After Kumble's retirement, I thought I'll bid goodbye to goodbye posts till Sachin hangs up his boots. But, yesterday after watching India's second innings, during which Ganguly got out for a golden duck, that thought changed completely. He slowly walked back, before which he was seen looking up to the heavens, which no one was sure whether it was a thank you gesture or asking God "why not one last chance?". Then for about 30 minutes, he sat there in the pavilion with a face that conveyed myriad emotions and with his pads still on. He has certainly mellowed with age. And certainly he has become more mature compared to his aggressive earlier days. Nobody knows what he was thinking then. He might've been reliving his glory days on the field, of which this was not one. Or he might've been thinking about the tomorrow when he won't wear the Indian cap any more. But whatever he was thinking then, the average Indian cricket fan had only one thought in mind, a thought of gratitude to a man who gave a new direction to the sport in India.
After the era of Azhar and Sachin's not so great experience with captaincy, the mantle fell on Ganguly. He brought in several youngsters like Yuvraj, Harbhajan, Sehwag etc and started building a team for the future. He guided them in such a way that he instilled in them some of his own qualities. This change was evident in that epochal series against Australia when India, playing in Ganguly's home ground, made an improbable comeback and went on to win the series. That was when the legend of Dada was born. He really became the big brother to his team mates as well as to millions of young Indian cricket fans. He taught them to meet 'sword with sword' and not with your bare hands. He once famously made the great Steve Waugh wait for the toss, a kind of giving back in the same coin to the Aussies. The culmination of all his aggression was seen at the Lord's balcony, the sacred place where englishmen won't appear without his hat and coat. And thats exactly where he removed his shirt and swung it wildly, a fitting reply to Flintoff's antics some weeks before in India. More than that, it symbolised the new spirit of the team which was ready to hit back at any opponent. The dream run in the 2003 world cup re-affirmed Dada's status as India's best ever captain. The Australian series in the same year, when he set the tone for the series with a remarkable century on the first day saw him grow in stature. The win in Pakistan in 2004 was another high point.
Thats when the decline started. A batsman who was second only to the great Sachin in the number of one day centuries was soon found wanting for form. The 'old man who spoiled Indian cricket' Greg Chappel played a stellar role in spoiling his career too. The same man who was brought to coach the Indian team because of Dada's recommendation played the role of a man lacking gratitude to perfection. As a result, Dada lost his captaincy as well as a place in the team. Men like Kiran More, whose contribution to Indian cricket can be compared to a beggar's contribution to India's GDP, began toying with his career. They made comments such as "In my tenure as selector, he wont see the door of the national side". But no one could keep him and his bat silent for too long. He made his comeback in South Africa by playing a role in India's historic win at Johannesburg. For the next two years, till his retirement he batted like a dream. But, the selectors in India again proved their stupidity and biased attitude by throwing him out of the ODI team, in an year in which he scored in excess of 1000 runs. Immense pressure was put on him to retain his test spot even when he was performing really well. Atlast, he decided enough was enough before this series against Australia. He played his part well in almost all the innings except that last one where he did a Bradman with that first ball duck. A career had come full circle. Dhoni's gesture of letting him to captain the side during the later part of the Aussie innings is worth applauding.
Dada, on being asked what he likes to be remembered for, said "I would like to be remembered as one who gave Indian cricket a new direction. And thats exactly what he'll be remembered for. Behind that aggressive exterior, he was a soft spoken man who always remained loyal to his team. He had this deep belief in his abilities and his tactics that he was able to influence his team mates more than anyone else. His aggression was one of subtlety. Though removing your shirt on the field won't come anywhere near to being subtle, there was some method in his madness. All those instances of aggression were to convey a point. It was not the brand of blind aggression shown by some of the new Indian players of the ilk of Sreesanth. What he did was art, while what some of these guys are doing is pure sacrilege. He was the king of the offside. He had a particularly bad weakness to the short pitched balls which he worked on and solved somewhat towards the end of his career. In Bengal, he's a demigod who's worshipped by everyone. That was evident from the backlashes that were seen from the Bengali people each of the time injustice was meted out to him.
More than any of this, what he'll be remembered for is his fighting spirit and his 'never say die' attitude. Each time he was out of the team, he clawed back with increased vigour, hell bent on proving his detractors wrong. The image that I'll forever remember of him is not one on the cricket field. But, its from that pepsi commercial when he was out of the team. He was shown sitting in an empty stadium. And this was what he said in that "Hi, mera naam sourav Ganguly hai. Bhoole tho Nahin? Jo hua, kyoon hua, kaise hua, yeh sab sochke dukh bhi hota tha aur gussa bhi aatha tha. Par ab nahin. Mein team mein vaapas aane keliye bohat bohat practise kar rahaan hoon. Kya maloom? Hawa mein shirt ghumaane ke mujhe aur ek moka mil jaaye. Jo bhi ho, team ke andhar yaa baahar, mein chup baitnewaala nahin. Hooha India, Aaya India. India ke har match ko mein aisi hi chillaaoonga. aap bhi chillaaye. Mere team ko achha lagega. Apni dada ke baat sunege na?". I would say no one, just no one would have the guts to do such a commercial when he's out of the team. But not dada. Those words pained a lot of us at that time. And seeing that again today on youtube, somewhere it pains a lot to think that this big brother wont be there anymore to thrill us and guide our youngsters on the cricket field. That smile, that dancing down the pitch for that sixer and that shirt swinging in the air will forever be missed. But his legacy will live on in those aggressive cricketers who don India's colours in the future. And that is Dada's lasting gift to Indian cricket.
PS- I dedicate this post to my friend Kartoos, the biggest Dada fan I've ever seen. Read this old post by her, U'll know why am telling that.
your crusader Praveen