Sourav Ganguly at a photoshoot
© Getty Images

Hate to Love

The regal brat

Sourav Ganguly filled you with pride - until he made you tear your hair out

Ruchir Joshi  |  

I was having dinner with a Chelsea fan the other day and at one point he leaned back on the sofa, threw his head up and hissed, "Oh, I find Jose Mourinho loathsome, just loathsome!"

"Really?" I asked. 'Even when he was winning you everything?"

"Yes, even when he was getting us all those trophies. I can't stand him."

I nodded in sudden understanding. I had just remembered the existence of one Sourav Ganguly. A confession: I hold myself personally responsible for the rise of Sourav Ganguly. Sitting in the Mound Stand Terrace, in the second row from the boundary, that grey, swinging morning at Lord's in 1996, my day was looking grim. Tendulkar, having walked in with this unknown Bengali boy, had been quickly bowled. Azhar was then caught behind, followed by Jadeja for 10. Now here already was the tail, this kid Ganguly being joined by a South Indian rookie. I put aside the food that my friends had brought and reached for the rum.

Within an hour or so I was feeling very foolish. Foolish but ecstatic, my anxieties gone, being able to eat again. I have a lot of baseless Calcutta pride and so desperate was I for Ganguly to do well, I almost couldn't bear to watch him - the first Test player from Bengal in years - as he faced the England bowlers. When Azhar walked out I called out to the debutant in Bengali, calling him "tui", trying to make him feel at home - "Just keep your head down and play!"

The first lovely southpaw stroke I tagged as a fluke, and then I did the same for the next four boundaries, though the chap did have that typical Calcutta flourish. It was only when Ganguly reached his fifty that I celebrated. I called out to him again - "You've made fifty, well done, now make another fifty." By the end of the day he had managed that as well, in the company of the man who would go on to become the second-best batsman ever to play for India.

My curses were like benedictions. The more I cursed, the better Ganguly did in terms of getting runs and winning games

It was an incredible end to a great cricketing day. Two beautiful stylists, in contrasting manner, had made their first mark on the game. Azhar didn't have long to go, you could tell that, but now Battleship Tendulkar had a twin escort in the middle order. I am not Bengali but as a Calcuttan I felt great pride that we finally had a player to take us out of the cricketing marginality that we had been trapped in for so many years. As we happy Indian fans walked away from Lord's that evening, we were playing different shots in the street, remembering and describing them to each other, alternating between right-handed for Rahul Dravid and then left-handed for Ganguly.

Within six years I was ruing my role in the making of the Prince of Bengal. I hated his arrogance (while not minding that of some others), I hated the way he was clumsy in the field, as if it was beneath him to be fielding at all, I was ashamed of the clownish, jerky marionette he became when peppered with short deliveries, I detested the way he ran (or mostly didn't) between wickets. Mostly, I hated the sense of entitlement that emanated from him - I knew other Calcutta people like that, and yes, I loathed them. I also didn't rate his captaincy, even though so many others, far more knowledgeable about the game, clearly did. My argument was that the guy was lucky at several levels: John Wright was a truly great coach; we had one of the most powerful batting line-ups in cricket history; in Tendulkar, Dravid, and for a while Srinath and Kumble, this captain also had a great think tank; his captaincy was more about bluster and attitude than any great instinctive or strategic nous.

During the 2003 World Cup, I wrote a "Watching the Cup" diary for a Mumbai monthly. The diary was full of jokes about the "Sehwag ki Maa!" advert and about our glorious captain. The irregular column that I wrote for what was then eastern India's biggest English daily came out on the morning of the World Cup final in Johannesburg. In it, with extreme foolhardiness, I suggested that the only way India could win the final against Australia was if both Glenn McGrath and Ganguly were out injured.

Lord's '96: Ganguly on his way to a century, aided ably by the writer of this piece

Lord's '96: Ganguly on his way to a century, aided ably by the writer of this piece © Getty Images

I was furious when in the first half an hour of the match I was proved right, at least about Ganguly. First of all, despite India's much-vaunted batting artillery, he chooses to field, telling the Aussies everything they need to know about the state of his guts. Next, with at least three of us watching, yelling, "For god's sake put in a gully for Gilchrist!" - not exactly cricketing rocket science - he starts off with gully unpatrolled for Zaheer Khan. Sure enough, facing his third ball or so, Gilchrist mistimes a cover drive as he is wont to do and the ball flies for four through the absent gully. A fielder is immediately put there, but it is too late. Then, as he starts getting pasted all around the Wanderers, Zaheer tries to sledge Matthew Hayden, and that too in English. Hayden, the imperturbable mountain, just grins and chews his gum as if he is chewing Zaheer's sweetmeats and carries on the dismemberment of the Indian attack. I am shouting at Ganguly to rein in his bowlers, to stop them wasting energy and to concentrate on the bowling, but this time he is too far away to hear me.

Mentally, the game is up within the first 10 overs but later McGrath runs in, beautifully controlled, to make my second prediction come true and many millions of us miserable. If I had problems with Ganguly earlier, that was the day I became fully allergic to the man.

The funny thing is, it didn't make a difference. My curses were like benedictions. The more I cursed, the better Ganguly did in terms of getting runs and winning games. By the time we nearly became the first team in years to beat Australia in a home series, in Steve Waugh's last Test in 2004, my Ganguly hatred was a running joke among my friends. Every time he would come in to bat or make some captaincy-type move, my friends would call or text or slap my back: "Look what your Dada is doing!" "What a cover drive! He is god on the off side." "Ah, look, he has won yet another match!"

The end of his captaincy, when it came, wasn't pretty to watch and it gave me no nasty joy. What was funny, though, was a video recording making the rounds in Delhi, purportedly of a Bengali Member of Parliament from a left party on a drunken rant. "Government will fall, I am warning!" (The central government would fall, he warned, because the Bengali Left would withdraw support after Ganguly's dismissal). And the best line: "That Chappell is a sinister! Dravid is a sinister!"

The fact is, both Chappell and Dravid were right-hand batsmen, while Ganguly was, of course, of the sinister persuasion. Though that word is not the right one for the pride of Bengal, other uncomplimentary ones do come to mind, as does the image of Joaquin Phoenix as the emperor in Gladiator, and his expression when his face reverses.

Ruchir Joshi is a Kolkata-based writer and film-maker who has had an on-again, off-again affair with cricket since 1968