As chief of a revamped BCCI, can Sourav Ganguly deliver again?
Indian Express 29 Oct 2019 13:02 PM
Former captain, IPL mentor, TV show host, commentator, and now BCCI chief. As Sourav Ganguly takes charge of the revamped Indian cricket board, The Indian Express on the maharaja and his mostly winning ways.
About 12 years ago, on a chaotic Test match morning at Cape Town, after a brave pre-lunch Sourav Ganguly batting sortie, India opener Virender Sehwag had made a grand announcement in the Newlands dressing room: “Dada will one day become the BCCI president and also the Chief Minister of Bengal”. Some hyperbole, uttered to acknowledge intoxicating sporting valour, do come true.
Cut to October 23, 2019. Ganguly is set to hold his first press conference as president of the recalibrated Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in Mumbai. It’s Indian cricket’s watershed moment. For the cricketers, forever at the mercy of administrators, this had marked the arrival of “apna time”.
At his home in Delhi, Sehwag chuckles as he recalls his prediction and Dada’s sparkling derring-do under the shadow of the imposing Table Mountain that day. “Ek bhavishya vani sach ho gayi, ek aur baaki hai (one of my predictions has come true, the other is left).”
He then revisits what he calls the “hadbad, gadbad” period of play from the final Test of the 2007 South Africa tour, during the tumultuous Greg Chappell era. At 6/2, Sachin Tendulkar, the team’s No.4, had been stopped at the boundary rope by the umpires. He hadn’t fielded enough, so he needed to sit out longer. Another of cricket’s archaic rule had spread panic in the Indian camp. Chappell would ask an unprepared Ganguly, lazing as he was to bat at No. 6, to quickly pad up. The hungry pride of pedigreed South African pacers — Dale Steyn, Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini — waited for him on the greenish pitch. A Ganguly meltdown, a batting collapse, an early end to the Test… that familiar sequence was waiting to unfold.
A new innings for Indian cricket
The coincidence of former India captain Sourav Ganguly becoming the first president of the all-new BCCI and another Test player, Brijesh Patel, heading the IPL marks a new phase for Indian cricket. In its final order on reforms in the BCCI, the Supreme Court had insisted on cricketers getting a say in the running of the game. In order to ensure this, the court included two retired cricketers in the nine-member apex body, the all-powerful group that would have a final say in all cricketing matters. With the court ensuring the autonomy of the selection committee and the cricket advisory committee, office-bearers will no longer have any say in the functioning of these two key decision-making bodies. This is a departure from the past when even the selection committee meeting was convened by the BCCI secretary and the final list needed the approval of the president.
At 35, after getting dropped a year ago, this was the former captain’s comeback tour. National outrage, Parliament debates and Chappell’s effigy burning on the streets of Kolkata — besides, of course, Ganguly’s mountain of runs on the domestic circuit — were responsible for his return to the national team. Now, he was desperate for runs. His teammates had their fingers crossed, and his detractor, read Chappell, too was watching. They were all waiting to see if he still had the steel in him.
He didn’t score a hundred, or even a fifty. But like the good old times, he took up the challenge and showed pluck. For a couple of hours, he stuck around to score 46, and made an important point.
He proved he still had it in him, that he was still Dada. “The way he handled the pressure and tension that day, only he can. This showed he can take any responsibility given to him. You can ask anyone who was in the dressing room that day, they all agreed when I said Dada is the future BCCI president and Bengal CM. No one in that Indian team had that quality,” says Sehwag.
The Class of 2007 had Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, all inspirational leaders but also men whose priorities and post-retirement plans were different from their one-time captain — the highly ambitious, natural born leader from Kolkata.
A BCCI old hand, a regular Team India support staff who has been on long tours with the fabled Fab Four, says he isn’t surprised by the career choices of these stalwarts. “You knew Dravid would always remain a true professional cricketer, he continues to be that, working with junior cricketers. Kumble is part Dravid, part Ganguly. He doesn’t want to be 100 per cent Dravid but he wants to be a coach, an administrator, plus a businessman. Tendulkar, meanwhile, was the No.1 celebrity cricketer and he continues to be that. He tweets, wishes people on birthdays, interacts with fans. Ganguly is different from them all,” he says, slotting Indian cricket’s most powerful man.
It’s easy to understand why Ganguly always walks to the top of table, regardless of which room he enters. When your parents call you “Maharaj” at home, you are the youngest of a joint family with old money, you are blessed with sublime batting timing, you get lucky breaks and you grow up in a sports-mad city bereft of a cricketing icon, you can’t have the DNA of a worker bee or be happy being one of the minions.
For Tendulkar and Dravid, captaincy seemed like a load on their head. On Ganguly, leadership sat softly. Wearing the captain’s band wasn’t a life-changing event, all he needed to do was be himself, the scion from the famous red-brick haveli in South Kolkata’s Behala.
It would be too simplistic, or patronising, to say that Ganguly’s captaincy record guarantees him success as BCCI president. Indian cricket’s one-time poster boy had a messy end to his reign, and it was clear to most that the blame didn’t entirely rest with Chappell. “With time, as his place in the side started getting doubtful, Ganguly started putting himself ahead of the team. Players are very clever, they can easily see through this. So his image as team man took a hit,” says an official who had been a regular fly on the wall in the Indian dressing room.
As BCCI chief, Ganguly now finds himself on Level 2 of cricket’s house of intrigue that would require enhanced skill sets to survive. With too many office-bearers with political connection — Amit Shah’s son Jay Shah, Anurag Thakur’s brother Arun Singh Dhumal — he is unlikely to have unquestionable control on the board.
It’s a tight rope but Ganguly knows how to get the balance right. It’s yesterday again for Indian cricket. When he was named captain, in the days following the 2000 match-fixing scandal, he was seen as the saviour who would win back the trust of the fans. Now as BCCI president, he is expected to clear the mess left behind by the IPL spot-fixing saga. Can Dada deliver again?
“Of course, he can,” feels Sehwag. They go back a long way, since the time the big-hitting Najafgarh boy made his ODI debut in 1999. Ganguly wasn’t the captain then. Ganguly’s leadership approach, he says, is about personal rapport, communication and, most importantly, being one of the boys.
“He doesn’t flaunt his captaincy. Tum yeh karo, yeh mat karo (Do this, don’t do that). Before he was captain, I would go to his room, chat and have dinner. It was same even when he became captain. Tell me, which captain takes a rank junior out for dinner and talks to him? It’s a rare quality,” he says.
Virender Sehwag: ‘Dada listened to everyone but did what he thought was right, this is great leadership’
During Indian cricket’s Ganguly period, the team had an open-door policy, with the captain’s room becoming an adda for players and mostly vernacular journalists from Kolkata in the evening. “You could argue with him, joke with him, tell him anything that came to your mind. Even today, when we do commentary together, I joke with him,” he says.
But when needed, Ganguly played the tough skipper and gave those old fashioned “cold, blunt” team talks.
Ratnakar Shetty, a long-time BCCI insider and manager during India’s 2004 historic tour of Pakistan, recalls one such riveting speech, during the break in the final ODI at Lahore with the series tied 2-2.
Before that famous friendship tour, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had met the team at his home in Delhi, and presented the captain a bat that had a message: “Khel bhi jeeto, dil bhi (Win the match, and hearts too)”. It was to become an over-riding theme of the intense series.
“It was a tight game, a lot was at stake. Ganguly wanted the team to not concede anything. During the dinner-time speech, he said that one line that still makes me smile. He said: ‘Yeh decider hai, woh dil jeetna hai thik hai, pehle khel jeetna hai (We have to win hearts, but first we must win the match)’,” recalls Shetty. For the record, the khel was won easily. As for dil, almost every Pakistan player treats the man with respect, often referring to him as India’s first-ever aggressive captain.
One of them is Shoaib Akhtar, who can’t forget how Ganguly overruled the Kolkata Knight Riders coach John Buchanan and backed him before an IPL Season 1 game. “Sourav wanted me to play but the coach said I was unfit. Sourav bola, ‘arre bhai yeh toh paida hi unfit hua hai, yeh toh khelega hi (he was born a little unfit, but of course he will play)’. He had something in common with Imran — he could pick a talented player and back them,” he says.
A trait of his that will come in handy in the BCCI is his habit of taking everyone’s opinion — as captain, he made the seniors his sounding-boards while decided the playing XI. But he is also known to finally do as he pleases. “He would take six to seven views, either follow one view or come up with his own decision,” says Sehwag.
A support staff talks about the games when Ganguly would walk out for the toss, seemingly convinced of a consensus team decision, but on the way to the pitch, he would change the playing XI or the decision to bat or bowl. “Take, for instance, the 2003 World Cup league game against Australia. Everything was decided but he did exactly the opposite and India went on to lose the game,” he says.
Taking setbacks in his stride is another trait that he will need in his second innings. Hours after India’s heart-breaking loss to Australia in the 2003 World Cup final, Ganguly sat in his hotel room with his ‘politburo’ — the collective noun bestowed on Kolkata reporters who shadowed him from dawn to dusk. Ganguly was crestfallen. Few words were spoken. The silence was broken by a few sniffs that would turn to sobs. Two reporters had their faces buried in their hands. Dada let out a smile, texted a non-crier sitting across him, telling him to ask the others to stop the drama.
Former opener and Kolkata resident Arun Lal, marvels at Ganguly’s capacity to take pressure. “I don’t know what support system he has… It is just himself, he is a pillar of strength from inside. That’s something everybody underestimates,” he says.
Team India’s longest serving masseur Mane Kaka too says he has never seen a downcast Ganguly. “Woh toh rasagulla jaise hain (He is like Rasgulla), so sweet to everyone, always courteous, always caring about you and asking about your family member,” he says.
Every call to Kolkata adds a spoonful of sugar to the Ganguly story, reducing it to hagiography. To balance the taste, a dash of bitterness, straight from Australia.
In his book Fierce Focus, Chappell, the headstrong Aussie coach whose term came to be defined by the acrimony between him and Ganguly, writes, “Sourav was full of self-doubt and caught up with his own struggle for survival… he was consumed by what he saw as the threats around him.” Blaming the Indian ecosystem for the inadequacies that crop up in most cricketers, Chappell wrote, “His problem was common in India, where the cultural upbringing of such young stars had it that parents, teachers, coaches and other mentors, managers and even sponsors, would make their decisions for them… Test cricket is a brutal place where you are naked in the spotlight and nobody but yourself can fix your problems when they inevitably arise.” Chappell’s book also hints at how Ganguly was consumed by crony culture. “He didn’t want a coach, or an agent of change. He wanted a political ally,” he wrote.
Ganguly’s counter to Chappell emerged in his book A Century Is Not Enough. “It didn’t help that Greg also had preconceived notions about people and my name was on top of the list… I had to constantly fight two battles. One, keep scoring runs. Two, handle the prejudices of the coach. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware of these prejudices till I read his book,” he wrote.
The Ganguly aura makes it tough for people to give an honest opinion about Indian cricket’s most fascinating character. There is this story about a Ganguly book writer speaking to a Dada protégé, who blurted out unending praise for close to half an hour. But when the tape was switched off, the player launched into a rant about how Ganguly, in his last years as captain, was responsible for his stunted career.
So while Ganguly unearthed winners, built teams, and brought Indian cricket back on track, he had his flaws.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official says, “He has a great streak of survival and is a very clever person when it comes to self interest. Besides wanting to be a successful cricket administrator, his other ambition is to monetise his celebrityhood.” As an afterthought, he asks: “But isn’t this human tendency? To be successful, to do well in life, isn’t that what most do?”
That’s a charitable view of a man who, till the other day, had way too many conflicting interests in cricket — Bengal cricket chief, IPL mentor, TV commentator, news channel pundit and coach selector.
His supporters, however, believe his experience in all these roles will come in handy as he slips into his new role as BCCI chief. Shetty thinks Ganguly can pull it off. “He has been president of one of BCCI’s good associations (Kolkata). After taking over (as BCCI chief), he spoke about talking to Dhoni about his future plans. These are small things, but he is talking from the heart. The other important thing is, Ganguly as face of BCCI will make a difference internationally,” he says.
The bigger challenge for Ganguly will be to work within the new reality of Indian cricket, with its codified, court-rewritten constitution. The new rule-book cuts the president’s power by 20 per cent, with the apex group out-ranking every individual. In the new order, which works on the system of parliament and the executive, the president is a bit more than a figure-head without the veto power of old.
Ganguly’s report card as BCCI chief will be eagerly read. It’s a test for the utopian idea of cricketers running cricket. His team mates have their fingers crossed, and his detractors, read the officials who lost the presidential race to him, will be watching too.
It’s like Cape Town all over again.
January 11, 1992: Makes an underwhelming ODI debut against West Indies in Brisbane, a bouncy surface where he makes three runs and is dropped for “attitude” reasons
June 20, 1996: Returns controversially to the Test side and celebrates his Test debut with a hundred at Lord’s, follows it up with another in the next Test as well.
February 26, 2000: Gets captaincy for the five-match ODI series against South Africa after Sachin Tendulkar resigns post a 2-0 drubbing in the Tests
April 16, 2004: Becomes the first India captain to win a Test series in Pakistan, shortly after his side had held Australia 1-1 Down Under
November 22, 2005: The Ganguly-Greg Chappell saga blows up and the former is stripped of captaincy before the home series against Sri Lanka
February 5, 2006: Is dropped from the Test side that was to play England at home
December 1, 2006: Returns to the Test side for the tour to South Africa and reinforces his value with a defiant, unbeaten 51, which helps India win first Test in South Africa
October 7, 2008: After a couple of relatively prosperous seasons, during which he registered his highest score and maiden double hundred, he retires
October 15, 2015: Ganguly becomes CAB president after Jagmohan Dalmiya’s death. He had been part of the working committee for three years before taking over as joint secretary in 2014. Gets re-elected in 2019
October 23, 2019: Ganguly elected unopposed as BCCI president