This time, it's more than a sigh. The bloodlust of a "lynch mob", as social historian Ramachandra Guha puts it, is coming to the fore as Saurav Ganguly teeters on the precipice of cricketing oblivion. The mob—egged on by ICC referee Chris Broad's decision to ban the Indian cricket captain for six one-day matches for India's slow over rate in the game against Pakistan at Ahmedabad—is leering at the prospect of him falling over.
The referee has only followed the book. Ganguly was banned for two matches for slow over rate after the BCCI's platinum jubilee match in Calcutta last November by referee Clive Lloyd (that ban was scrapped following an appeal) and fined 70 per cent of match fees for the same breach at Jamshedpur. That made the Ahmedabad breach a level III offence, for which a ban is prescribed.
But should Broad, whose record as player is not without disciplinary blemish (see box), have taken such a narrow view? The referee hasn't yet objected to Shoaib Malik's bowling, who, according to coach Bob Woolmer's website, bends his arm considerably more than 15 degrees. He could have taken into account the day's oppressive heat which necessitated numerous water breaks which were all allowed by the umpires. Then, in an India-Pakistan encounter, extenuating circumstances often go beyond what a rule book may consider legitimate, especially in a match that is decided on the last ball. And six matches?
"It's not fair," says former Pakistan captain Wasim Akram. Former India opener and commentator Arun Lal is livid: "If everything has to go by the book, why have a referee at all? Whatever the rule, the intention cannot be to finish a cricketer's career."
Six games is a long time in an age where it is difficult to recall the scores of the ODI before the last. Unless this ban, too, is overturned on Ganguly's appeal filed last Wednesday, he will have to sit out most of the one-day tour to Sri Lanka the BCCI is trying to organise for July-August. That tour could have been the right opportunity for Ganguly—still rated as one of the world's best one-day batsmen despite his recent dip in form—to redeem himself before the Test and ODI tour to Zimbabwe in October.
What if his replacements—all rounders Dinesh Mongia or Sridharan Sriram—come up with some sterling performances? It has happened before. Yuvraj Singh played against Pakistan in last year's Lahore Test when Ganguly was nursing a bad back and scored a scintillating hundred in a losing cause. For the next Test in Rawalpindi, opener Akash Chopra was sacrificed to create room in the middle order.
Some eyebrows were raised. But Ganguly was riding high on the triumph of a drawn Test series in Australia. The Test series victory over Pakistan in Rawalpindi muffled any dissent that might have been. The Indian cricket team, despite claims in court that it plays for a private club, was seen as Ganguly's. The man was practically indispensable.
He is less than that now. Following the fall of the final frontier last year, when Australia won a series in India for the first time in 35 years, India struggled to beat a weak South African team 1-0. The 2-0 win in Bangladesh brought as much glory as Sania Mirza would get by beating her mother in straight sets. And the drawn Test series against Pakistan, given the way Pakistan rebounded, is seen as a defeat.
It hasn't helped that Ganguly, since becoming captain in November 2000, has turned around only two Test matches with the bat. A breathtaking 144 off 196 balls at Brisbane in the first Test of the 2003-04 Australia tour, which set underdogs India on the path of dominance in the series, and an unbeaten 98 to win the second Test of the 2001 Sri Lanka series have earned Ganguly his only two man-of-the-match awards as captain. For the rest, he has been unable to stem rots, such as when he pottered around for a grand total of two in the second innings at Bangalore.
Even during some of his finest hours as captain, his Test batting has stuck out like a sore thumb. He averaged 17.66 in the euphoric triumph over Australia in 2001 and scored only 140 more runs in the remaining three Tests after Brisbane on the 2003-04 tour. In the 13 innings before that 98 at Kandy, his highest was 48. In the 11 that followed, it was 47. With 580 runs in the last 18 innings at an average of 32.22, boosted by a 71 and an 88 in Bangladesh, and 48 runs at a 9.6 average in the just-concluded Pakistan series, it is sad to hear him insist that things are not too bad.
The sight of him batting is more distressing than the statistics though. A man with almost 15,000 runs to his name in international cricket is now getting out to part-time spin bowlers. His lofted drives land 25 yards inside the ropes. It is painful for those who have seen those same drives almost raise the life insurance premia of spectators while spinners regretted their choice of trade. "That is what happens when you are out of form. The pressure is enormous," says Akram.
Former West Bengal chief minister S.S. Ray, who won the case against Lloyd's ban, is again representing Ganguly and is confident of an encore. But elsewhere, there is a sense of inevitability about the ban. A wag insists that the BCCI, not knowing what to do with Ganguly of late, may treat this as an opportunity.
"There is a provision for an appeal and we should make use of it," said BCCI president Ranbir Singh Mahendra, who, as manager of the 1992 tour to Australia, had submitted a nasty report about Ganguly. The board's selection committee lost no time in announcing the team for the last two ODIs, without Ganguly, just after the ban was conveyed. The announcement was scheduled for that evening, but could easily have been deferred to assess the situation by a board that does not tire of talking about its autonomy. Vice-president Rajiv Shukla says the ban is too harsh, but appears to agree that a ban was in order. "It could have been two matches," he says.
The mind wanders to the ban by Lloyd, whose dreaded West Indian fast bowlers in the 1970s and '80s often took a minute to bowl every delivery. Jagmohan Dalmiya, in the BCCI's driving seat then, had taken up the issue as if his life depended on it. Earlier, on the South Africa tour of 2001, he had refused to accept Mike Denness's ban on six Indian players for offences ranging from ball tampering (Sachin) to excessive appealing (Sehwag), even though it resulted in one Test becoming unofficial. Dalmiya is no longer the board's president and is under the scanner of the Madras High Court. "The big difference this time is that Dalmiya is not in charge," says a former India player.
A board official remarked to a friend recently that Ganguly will never quit on his own because the post of the Indian cricket captain is worth Rs 5 crore a year. It could be, but it would still fall short of the value Ganguly has brought to the table as captain. Sunil Gavaskar was thought of as a safety-first captain. Sachin was thought of as "a keen student of the game" and nothing more. As for Azhar, not thinking of him as captain will be an act of kindness. Ganguly has never cared much for what anyone thought of him.
He forged a resilient, winning team out of a talented but directionless bunch wilting under the heat of match-fixing, got under the skin of Steve Waugh, the man who wrote the book on psychological disintegration, showed the world his not so enviable torso from the Lord's balcony in repartee to a truant lad called Andrew Flintoff, earned the nickname of Lord Snooty playing county cricket in England, got a foreigner to coach India for the first time, got Gavaskar as batting coach by sending one sms, lifted Indian cricket far above its parochial trappings, and has survived four and a half years as captain. Young talent—Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj, Mohammad Kaif, Sehwag, Irfan Pathan, M S Dhoni—has bloomed under him.
Along the way, he has also become India's most successful captain ever with 19 Test wins. Nine of those have come overseas, compared with seven in the 75 years before he became captain. Even Waugh has acknowledged it. "Ganguly is the best person to lead India. He is competitive, demanding and knows what he wants from his players," he had said after the 2001 series.
If the ban is indeed upheld, Ganguly would do well to treat it as an opportunity. Three months short of his 33rd birthday, he has time to redeem himself as batsman and captain. Ravi Shastri has said in a column: "In a sense, the suspension could not have been better timed. It will allow Ganguly time to think through his problems." Akram agrees: "It can be a blessing in disguise. He should play club games, or first-class games if there are any."
There is little evidence that his current slump is a genuine decline, especially if one looks at his one-day record. He has been the most prolific Indian batsman in the last five years, falling just short of 1,000 runs in 2004 despite not scoring a century.
Even Australians, who like to think of themselves as hard-as-nails, allow their captains an honourable exit, showing enormous patience when Greg Chappell, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh suffered crippling slumps. They were nudged, never pushed.
Ganguly, as always, will not be found short on spirit. He is no stranger to life's little twists. The joy of being selected for Bengal's Ranji team came wrapped in the dampener that he was replacing elder brother Snehashish. After being thought of as a child prodigy in 1992, he spent four years in the wilderness before bouncing back with a dream Test debut in 1996. He rebelled against the family to marry Dona. His private life has been a matter of national debate and fodder for Messrs McGrath & Co ("How's Nagma?" they asked gently the moment Ganguly would come out to bat in the 2001 series). But he has understood the occupational hazards well, stating before the West Indies tour of 2002: "Probably, I'm the most-hated captain. Anybody who can read and write can find it out."
In any case, Ganguly, the good batsman and great captain, deserves to ride into the sunset with his head held high and not forced out by a ban like this. It was just slow over rate, which, vice-captain Rahul Dravid feels, must be blamed on the entire team. It had no bearing on the outcome of the battle. And, to borrow Boris Becker's response to a shock second-round loss at Wimbledon in 1987, nobody died.