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March 18, 2007

Ganguly Lets Down His Guard

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographs by Colston Julian

He maintained a stoical silence through the crisis that threatened to stonewall his career. But his recent power play ensured that the Prince of Kolkata was crowned ‘Man of The Series’ in the last home tournament before World Cup 2007. Sourav Ganguly gets upfront and personal with Verve who air dashed to his home town to meet him in his citadel. A Verve Exclusive

His nightmare of many months ended swiftly within a few weeks in a packed stadium, on a Saturday in February, in Visakhapatnam. Returning, in December last year, from an imposed exile from the national cricketing scene, he resurfaced with a bang first, in South Africa…and then continued his power play in the two home series against West Indies and Sri Lanka. Even he could not have dreamt of a more glorious comeback or scripted it better. For, the last match of the series that our ‘Boys in Blue’ played, before the World Cup, saw the 34-year-old ‘Prince of Kolkata’ being crowned ‘Man of the Series’. No wonder then that the Sunday headlines said it all: ‘The Bengal Tiger Roars Again…’ ‘The Miracle Called Sourav….’

So, Monday morning, just a day after the members of the team returned to their homes for a refreshing break, I find myself boarding an early morning Kingfisher flight from Mumbai to Kolkata to meet Sourav Chandidas Ganguly in his citadel. For a long time – almost since 2005 when the cards had begun to be heavily stacked against him – the swashbuckler had evaded all overtures from the press, preferring to recoup quietly in the wings. Finally, late last month, the erstwhile captain and current member of the Indian squad – who’d kept his hand in the game by playing in domestic and county cricket – decided it was the right moment to speak out and be counted.

And, so it is that I am air dashing to the capital of Bengal – fretting anxiously as photographer, Colston Julian, is hustled on to the flight just in the nick of time. At the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport, our vehicle awaits us…. I ask Deen Dayal Singh, our driver for the day, if he is 100 per cent sure where Ganguly’s house is; giving me an amused glance in his rear-view mirror, he assures me quickly, “You cannot live in Kolkata and not know where Dada stays,” before speeding out of the airport.

A series of thoughts run through my mind as we get closer to our destination. Have the glorious uncertainties of cricket mellowed the man often referred to by the Australian press as ‘Lord Snooty’? Reportedly one of the few players in the history of modern Indian sport with the temerity, ambition and stature to take on the colonial rulers at their own mind game of arrogance, aggression and indifference – what is Dada like, away from the pressures of the pitch and the limelight?

“I am a simple person at home….”
In response to my message that we are outside the closed gates, he urges us to drive in. The darwan swings them open and our taxi slides to a halt right in front of his swanky, red convertible. A narrow pathway leads to a big ground floor room, that his Man Friday, Santosh Singh, shows us into. Photographs, trophies, memorabilia…there is ample evidence of his prowess at different stadiums across the globe. At the appointed hour, the door opens and he walks in quietly…. Clad in a saffron kurta and white churidar, he is the spiffy image of the archetypal Bengali bhadralok. “This is what I am like when I am at home,” he smiles, shaking hands and settling down on the curved sofa, while calling for some chai, mithai and snacks….

Obviously congratulations are in order, on his return to form and to the team. Metaphorically brushing the controversy of the last year and a half under the carpet, he emphasises that he will not talk about coach, Greg Chappell and the much-publicised spat that culminated in his being sidelined for months: “I do not worry too much about things once I walk off the field. I try to look at the positives and find a way to go ahead…. Things often happen that are beyond your control. I have developed a mindset where I don’t try to control what I cannot. I would be the first person to admit that I have made a mistake, but if I have not, then I do not let it bother me.”

“I take the lows with the highs….”
It was a philosophy that he adhered to quite strictly, when he and his career seemed to have got stonewalled in testing times – he was unseated from the captaincy, ejected from the team and pilloried in the press. “Being a Bengali in Bengal, emotions were bound to run high,” he flashbacks, commenting on the volatile reactions that had sparked off in the state. “There were many stories going around at that time. I did not speak out because it would have only added more fuel to the fire.”

Denying that he was completely shunned by those who knew him – his teammates like ‘Irfan, Yuvraj, Sehwag and Sachin’ kept in touch with him right through, he confesses though: “When you are not successful, some people have a different attitude and outlook…. I do not take notice of people who change with the times and stay away from such friends. From my past performances and successes I know that all days cannot be rosy. There are some lean patches in every player’s career, but that does not mean that I lock myself in and brood.”

“I have been truly blessed….”
The recent crisis was much more than an ordinary dry spell at the batting crease. I ask him what kept him going during the testing times and the man who does not step out onto the playing field without an image of his god in his pocket, says, “I firmly believe that there is a power over us. There is a certain pattern in everything. Though not a fanatic, I am definitely religious and god-fearing. I pray every day. I will not deny that I have worked hard to get where I am, but success and failure are a part and parcel of sports. I have been blessed with everything in life. I wouldn’t call any of the lean patches in my career, testing times. It’s too tough a phrase, even for the last few months.”

“We know that we can beat them….”
For the man who had once said, “World Cup 2007 is my goal and I believe that I have enough cricket left in me”, the exile has ended at perfectly the right moment. His ‘second coming’ is seen as the timely resurrection of a man who dreamt big for his team.

And yet, what if fate – and the hand of selectors – had not pencilled in this return into his destiny? “I am looking forward to the tournament. It is my third World Cup…. We have more or less the same team in place that we had when we reached the finals the last time. We can be a pretty successful unit….,” he says, before addressing my question. “What could I have done, life would have gone on….”

“I knew I could hold my own….”
For Ganguly, life for the last two decades and more has meant a sport of some kind or the other. While his elder brother, Snehashish, played cricket, and his father was associated with the cricket association of Bengal, young Sourav first played soccer at school. Till Circa 1983 happened and ‘Kapil’s Devils’ brought home the World Cup. “I was a regular ordinary boy, the mild sort who would not hurt anybody. Living in a joint family, I grew up amidst a whole brood of cousins, which was a great thing. We played cricket and football in the maidan outside my home,” he states, pointing to where buildings have since come up. “At festivals, particularly at Durga Pooja, we would get identical clothes and shoes and end up looking like a band. My mother put me into many classes – I played football, learnt painting and of course, studied. There was a lot of pressure to do well in school. I was a good student till class 10 which is around when I was picked up for the state Ranji team…,” he remembers.

Cricket became serious business for Ganguly – whose idols were Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and David Gower – when he was selected for his first test series against England in 1996. “I made my first two 100s on that tour and I felt confident that I was good enough to continue at that level,” he rewinds. “I then told my parents that I would like to put all my concentration into the game. The state of Bengal had not produced many international cricket players and they were happy that I had done well. I completed my education and am grateful that my college let me complete my MBA without attending many lectures.”

“Captaincy is a pressure cooker situation….”
For the young Ganguly, there was no looking back then. His rise and rise in the world of the sport has been well chronicled…right through the time that match-fixing cast a shadow on the popularity of the game. “I was made captain then,” he reminisces. “In the early stages, I did not believe that such a thing could happen but it soon became difficult to deny that. I had to get my team together again. Cricket is such a big sport that we could not afford to break down.”

Mention of his captaincy brings back a surge of memories, a kaleidoscope of images that spelled aggression, innovation and the hunger to win. True to his name, Dada proved to be a tough, intuitive and uncompromising leader. Under his stewardship, India started winning matches almost right away and forged a remarkable run that took them all the way to the World Cup final in 2003. Ganguly tried all the tactics in the sport – he did not hesitate to indulge in mind games, turning up late for a toss or sledging when the occasion rose, just to rattle the opposition….

“Take off my shirt? Never again!”
The soft-spoken gentleman sipping his chai and urging us to try the chocolate sandesh is a far cry from the man who took his shirt off and swung it wildly when India won the NatWest trophy at Lord’s, England. Someone who had not seen him in action on the field would find it difficult to imagine the fire that constantly impelled him to fierce emotion. “It is almost like being a split personality,” he laughs. “Perhaps all my energy gets exhausted when I am playing but I am hugely different as a person. As captain of the Indian team, the responsibility was tremendous. There is a huge amount of talent in the dressing room; it is important to keep their confidence high. I feel that we play our best as an aggressive unit, as fighters…. It is because I want to win that I transform completely on the field. And as far as sledging went, I was just beating them at their own game.”

In 2002, Andrew Flintoff had taken off his shirt and run on the field, irking Ganguly who did his revenge act at Lord’s just a few months later by taking off his jersey and doing a war dance in the balcony. It was pure flamboyance and passion but now he is a trifle embarrassed by the shirt-swinging cameo that has become one of the most defining moments of an Indian victory at the Englishman’s game. “I wouldn’t ever do it again,” he states. “We had won the series and I was just paying them back in their own coin. I am a very mild person, not really expressive. If I am not in a good mood, I will keep to myself. I am terribly sensitive. Over the years, after I got hammered, I have hardened. I still react explosively especially when something wrong happens to anyone, even to fellow cricketers. I hate people treating others badly. But if I do not like someone, I will quietly keep away.”

“We play to win….”
Ganguly – the left-hand batsman and right-arm bowler – is back in the team, under a captain who is temperamentally different. “I have no issues about playing under Rahul (Dravid)…. He wants to win as much as anyone else does. He has his own way of leading the team…. I had my own way of playing,” he says, explaining how he drove the team to merge seamlessly into a spirited unit. “I let the boys free. I wanted to lead a bunch of fighters. I was very close to a lot of them and they enjoyed my trust. They knew that I was a man who would not hurt anyone from behind. I did lose my temper when I did not see the boys putting in their effort. I do not mind non performance with effort…. But all my complaints and anger would finish on the field. Off it, my reactions were different.”

He is stating the obvious when he says, “Captaining India has never been easy. The longer you do it, the harder it becomes. There is so much pressure, media presence and innumerable demands – on the field and off it too.”

If Ganguly is to be believed, cricket is all in the mind. Concentration thus becomes the key word to success. Have the years honed his mental prowess or made him fear injury and failure? “There is no doubt,” he says, “that the mindset with which I played my first test was the best one. I was fearless then. I have aged and matured…and find it difficult to get that back. But I am not afraid. If I think that I am good enough to get runs, I will go out and deliver. If I walk out thinking I am going to fail, the runs are bound to dry up. If you are afraid of being injured, you will never be able to play the ball. You won’t react to it at all. That is why we spend long hours at the nets to get the reaction just right. And once out at the crease, I look at playing every ball….”

“I do not let myself get affected….”
Controversy and criticism come along with cricket and captaincy. “It is not easy living in the public eye…,” he admits. “In due course of time you develop a thick skin and learn to handle it.” He does not rue the lack of privacy, the fact that he is probably the most recognisable face in Kolkata. “It’s not an issue,” says the man who was truly king. “They have got used to me here. The people do not barge into my space. They may approach me and chat for a few minutes, but that is okay. And criticism does not hurt anyone, if you take it in the right spirit. Once I get home, I am completely isolated from what happens outside. I do read the papers and am aware of what happens, but I do not let it affect me too much.”

He is an icon to countless fans – the driver’s excitement at seeing his idol in person is palpable. But home to Ganguly is a quiet comfort zone, away from the world outside, peopled by family members who have seen him mature into an international figure from a little boy batting at the garden crease. “I do not bring my cricket back home or discuss work at the dining table,” he states. “At the most my father may talk to me about how I played.” And yet, the family is a staunch follower of his every move on the field. He laughingly points to the TV screen in the centre of a wall and says, “Before I started playing there were three television sets between all of us. Now, there is one TV in every room…and everyone has their special place to watch my matches.”

“Home is where my heart is….”
There is an interruption, as Singh opens the door to let in his wife, Dona, an accomplished Odissi dancer and daughter, Sana. They have just flown back from Lucknow after a dance performance there. Like his cricket statistics, Ganguly’s romance and elopement with his neighbour have also been well documented. “I have known her for years,” he says. “Our grandfathers had the same business. There were some objections only because I come from a very orthodox family. I was the first person to go in for a love marriage. Living together, my parents had to face a situation where their son was doing his own thing.”

All that is water under the bridge now and the entire Ganguly clan continues to cohabit with a great deal of fondness for each other. No wonder then that little Sana listens more to his parents than her own. “Sana does not take me seriously,” says the father, after the two ladies of his life have retreated to the upper sections of the household. “She is too young to realise who Sourav Ganguly is. At school, we have requested her teacher to treat her like a normal kid.”

By his own admission, he is a hands-on father when he is at home. But Ganguly spends more time in national and international arenas. Ask him if he misses out on his home and favourite Macher jhol (fish curry) and he admits to a cosmopolitan taste, imbibed by years of living out of a bag. “I am used to eating everything,” says the tried and tested cricketer. “I do not mind any kind of food when I am travelling. I am not a good packer but I do my own stuff. I actually unpack and take out my belongings only if we are staying longer in one place, when we are playing test matches. Otherwise, I only remove my cricketing gear. I do not use credit cards or carry a lot of money because I normally end up leaving my purse all over the place….”

“I am still going strong…..”
Ganguly is not worried about life after his innings at the pitch are finally over. His restaurant, Sourav’s, is a popular eatery in Kolkata. “I am not involved with that,” he confesses. “I have only lent my name. When one of my friends, Manoj Kumar, asked if I would be interested in launching one like Sachin (Tendulkar) did, I told him that I did not have the time. When he left for England I bought it off him and now my brother looks after it.”

Movies are definitely not an option – “I do not think I am good enough” – even though he has been seen in many a commercial. Right now brand ambassador for several companies like Tata, Puma, Hero Honda, Pepsi, Ganguly has finally found his comfort level before the camera. “Answering questions hurled at you after a tournament is something different from facing a camera for a commercial,” he says. His appearance in the recent spot that reminded viewers of his presence, even as he rooted for the team, seemed to touch a sore spot: “I did not want to do that advertisement. It was not completely me. Some people sing, some people dance for commercials. I just said my lines.”

Very few people know that the Gangulys own Asia’s third largest printing press and his family business is an option for the man with a management degree under his belt. “I would not really like to turn commentator as other former cricketers do; after travelling for so long, I would prefer to be closer home,” he says. Also on his horizon are several charitable ventures: a school in Kolkata and a hospital in Siliguri. His school of cricket too bears his imprint.

To rephrase a popular expression, you may take Ganguly out of cricket but you cannot take cricket out of the man. No wonder he insists, “I would like to be remembered as someone who has taken Indian cricket forward…someone who tried his best every time he went out to play for the country….”

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