In his 47 Tests as captain, Md Azharuddin averaged 43.93 but could lead the country to victory in just half the matches that weren't drawn. And in his 25 Tests, Sachin scored at the rate of 51.35 runs per inning, but could only ensure a 40 per cent success rate. Saurav Ganguly, on the other hand, has set a scorching pace with five wins in eight Tests (success: 68.75 per cent), including a series triumph against the Aussies and the first-ever Indian Test win away from the subcontinent in 15 years. But...
Ganguly's own batting form is plumbing the depths. Just 326 runs in his eight Tests as skipper at an average of 27.16, with just two 50s and no century. Just 120 runs in his last 9 Test innings with scores of 8, 1, 23, 48, 22, 4, 5, 9 and 0. And just 14 runs in the three innings of the two-Test series in Zimbabwe. Suddenly, that old familiar question is doing the rounds: Can the world's-most-powerful-batting-lineup-at-home-and-on-paper afford a captain who cannot score?
And, after a Ganguly duck sparked yet another collapse on the fourth day of the second Test to allow the Zimbabweans to square the series, the knives are already out:
l "His horror story continues. He failed again and on his present form, he doesn't look like making runs," wrote former captain K. Srikkanth in The Hindu. "In the current scenario, it wouldn't be a bad idea if Ganguly drops himself from the side for a Test or two and reworks his batting."
l "Perhaps Chandu Borde and Co have already thought of an alternative for the tour of Sri Lanka," wrote Joseph Hoover in Deccan Herald. "India cannot afford to carry driftwood as the Aussies did of Mark Taylor. They, unlike India, had the balance to sustain the prolonged lean form of Taylor."
At least against the Aussies, it was easy to see why Ganguly was having such a bad time. Glenn McGrath had marked him out, there was his famous 'toss' spat with Steve Waugh, and there were all those wicked things Ian Chappell was writing and saying. But it is the ease with which even the comparatively pedestrian Zimbabwean attack has managed to sort out Ganguly that has set tongues wagging. Ganguly's batting average this year is hurtling towards the single-digit mark. His highest score in the last 18 months? Eighty-four, against Bangladesh.
There is bewilderment this side of Bangladesh. Says former national selector S. Banerjee: "It's sad to see him failing to score. He's obviously under a lot of pressure." Adds former Bengal captain Raju Mukherjee: "Under normal circumstances, he would have smoothly driven the ball on the up. It's clear that his low confidence is making him think twice before he executes a stroke. Hence the edges." Points out former Test batsman Praveen Amre: "His body language is negative. He seems to be a very worried man."
Pressure? Worried? Low confidence? Whatever happened to the Prince of Calcutta, he of the divine timing and silken grace who hadn't seen a low trot since 1996? And, whatever happened to the Royal Bengal Tiger who, if you were to believe Rahul Dravid, could have titled his autobiography The Difference between God and Ganguly merely on the basis of his off-side play? Why has Ganguly's form, like a mistress, ditched him in spite of the pooja at Srikalahasti?
When the Indian team arrived in Zimbabwe, Ganguly intended to let his bat do all the talking, and indeed it appeared he would.The first game in Mutare passed off in a jiffy. Against cfx Academy, Ganguly chose to come back to the pavilion after an impressive half-century. So sure was he of his form, he didn't even venture out in the second innings, asking newcomers like Hemang Badani and Sameer Dighe to get themselves attuned to the conditions.
Before the first Test in Bulawayo, he remarked: "There's little wrong with my batting. I'm pretty sure it'll fall in place." And after a trademark cover drive for four, it almost did. But Heath Streak sent down a brute of a ball which rose from a length and brushed his shirt on the way to the keeper. He was ruled out, but Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri and Navjot Singh Sidhu, sitting in the press box, had their doubts. Then, the historic Test win helped Ganguly forget the horror.
In the run-up to the second Test, Ganguly pondered long and hard on how to shake off his poor form. He thought of following the method most Test players adopt to get going again—start smacking the ball right from the first delivery. "But I quickly discarded it," he says. "I realised that if I started hitting from the start, I would be accused of not playing the way Test cricket is played."
Gavaskar advised him to avoid his favourite shots on the backfoot in the point region, to concentrate on playing in the "V" and to unfurl his full range of strokes only after getting some runs. Ganguly himself opted for two, sometimes three, nets in the couple of sessions possible between the two back-to-back Tests. But to no avail. He failed in both innings in Harare.
Ganguly admits he is in the middle of a bout of poor form (see interview) although he says he's timing the ball as well as he has done all through his career: "But you do sometimes try harder and do something extra which you shouldn't be doing." Worse, there are whispers in Mumbai that during the second innings of the second Test, he hid behind the mask of "middle-order batsman" and sent a clueless Dighe to go out there and get mauled.
His failures have, however, cast a dark shadow over his future. The buzz in Calcutta is that he's inviting too much pressure on himself by continuing to rub selectors the wrong way with his "demands". His insistence on Yuvraj Singh's inclusion in the one-day squad has apparently ruffled the powers-that-be.
Plus, there is all the talk of the way he conducts himself with his team-mates. Within a couple of days of landing in Zimbabwe, Ian Chappell again wrote that Ganguly was arrogant with his players. Says Arvind Lavakare: "I am ready to believe that Ganguly is not a very pleasant person on the field. When there is a misfield, there is so much annoyance on his face, so much irritability that it can put off a young player. Ganguly seldom exudes warmth and goodwill on the field."
But Ganguly is a changed man now. Headstrong he always was. Now he is a tempered man with a philosophical bent of mind. "As a player and captain, people are entitled to comment and react on my cricket," he says. This was the same skipper who abrasively said once "It's a lot of crap, man," when asked why he was turning up late for the toss.
And Manu Joseph in Mumbai With Tirtha Gautam in Calcutta, Anant Gaundalkar and Krishna Prasad