FIVE years since his debut in Australia, Indian opening bat Saurav Ganguly uses the same piece of willow to face strike bowlers. It's rickety. The handle has been toughened and steel pins inserted at the bottom. But for Ganguly it's a piece of history that's acquired the status of a totem. His first 40 runs in the 96 he scored in the fifth one-dayer of the Sahara Cup was with the same bat. For the Kingfisher man, lucky charms don't end with bats. He has been using the same helmet too since the Australian tour.
While this reluctance to discard old partners-in-arms is a reliable nugget on personality, what's revealing is the way he can toss an odd-man-out kind of comment—a bit like a buck shot from a Lepague glue gun. On this occasion he was trying to stuff four man-of-the-match awards and a man-of-the-series trophy in his bulging Tourister when he piped up: "In this business you can't afford to open your mouth. Salim Malik told me before the Sahara Cup, yaar kaise team leke aaye ho tum log. Look what happened. They lost 4-1. Hansie Cronje got Sachin four times in South Africa."
Well, he can afford to do a lot of talking as his critics eat humble pie. Says Debashish Datta of Aaj Kal, whose biography on Ganguly hits the stands this December at the Calcutta Book Fair: "Journalists were snickering and laughing at a Delhi press conference when the team to England was announced last year and Ganguly was selected." Actually, it wasn't just journalists. Television commentators raised a few eyebrows as well. How could an East Zone quota player do well? The point is, he did. And by the looks of it, the sniggerers are just going to have to get used to him doing good. Says Ajay Jadeja, Indian vice-captain: "No Indian player has ever achieved what he has in this tournament. No one can take that away." Even Sir Garfield Sobers heaped praise: "He is one of the best timers in the game today."
And what do you think was his first love? Football, of course. Ganguly played in a series of Inter Jesuits tournaments in Calcutta and says he was a "pretty good footballer". "Basically, ours is a very sports-oriented family. In the holidays, instead of wasting time, I would play football."
Cricket was really an afterthought and his first break came at the age of 14 when the Orissa under-15 team visited Calcutta for a few friendly games. He scored a hundred—and that's when he started taking the game seriously. Actually, Ganguly developed a knack of scoring hundreds on first appearances. Playing for the India under-19 against Pakistan, he got a hundred at the Wankhede. In 1990, in his first Duleep Trophy game, he made a hundred against West Zone. Ditto in the Deodhar Trophy against West Zone at Pune. Then, he got an India call at the age of 18. He played just one game but went cold for four years. What happened? Says Harsha Bhogle, ESPN commentator: "Arun Lal told me that he wasn't ready mentally when he made his debut. But, last year, before the team was picked for England he told me that Saurav was ready to play for India again. "
In fact, for Ganguly, Lal has been a great motivating force through the lean years—who predicted his inclusion in the side to England. Says Ganguly: "I find him so happy when I do well." Equally happy are 50-odd joint family members in Behala, where Ganguly lives in Calcutta. The 'Maharaja', who has 10 cousins, never had to go out for a practice session—there was a playground in the house. Now there's a gymnasium too with all the works. He did well in studies till Class X and graduated in commerce because science would have eaten into his cricket. His wife Donna will be taking her final year BSc papers in Mathematics next year.
He also never saw a movie in a hall even in his teens. And the first English flick that he watched on VCR which the entire family would rent on Sundays was Django. But his all-time favourite actor is home-bred Amitabh Bachchan. Says Ganguly: "I have watched all his films. He's the best for me." But the ace cricketer is a poor reader—a rare favourite being Satyajit Ray's Ek Dozen Golpo.
While his brother Snehasish, seven years older and a cricketer in his own right, was a positive influence, they shared anxious pangs prior to selection. Both were in contention for a Bengal slot in a Ranji trophy match. It was Saurav who got the nod in the morning.
The turning point in his career? Ganguly himself can't figure it out but his biographer Datta has an answer. "It was the 64 he scored against Derbyshire before the England Test series last year. In my book that is the big moment. No Indian batsman was willing to go at number three on that pitch and his innings saved the match."
Ganguly has also had luck on his side. When he was on 64, in his first Test against England, he was caught off the shoulder in the slips. Says he: "99 per cent of the umpires would have given out but Dickie Bird didn't. I capitalised and got a century. In the West Indies, I was left out in the first one-day international but in the vice-chancellor's game I got a hundred after Lara dropped me in the slips early on." Luck and strength of mind. Sample this: "Once you get selected in the side it's understood that you have the talent. The main thing that distinguishes a successful player from another is mental strength."
Success, of course, has brought a touch of confidence. Sample some Sauravspeak. On his predominant offside batting: "The main thing is to score runs. So what if I get more through the offside. That's where my strength lies." His lousy fielding and running between wickets: "Nobody comes to this level of the game perfect. I am working on that. Why should I give my wicket away on a dicey single when I can make up with a boundary?" Temporary ambition: "To play county cricket in England." In fact, this could come sooner than expected with his agent hunting for the ideal county.
In Django, a western, Franco Nero specialises in sneaking a Maxim machine-gun out from a coffin at the last moment, and ripping Mexican cut-throats to pieces. The way Ganguly's been sneaking up on the opposition with his slimy swingers, there could be some connection.