Today is Sourav Ganguly's birthday and it is a reason enough to recall his days as a world-class cricketer. I can vividly recall when he had burst on to the international scene and taken the world by storm way back in 1996. I followed cricket keenly those days. At that time, he was scoring decently well in domestic cricket. Ganguly debuted in ODIs 1992 Down Under when he was just 19 years old. But mediocre performance and his 'stubborn' behaviour did not work in his favour. He was forgotten for four long years. However, he continued to perform well in domestic cricket.
Before the England tour, Ganguly was selected in the side. Many eyebrows were raised over his selection. People even alleged him that he was being favoured by the selectors. Those were the days when India were ousted from the ODI World Cup in 1996 in the semi-final game against Sri Lanka played at the Eden Gardens. Many players were under fire for their dismal performances. The team needed an overhaul and Ganguly was given the opportunity. As the furore over his selection continued, Ganguly shut everyone up soon after the Indian team landed in England.
With the England tour, the cricket telecast in India had also changed. The matches played in England were aired on a paid channel (ESPN) for the first time. As the series started, India lost the first Test by 8 wickets. Before the second Test, many players got injured and Navjot Singh Sidhu returned to India. With that, Ganguly and Rahul Dravid debuted in the game. Debutante Ganguly played exceptionally well to score a century and silenced his critics in style. The rest, as they say, is history.
India had got a fine player who could share the responsibility alongside 'Master Blaster' Sachin Tendulkar. Ganguly went on to score another century in the next Test match. It was a dream debut and many things changed in quick succession. Young Ganguly became one of the 'biggies' in the cricket world. Soon after, he was given the ODIs and then the responsibility to open the innings. The world then witnessed a man who could play through the off-side in a grand manner and his ability to time the balls to perfection. He was soon known for his elegant plays. There was an ease with which he played. The ball caressed to the boundaries.
English legendary player and famous commentator Geoffrey Boycott then started calling him the 'Prince of Calcutta'. He could even pierce the gaps on the off-side. His contemporary player and friend Rahul Dravid then gave him the title of 'God of off-side'. It seemed like a perfect tag for Ganguly. Moreover, it was all not just about lazy elegance and his abilities to play exceptionally well through the off-side, he had also turned heads with his magnificent sixes. I remember watching him dance down the wickets and hit the ball in such a manner that it would sail quite comfortably into the stands more often than not.
I have even heard a commentator say on television that there has been no better sight in Indian cricket than seeing Ganguly and Sidhu hit sixes down the ground. Many experts hailed Ganguly's ability to keep his head still while hitting for a six. His brilliant timing made him a prolific scorer all through the late 90s. His exploits in ODIs were such that he featured in the list of best scorers in a calendar year till the turn of the century. By then, he had become India's key player in crucial encounters against its arch-rival Pakistan.
The match-fixing controversy during 1999-2000 was a black chapter for the Indian cricket. The incident shook the entire world. However, it was during such tumultuous times when Ganguly inherited the Indian team captaincy. He led the team against a touring South African team. I have to say that just like his Test debut, Ganguly, as a captain, was a force to reckon with. He scored heavily in the first series as a captain. This performance reaffirmed everyone's faith in his ability to lead the team. He continued to look impressive, both as a player and as a leader.
With his ardency and indomitable spirit, he left the match-fixing controversy behind. In 2001, the mighty Australians toured India and in a landmark series. Ganguly was not the one to crumble under pressure. Australians were known to play mind games. It was an important tour and India were able to stop the juggernaut of Australians who were riding high with 16 back-to-back Test wins. Not only had India snapped their winning streak but went on to win the series in a comprehensive manner.
One of the architects of that win was Harbhajan Singh and skipper Ganguly had batted for his selection. He stuck his neck out to support and nurture young talent. He even backed young talent to the hilt. He was the reason why we were able to see players like Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh. The whole world was aghast when Ganguly had asked an aggressive and 'not-so-technically-sound' Virender Sehwag to open the innings in Test cricket. It would have looked like a blunder in Test cricket back then but it looks like a brilliant decision now.
Ganguly was a man to trust his gut feelings. He built a new team which won during many foreign tours. He took the team to new heights. In all honesty, it's hard to forget the Natwest Series in England. India created history by chasing a high total at the Lord's. During the chase, Ganguly gave the team a great start by scoring a quickfire 60 runs.But his dismissal turned the tables. A tense Ganguly was seen sitting in one spot in the Lord's balcony while his team chased the total.
Finally, when India won, Ganguly took his shirt off and waved it while breaking into a celebratory dance. It was quite an uncharacteristic thing to do at the Lord's. The jury is still divided over the incident. Nevertheless, it remains as one of the most talked about incidents in the history of cricket. Earlier, English star all-rounder Andrew Flintoff had celebrated in the way during a series-decider at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. In his own way, without even saying a single word, Ganguly gave an apt response.
Later, he took the Indian team to the final of the 2003 ODI World Cup. The team was touted as one of the best teams in the world. The 'Prince of Calcutta' played for India with a lot of pride. The team metamorphosed into a fighting unit under his leadership. Such kind of players do not come too often. While he was a batsman par excellence, his leadership was a defining one.
CitySpidey wishes Sourav Ganguly a happy birthday. May you keep shining as always!