A stagnant economy. No new industrial investment for ages. Growing unemployment. Mass migration of intellectual capital to other parts of India. Deteriorating law and order situation. Clear loss of ground in arts and culture - areas which the state once dominated. But West Bengal has Saurav Ganguly.
Economy: the average Bengali is inspired as much by Ganguly’s feats on the cricket field as with the money he earns through his advertising contracts. Industrial investment: Ganguly is one of the few entrepreneurs who have invested in West Bengal in recent years, setting up a mineral water plant. Growing unemployment: thousands of Bengali middle-class parents are putting their boys through cricket coaching; cricket is suddenly seen as a possible career like engineering or medicine. Migration of intellectual capital: so what if the cream has moved out, Ganguly has no plans of shifting from his ancestral home in south Calcutta. The law and order situation and the arts and culture bit: well, not much of a contribution there by Saurav (unless you count wife Donna Roy, an Odissi dancer)...
Saurav Ganguly is far more than a cricketer in a West Bengal starved of good news. This young man, from the day he made his Test debut at Lord’s in 1996 with a masterful century, has been the embodiment of Bengali hopes and aspirations. The "prince of Calcutta" is Calcutta’s prince. When Ganguly scored 183 against Sri Lanka in the 1999 World Cup, a thousand people turned up at his Calcutta home with drums and horns to celebrate. So, naturally, the city of Calcutta raised the loudest cheers on his appointment as India’s new captain last week. Ever since Sachin Tendulkar’s shock resignation, Calcuttans had been eagerly awaiting the Saurav announcement. Bengali papers, which anyway report all cricket news with Ganguly as the focus, had built up a frenzy of anticipation. The appointment was expected, so when it came, the city was ready for the celebration. Ganguly has captained India in four matches before, but, like the only other India captain from Bengal, Pankaj Roy, Ganguly’s captaincies have been stop-gap arrangements, when neither Tendulkar nor Ajay Jadeja was available. This time round, it’s different. He is truly India’s skipper.
For the average Bengali, Ganguly is an obsession. People have kept meticulous track of every slight, every setback in Saurav’s career. Ask a man on Calcutta’s street, and he will tell you of every game when Ganguly was Man of the Match and yet the captain - Tendulkar or Azharuddin - did not speak highly enough of his contribution. He will recall Sahara Cup ‘97 when Ganguly was dropped in favour of Vinod Kambli. Thousands of Calcutta households simply switched off their television sets and did not watch the match. Former Bengal opener Gopal Bose, who never played for India due to selectorial whimsy, asked people to take to the streets in protest.
Predictably there’re already at least three biographies of Ganguly available in Bengali, all doing brisk business. This adulation, perhaps, is also related to the fact that the Bengali today sees the odds stacked against him. Then there’s the long list of keenly remembered injustices meted out to Bengal cricketers, from Shute Banerjee to Arun Lal. To the Bengali, Ganguly has always been the indomitable underdog, fighting in the face of the byzantine politics of Indian cricket, returning every slight with an even more marvellous performance with the bat or ball. (Point to note here: the Bengali cricket fan does not root for Bengali cricketers, he roots for cricketers playing for Bengal, whether he is Maharashtrian or Gujarati. Just ask Arun Lal, a Punjabi who was the most loved cricketer in Bengal in the 1980s). In fact, Ganguly’s success has seen something of a cricketing revolution in his home state. In the last four years, at least 15 cricket academies have come up in Calcutta for boys in the 8-19 age group, where hawk-eyed guardians monitor the progress of their wards, coached by the likes of Arun Lal, Ashok Malhotra, Sambaran Banerjee, Raju Mukherjee, Pankaj Roy, Pranab Roy and Gopal Bose. A bulk of the membership is from Bengali middle-class families.
The Sunil Gavaskar Cricket Foundation coaches some 250 boys for Rs 250 a month. Says Jayanta Chatterjee, the director: "Gavaskar visits us several times a year, often spending hours with the boys. Last year, our junior team won four tournaments in Bengal and we helped some boys visit England. Our infrastructure is being built, but already we have six concrete pitches and other equipment to match. But we do not make promises that our boys will make it to the Test team. They come from all economic groups and till now, we have spotted 10-12 very promising people." Sayantan Roy, class IX student of a south Calcutta secondary school, enrolled in one such academy last year. Just over five feet, he cannot negotiate his pads and gloves in comfort. "I see Saurav as a role model," he says, admitting that balancing education with coaching is a problem. But his parents see cricket as a possible career for Sayantan. In case the boy does not reach the international level, he could still get a job in a bank or the railways which have a quota for players. In a state without major industrial investments for ages, it could not have been otherwise. There is some method in the madness: cricket coaching is an investment.
Of course, Calcutta’s gaiety over Ganguly’s appointment as captain of India is mixed with a sense of foreboding. "A crown of thorns", cautioned a newspaper headline. Articles and interviews reminded Ganguly that he is taking charge of an Indian team at its nadir. Even as he savours his finest hour, Ganguly as well as his countless fans are aware that his work is cut out for him. Among purists, there is also a strong sense of deja vu. After all, Pankaj Roy too led the team at Lord’s in 1959 on an English tour every bit as disastrous as India’s trip to Australia this year (in one Test, India were four wickets down for zero). But then, optimists point out, the fact that popular expectations about India’s performance have never been lower may also work to Ganguly’s advantage. Now that both Azharuddin and Tendulkar have floundered, few expect much from their successor.
The Bengali media is already overflowing with articles suspicious of the level of cooperation Ganguly will get from his team mates. Says a former player and selector who knows a thing or two about how cricket is played in the country: "With all these different lobbies active, it will be a miracle if all the players support Saurav as captain." Says Pankaj Roy: "There is so much provincialism and unsavoury intrigues involved in the selection process and especially in the appointment of the captain, that I’d rather not talk about it. Saurav has made it on sheer merit." Says bestselling writer Buddhadeva Guha: "The campaign against Saurav by some former players and their media pals was scurrilous. They said everything they could. That he is lazy, wolfs his food, doesn’t play for the team. But except for Sandeep Patil (the India coach during Ganguly’s disastrous 1991-92 tour to Australia), no other detractor has owned up to his mistake."
Ganguly, however, has honed his diplomacy skills along with his cricket. Asked if he would be able to manage a team which has Tendulkar and Azhar, his reply was carefully non-committal: "Let us see, but aren’t such questions best avoided?" He would rather talk strategy. "I would watch the performance of a promising player for two domestic seasons before putting him into the first 11, but once there, he should not be thrown out on the basis of one or two bad showings, he must get a fair chance." There’s a personal touch here: as a 17-year-old, Saurav played in only one one-dayer on the ‘91-92 Australia tour and was relegated to the wilderness for four years after scoring a solitary run in that match.
Clearly Ganguly has been thinking of captaincy, while not gunning for it. "Someday, I’ll captain India, mark my words," that’s what he reportedly told his father, Chandi Ganguly, after the ‘92 disaster. "Talent he always had, but the hard work he put in to perfect his technique has not always been appreciated," Papa Ganguly told newsmen. He has a point. Saurav’s rich-kid background and the fact that he comes from a family long associated with Bengal’s cricket establishment has, to an extent, obscured the steely determination that has been the hallmark of his international career. Inability to face genuine fast bowling, can’t score quickly enough in one-dayers, weak on the on-side, too lazy to run the singles....Ganguly has answered every criticism by just playing better by the year. He’s still accused of being a selfish batsman, yet he remains the only Indian player who, while receiving a Man of the Match award, said he should be sharing it with two others. He’s also the only Indian captain who insisted on calling his entire team on the stage to receive a trophy.
ONE of his young admirers, college student Sriparna Ghosh, makes a different point in assessing the Ganguly persona. "Saurav has true grit. He should make a good captain, because he leads from the front, batting or bowling. He’s the latest of a new series of Bengali success stories, who are more determined, money-conscious and career-driven than past heroes. Mithun, Kumar Sanu, Sushmita Sen, Nayanika Chatterjee, are other examples. They are the new Bengali achievers, people who will not remain talented also-rans in a competitive context, nor merely content to look back in nostalgia on unfulfilled potential."
Now, if only the thousands of Bengali boys and young men who run round the block with banners every time their hero scores a century also tried to emulate the wonderful qualities that make Saurav what he is....Or is that wishful thinking?