salvage its pride after having been comprehensively beaten in the first test. Ganguly, who made his ODI debut in Australia in 1992, knew it was his only opportunity for making it big as after his ODI debut he had been languishing for 4 long years. He came into bat when India was in a precarious position and with Dravid set up a partnership which helped India draw the match. While Dravid was unfortunate to fall in the 90s, Ganguly hammered a graceful 131, which till date remains the highest score by an Indian on test debut. He also hit a century in the next test and was awarded the Man of the Series. The man from Kolkata was on a roll.

These powerful performances also helped him get a place in the ODI side and soon he was the opening batsman. He, along with Sachin Tendulkar went on to become what was unarguably the finest and most destructive opening combination in the history of ODIs. In the 1999 World Cup, he played one of the finest ODI knocks ever against Sri Lanka at Taunton. He scored a brilliant 183 against an attack which had the likes of Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas. Dravid, who scored 145, partnered Ganguly in a massive 318 run stand. It was the first time out of two instances when an ODI partnership has gone beyond 300. (Dravid was involved in the other one as well) Ganguly’s 7 sixes in the match were all massive especially one of Muralitharan, which he hit out of the ground. His innings is India’s the second highest score in World Cup history and was then the highest individual score by an Indian in ODIs.

In 1999-2000, Mohd. Azharuddin and Tendulkar were unsuccessful captains in the 1999 World Cup and India’s tour of Australia. After losing to being whitewashed 2-0 by the touring South Africans is February 2000, Tendulkar relinquished captaincy. Ganguly was appointed as captain and he led India to a 3-2 ODI series victory against the South Africans. But the problems were far from over as the match-fixing scandal left Indian cricket in tatters. Ganguly had a tough task as India failed in the Asia Cup 2000, winning only a single game, against minnows Bangladesh, a match in which Ganguly scored an unbeaten 135. After a break of four months or so, India had its next tournament in October 2000; it was the ICC Knockout Trophy in Kenya, also known as the “Mini” World Cup. India’s team ranking in ODIs was so low that it had to play a pre-quarter final against Kenya while teams like Australia were in the quarter final without having played a match. For the tournament, Ganguly decided to field two newcomers- Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan. As expected, India won their fixture against Kenya and though Yuvraj didn’t get to bat, Zaheer got 3 wickets, which was a decent first outing. India’s opponent in the quarter final was Australia, which was the highest ranked team even then. India batted first and after a solid opening stand of 50+ by Tendulkar and Ganguly, India faltered. 19 year old Yuvraj came in to bat for the first time at the international stage and he was facing the mighty Aussies but that didn’t seem to stop him from hammering 84. This superb knock was followed by his brilliant fielding with two great diving catches and a superb direct throw to account for Michael Bevan, who is still regarded one of the finest finishers in ODIs. That, along with another wonderful bowling performance by Zaheer helped India defeat the Aussies and reach the semi final where they had to face South Africa. Ganguly led from front in the semi final against the Proteas as he played one of his greatest knocks, an unbeaten 143. I still remember the way he treated Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock and Nicky Boje- pure class. India thrashed the South Africans but lost the final to New Zealand despite a wonderful 117 by Ganguly, who along with Tendulkar had yet another century stand for the first wicket.

In 2001, Steve Waugh’s Aussie “Invincibles” came to India for a 3 match test series after having won 15 consecutive tests, just 2 short of beating West Indies’ record of 16 consecutive wins. India was thrashed in the first test at Mumbai and Australia were level with the West Indies on the record front. The second test was played at one of the world’s finest cricket stadiums which without a doubt is also India’s best- the Eden Gardens in Kolkata. Australia started pretty strongly till another of Ganguly’s “recruits”- off-spinner Harbhajan Singh took an astonishing hat-trick, the first by an Indian in tests. That, however, didn’t stop Steve Waugh from scoring a century and helping the Aussies cross 400. When India came out to bat, the Australian bowlers produced a stellar bowling display and the Indians could only score 171 with V.V.S. Laxman scoring 59. India had followed-on and was sent into bat again in the third day. A loss looked imminent. Ganguly and Laxman had a good partnership and when Ganguly fell after having scored 48, the scoreboard read 232/4 and Dravid came out to bat. Laxman had scored his century by the end of the day’s play. What happened on the fourth day was something that nobody would have expected. Laxman and Dravid scripted one of test cricket’s greatest batting revivals and didn’t get out for the entire day! By the time they got out the next day, Laxman had scored 281 which was then the highest score by an Indian in test while Dravid scored a solid 180. While the entire country was heaving a sigh of relief as the match would now be draw, Ganguly decided to declare with the score being 657/7. The entire nation was shocked. People were wondering why any captain would declare when the match was headed towards a draw, a result which would not only stop the rampaging Aussies but also save the Indians the humiliation of a loss. The total was something the Aussies could easily chase down and cricket fans were extremely annoyed with Ganguly for declaring so that the Aussies could win. However, they didn’t know that the Indian skipper had other ideas.

The events that transpired over the next two sessions of play that day were absolutely magical. The way Ganguly maneuvered Harbhajan and Tendulkar to pick wickets was amazing. India won the test and hearts all over. It was just the second time in a long time that a team had won after following-on. India also won the third test in Chennai. Sourav Ganguly had done the seemingly impossible task of beating the best team in the world by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. It wasn’t only his on-field tactics that shook the Aussies. He walked out late for the toss and, if he won it, he would walk off on his own after letting the TV interviewer know what India choose to do. Once, after being pulled up by the match referee, he turned up five minutes before the toss- in his tracksuit top. Steve Waugh writes in his book, "You had to give him an 'A' for effort in his attempt to annoy us, and in particular me. It worked to a certain extent." That was the series which gave rise to the “Big 4” theory. The Legend of Sourav Ganguly had only just begun.

The same year, Ganguly scored a superb 98 not out to guide India to its first test series win in Sri Lanka. England came to India in December 2001 and were beaten 1-0 in a three match test series. This was followed by a 6 match ODI series. India had the advantage being 3-1 up in 4 matches. England, however, put up commendable performances to tie the series 3-3. The last game which was played at Mumbai saw India chasing 256. Ganguly scored a wonderful 80 but his dismissal triggered a collapse and when Javagal Srinath was last man out while there were 6 to get in 2 balls, the bowler who got the wicket- Andrew Flintoff went berserk and pulled his shirt off. Ganguly didn’t like that one bit.

In July 2002, India reached the final of the Natwest tri-series in England. The third team involved was Sri Lanka. The final was between India and England and India had to chase a huge 321 at Lord’s. Ganguly opened with Virender Sehwag who for once had to see Ganguly hammer the bowlers. The massive six which he hit over cover off Flintoff’s bowling is still on my mind. India knocked the first 100 runs in very quick time. Just when things were looking good, Ganguly fell to Alex Tudor for 60 in just 43 balls. India kept losing wickets till Yuvraj built up a partnership with another of Ganguly’s men- Mohd. Kaif. The two of them especially Kaif tormented the English bowlers and India won in the last over of the match. Ganguly went crazy in the pavilion and ripped his shirt off to celebrate the moment and in his excitement forgetting the fact that he was at Lord’s, a ground which makes the game of cricket divine, the very same one on which Kapil Dev’s men won the 1983 World Cup. This is what Sidharth Monga of Cricinfo says about the incident, “Indians, not the least Bengalis, are supposed to be studious, meek, wristy, oriental artists. They are not supposed to make opposition captains wait at the toss, make fielders tie their shoelaces and, worst of all, sledge. There the Indian captain is, at Lord's, no less, waving the shirt he wore a moment ago, shouting four-letter words again and again. With Ganguly, India's aggression goes naked, one of the turning points in the nation's cricketing history.

That day a new cricket team was born, the team which went on to be called “The Men in Blue” and “Team India”, a new breed of players who along with their captain became the toast of the nation.

The Natwest series was followed by the famous Headingley test in which India won against England by an innings. It was probably the only match in which all three- Dravid, Ganguly and Tendulkar scored centuries. Ganguly and Tendulkar, in particular went crazy towards the end of the second day. With light fading, it is usually the batsmen who want to go back, but these two hit the bowlers all over the park and after numerous complaints from the bowlers, the umpires called it stumps when they too couldn’t see the ball. Geoffrey Boycott called it “Murder in the Dark”

India was a troubled team after a bad tour of New Zealand while they went to play the 2003 vWorld Cup in South Africa. This affected their performance in their first two league games- against Holland and then Australia. While we won the match against Holland despite a batting failure, we were thrashed by Australia. After this, all hell broke loose back in India. Effigies of Ganguly were burnt, Mohd. Kaif’s house was attacked and many other incidents on similar lines took place and these went on to show to the cricketing community how “Cricket Crazy” the nation was. Ganguly’s men had to pull up their socks and what followed after these two losses was absolute carnage especially on the batting front with Tendulkar and Ganguly flourishing. While Tendulkar ended the tournament as its highest run getter and got the Man of the Tournament award, Ganguly scored 3 centuries to be the second highest run scorer. India won every match until the final frontier- the final, which was against Australia, who won their second consecutive World Cup.

When India toured Australia in December 2003, Ganguly was a much hated man in Australia because of his tactics to annoy their team. One major weakness of Ganguly while batting was his inability to face the short ball. There was a time when he could play these deliveries but then he had lost the knack for doing so. The first test was played at the Gabba in Brisbane, one of the fastest pitches in the world and also one which generated a lot of bounce. Australia batted first and were bowled out for 323 after being 262/2 at one stage. India started well but lost three quick wickets, including Dravid and Tendulkar in the space of four balls from Gillespie. In walked Ganguly, carrying a history of grief against the quick stuff, to face the test of his life. His first scoring shot was an edged three to third man, and he swished and missed once against Gillespie a couple of overs later. But for the next few hours there were fours hit all around the wicket, there were sizzling drives and cuts, neat deflections to the leg, and swivelled pulls to balls that were dug into his ribs. It was a gutsy, stirring, emotion- filled hundred, which took the Australians by surprise. Ganguly had been identified as a soft target but, when he was sixth out, India led by six runs and the entire stadium rose to salute him. Sambit Bal writes, “Not only the Australian team, the whole nation, it seems, is after him, and this is test of the captain's mettle. The innings has it all- urgency, emotion, disdain- and sets the pace for the series.” India and Australia tied the four test match series 1-1.

2004 was a year which saw the beginning of the end of Ganguly. After he dropped out of the squad for the Nagpur test at the last minute, people assumed he did so because of the fast and bouncy track that awaited him. India went on to lose the match as the Aussies won their first test series in India after a long time. By mid-2005, his internal skirmish with the then coach Greg Chappell became well known and Ganguly was unceremoniously dropped from the national side and Dravid was made the captain. For the next year or so, the man struggled to prove himself and when he was called back, India were in dire straits after being whitewashed by South Africa at home in the ODI series. The one word that describes the Ganguly who has made a comeback to the Indian side is serene. Batsmen were falling around him, but Ganguly scored a fluent half century and India, inspired by the return of the prodigal son, went on to win the match.

After the failure in World Cup 2007, Dravid resigned from the skipper’s post although there was a good tour of England in between and Anil Kumble was made the test captain. In the meantime, a Ganguly selection called Mahendra Singh Dhoni led a young and resurgent Indian outfit to victory in the ICC World Twenty20 2007 and Dhoni was promptly made the captain of the ODI side. Ganguly had a decent ODI series against Australia but faltered against Pakistan. He, however, had no idea that it was to be his last ODI series ever.

The test matches with Pakistan were, however, a different story. India’s 1-0 win in the three match series was all about Ganguly’s batting. He played superbly and scored two centuries including his maiden double hundred, a magnificent 239 which was scored after India was in trouble at 61/4 in the third test at Bangalore. He scored a brilliant 91 in the second innings. It was the most number of runs made by an Indian in a match i.e. 330. At that time, a popular statement going around was, “If Sourav Ganguly is in form, there's no point bowling to him.” He was deservingly given both- the Man of the Match as well as the Man of the Series. Even his tour to Australia wasn’t all that bad. Sadly, he was dropped from the ODI team and his position in tests was also under scrutiny. This, despite the fact that he had mustered 1200+ forms in both forms of the game in 2007.

He scored a brilliant 87 in the Kanpur test against South Africa, to help India tie the series 1-1. He also was quite successful as a batsman in the IPL hitting three superb half centuries but after a failure in the Sri Lanka series, he was dropped from the Irani Cup (the last Ranji trophy winner- Delhi against the Rest of India) side although he did play better than Tendulkar and Dravid. Finally, not being able to take it anymore, Ganguly announced his retirement in October this year saying that the test series against Australia would be his last.

There was a lot to look forward to considering it was the man’s last series and he didn’t disappoint. Scored a century in the Mohali test and 85 in the first innings of his last test- the one at Nagpur, the very same place where his decline began and against the very same opposition. Sadly, he scored a golden duck in the second innings and that didn’t make people mock him! Instead, people respected him even more by comparing him to the legendary Sir. Donald Bradman who also ended his career with a duck. As a mark of respect, Mahendra Singh Dhoni who was made the test captain after Kumble retired at the end of the Delhi test, gave Ganguly the captaincy in the dying moments of the game on November 10, exactly 10 years after he first captained India in a test match. What better tribute could the man, who according to Damien Fleming, “triggered the rivalry between India and Australia and took it to a whole new level.” Get? “If you see the series in India in 2001 and in Australia two years later, he gave it back to the champions with his shrewd captaincy,” said Fleming. The series win is an example of how one man’s passion changes the way a team plays. It was the best possible exit for Dada, who ended the series as its seventh highest run scorer with 324 runs at an impressive average of 54.

It was the end of the career of a cricketer who was considered the “God of the off side” and was one of the most inspirational leaders of all time, one who reinvented the squad and gave us players like Sehwag, Gambhir, Yuvraj, Harbhajan, Pathan, Zaheer and Dhoni. His records- both as a batsman and a captain speak volumes for themselves as Peter Roebuck writes, “If Anil Kumble was the colossus, Sachin Tendulkar the champion, Rahul Dravid the craftsman, VVS Laxman the sorcerer, then Ganguly was the inspiration.” He also writes, “Throughout he (Ganguly) has toyed with his fate, tempting it to turn its back on him so that once again he could surprise the world with a stunning restoration. Something in him rebelled against the mundane and the sensible. He needed his life to be full of disasters and rescues This is what Ganguly said about his last innings duck, "I don’t know whether one duck made my career more dramatic. It was dramatic in any case."

Thus ended the career of Indian cricket’s Dark Knight- a player who was loved and hated in almost equal measure. Cricinfo’s commentary after his dismissal summarizes his career, “A super career has come to an end. Hundred on debut, golden duck in the end…A rainbow in between. Dada, the most fascinating modern Indian cricketer, has played his last innings.


Zafar Baig said...

the man was a true genius...some players live on as legends even if they are never considered so..he is one of those few...

kunal said...

Many believe that Sourav was a far greater player than even Tendulkar, and I am one of them. Being very underistimated was a part of his career.

KarmaKounts said...

Way tooo nervous..... chanting in my head "I'm a cricket retard" even as i write this (plus the earlier comments are not exactly my confidence boosters),but for what its worth - You really know your stuff! *in awe*
And in contravention of strict personal tradition I actually read through a cricket column for the first time without becoming comatose in the starting few lines. So brilliant!!! :)

live score said...

Well this year 2012 is really turning out to be a great loss for the cricketing world as a lot of legends have retired from the international or domestic cricket like Brett Lee,Mark Boucher, and now Ricky Ponting so it seems like the end of the world for cricket and as far as Indians are concerned a lot of their legends have retired too.