Sourav Ganguly was always at his most attractive playing off the front foot. While it remains to be seen how his weary 36-year-old legs cope with the challenge posed by the Aussie bowlers in the Tests beginning Thursday, his decision to quit after this series shows that he hasn’t yet lost his brilliant sense of timing.
It might seem enigmatic that Ganguly should have made up his mind on the eve of the first Test after beating heavy odds to win a place in the team. Conspiracy theorists will aver that this is affirmation of some kind of ‘deal’ struck between him and the selectors, but I doubt it. The only ‘deal’ I can think possible is that Ganguly - and the other senior pros - would have been informed that while they were in the side, only form and fitness would matter henceforth.
I believe Ganguly took this step independently, after introspecting deeply on the pros and cons, then timed it to stump everybody. Over the years, I have found him to be a fascinating personality: at times highly emotional, at other times a hard-nosed pragmatist, but always driven by a great sense of pride and self-preservation.
Some early success may have meant a few matches more this season, but not diluted the harsh scrutiny of either the selectors or the public. A couple of early failures, however, could have meant an unceremonious exit. Moreover, his ageing body would have been sending him some disquieting signals too. It was rapidly turning out to be a zero sum game, and Ganguly decided that he was not going to be suckered by false pride. He, and not any other, would make this decision.
Whether this is the trigger for the other senior pros - Tendulkar, Dravid, Kumble and Laxman - to assess their own future too remains to be seen. This season promises to be full of surprises. It is clear nonetheless that one of the most fascinating eras in Indian cricket history comes to a close when Ganguly walks off the field for the last time.
Though he has some scintillating innings to his credit, Ganguly was not quite in the same league as Tendulkar, Dravid or Laxman. But juxtapose his captaincy with his batting, and he emerges as much of a titan as any of the aforementioned, perhaps taller. I have no doubt that Ganguly has been the best Indian captain ever, and not just for his impressive results. It was the shift in attitude that he influenced which was the more crucial. Having taken up the reins at a time when Indian cricket had hit a trough following the match-fixing scandal, Ganguly showed remarkable chutzpah and ambition to build a team that would win accolades everywhere for its skills and attitude. He succeeded in infusing a sense of pride and purpose that finished off the fatalism which had always dogged sport in this country.
For that alone, Indian cricket will remain eternally indebted to him.