New Delhi: No conversation about this decade of Indian cricket is complete without a suitable amount of time being spent on debating the phenomenon who brought about the push-pull tactics to the fore. From being pushed around through the use of verbal tactics to being pulled into a trap, Indian cricket's greatest transformation this decade was the fearlessness with which they approached their opponents and managed to get under their skin.
From a players' skipper to the peoples' skipper, Sourav Ganguly made the transition from being the outsider within his team to finding a place in Indian cricketing folklore. Having established his credentials as a player, Ganguly took on the ominous task of leading the national team with the agenda of showing the world that Indian cricket was tough, intuitive and uncompromising.
In 2000, when Ganguly took over as skipper, he inherited Indian cricket in the midst of confusion and a crisis that was triggered by the match-fixing controversy. There was no clarity of thought, no plan, and no actionable ideas. It was time to bring about a change.
Ganguly inherited Indian cricket in the midst of confusion and crisis.
Come 2001 and Ganguly played the role of a shrewd tactician to perfection. Australia, having won 15 Tests in a row, came to win over - what skipper Steve Waugh termed as - the 'final frontier'. Australia had not won a series in India since 1969. In the world of international cricket, they were the undisputed rulers of the game, a team that had conquered every cricketing pitch. And now India was the prize.
The new leader though laid out a different agenda. 'Waugh can forget about the numbers 16, 17 and 18,' Ganguly said. Never before had an Indian captain displayed such guts prior to the start of any series, let alone against Australia. But of course Ganguly was different. He could say and do the unexpected. He was unusual and unconventional.
Australia hammered India in the first Test at Mumbai to win it within three days; and then had them on the mat in Kolkata before VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid turned on the magic on day four and that young spinner Harbhajan Singh came to the party on day five. Sachin Tendulkar roared back in form in the third Test at Chennai and Harbhajan won the 'Turbanator' sobriquet.
Ganguly had cemented his place as Team India's undisputed leader with the defence of the final frontier. The message sent out was loud and clear: this land belongs to us; you can't take it over.
India had found a new cult figure; a folk hero about whom tales would abound and be passed from one generation to another. Tales about how he made Steve Waugh wait for the toss. An act that according to a celebrated cricket writer of our times 'started as a misjudgment and became an amusement that turned into a strategy'.
In 2002, the bare-chested Ganguly stunt on the Lord's balcony was to become the defining moment of his captaincy. There was no place for decorum and norms. It did not matter it was the Lord's – the holiest of cricketing holies. It was India's first one-day tournament victory after having lost nine in a row, six of them under Ganguly.
Over the next year-and-a-half Ganguly and Team India climbed the heights and celebrations of its success reached a crescendo with the spectacular show at the 2003 Cricket World Cup in South Africa. An appearance in the final had come after 20 years and Ganguly was the toast of the nation. Finally, he was being mentioned in the same breath as legends like Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar. I don't think it mattered much to Ganguly as much as it mattered to the people. He did what he had to do, the rest just fell into place.
Ganguly though understood the value of gestures and the importance of appearances. He had an eye for picking and nurturing talent, backing them to the brink and leading by example in the critical hour. What else can explain Yuvraj Singh's comment on his first comeback when he said 'I can die for this captain'.
If the Lord's balcony show was a defining moment in his captaincy, Ganguly's century in the first Test at The Gabba in the 2003-04 tour of Australia was, according to me, the highest moment of his playing career and one that set the tone for the series. The Aussies paid the price of under-estimating the skipper. They threw all that they had, bounced him, tested him, but Ganguly stood there, scoring an invaluable 144. It was this performance that confirmed once and for all that the man could not be shaken. He was the rock.
More glory was in store after Australia. Victory in Pakistan was another peak conquered, but unfortunately it was the peak of a slippery slope. The beginning of the end came soon after India lost the home series to Australia at Nagpur and then his loss of personal form coincided with India's insipid ODI performance. His differences with Greg Chappell were leaked into public domain and the career of a formidable Indian captain was in jeopardy. Ganguly struggled with his form and his fitness levels, and there was a clear desperation to hold on to his job.
But he was not one to be defeated. He capped a fairytale comeback with the South Africa series and went on to put on some superlative displays in England and then in the home series against Pakistan. But the end seemed to be imminent. And finally on October 7, 2008 – two days prior to the start of the first Test against Australia – Ganguly told a press conference that this series would be his last. As I listened to the news and filed it for my website, I ran a movie-clip of Ganguly's decade in my head. But there was one certainty now. There was no chance of losing his place. He had timed his departure in the same manner he used to time the ball on the off-side – cleanly and sweetly.
Taken as a whole, Ganguly's contribution has been more than a triumph. As a player, he was prepared to take on challenges. As a captain, he was prepared to stand up for his players. As a man, he earned his stripes. He was neither the saint nor the devil. But he served Indian cricket with distinction and left a legacy for other skippers to follow.