November 15, 2008
Winds of Change
A great much about Ganguly has in fact so little to do with his actual game. Mere mention of his name evokes memories of Lords (not his century scoring debut, but his Tarzan like antics on the dressing room balcony), the many on the field tussles, and his famed mentoring skills. One thread, though, runs common through all the above, and that is the man's penchant of both creating, and dogged by, drama. The lore and stories about him run like those never-ending, twists-filled, intricate and complex soap operas. Right from his eminently forgettable international debut Down Under back in the 91-92 series, down to his swan song against, both ironically and fittingly, the same opposition, with a brief spat towards the end with yet another Australian that almost put his game to rest, Ganguly's career careened wildly from one end, as being the most revered, to the other, as being the most reviled. There is no middle ground for this man; extreme accentuated his aura and adversity brought both the best and worst in him. If one had to choose a Shakespearan (the greatest dramatist ever) title for Ganguly's career, 'The Tempest' would come the closest. Just like it was with Winston Churchill, whose political career was defined by the Second world war campaign, Ganguly would be cherished more for his accomplishments against Australia than against any other opposition. Though there were more gifted and talented people who were handed over the reigns of the team before Ganguly, no one ever came close to giving the team a face, a character, an attitude, not to mention, even a little swagger. Back in the day, Aussies were the perennial bad boys, English were the most graceful, Pakistanis, the most talented, West Indies, the most feared, and Indians were, well,....nice. The team, however, has come a long way from being just nice under Ganguly. Nothing was held back - runs, wickets, abuses, epithets and sledges. He made sure that his genoristy of paying back in the same coin, and sometimes a little extra, was infectious enough as to be picked up by the whole team. And the gift just kept on giving from then on. It is quite surprising that a man this mellow, level-headed and composed outside of the arena was anything but, once dressed in whites and tri-colors. He is one who many loved to hate, and even more, hated to love. Ganguly, in short, was no so much as what he meant to himself, as much as what he was to others. Depending on who held the mouthpiece, the answers again ranged from one extreme to another. Much like the man.
Even his game reflected this see-saw. The first few deliveries that he faced, immaterial of the quality of the bowler, almost always belied his great accomplishments, records and plunders. They were defensive and tentative at best. The watchful (even, uncertain) footwork matched the apprehensive look on the face (and trying to get his contact lenses in place by constantly widening his eyes didn't exactly help imposing the look of confidence and arrogance either). But the real magic happened, once he found his feet and set his eyes (literally). If the caressing cover drives, the delicate bisecting of the fields, and the magic wand he wielded on the off side measured up on one side of the scale, it would be more than balanced by that one single stroke, of him hopping down the pitch a couple of paces, scooping up the ball from an almost crouching position, and hoisting it cleanly over the long-on or deep mid-wicket boundary. What Sachin is to straight drives, Ponting is to pulls, Lara, to square cut, Ganguly is to his dance down the pitch to the spinner. And what an amazing grace that little strut was! The initial tense moments, that made him look like the oldest newcomer at every game, were more than made up for, once he got past his initial nerves, and settled down as the seasoned accomplisher he always was. And he made sure he reserved his best to the last. Now, that is truly a mark of a great dramatist! Many in the current Indian team can directly attribute their stay and success to this man; many in the current generation can attribute their renewed interest in the game to this man; many a win, home and abroad, can be credited to this man; and many more are indebted for changing the face of the team to this man.
While Ganguly was all about drama, his senior and junior (senior as a team member and junior as a captain) Kumble is all about deadpan. There is little about Kumble that can called wild, temperamental and capricious (except those few moments after he captured a prized wicket, which, as per Inzamam, was when Kumble got more angry and mad than when he was bowling). Workman like, clockwork like, tireless and mirthless - Kumble was the closest that India had for a bowling machine for almost a couple of decades. For conventional wisdom that dictates how a bowler found a little lacking in the art of spinning the ball can never succeed at the highest level, Kumble's career and record state the contrary, proving how success has so less to do with inspiration (in cricketing terms, "talent") and so much with perspiration (in those same terms, "variation"). Post the golden era of Indian spin bowling during the 70s, and following the great lull in the scene during much of the 80s (despite Dilip Doshi, Shivlal Yadav, Maninder Singh and a few such), Indian spin fortunes seemed to follow the same fate, of a slow painful demise, as that other sport that Indians pulped the rest of the world at for a long time - hockey. And the appearance on the scene of a lanky bespectacled lad who was mistaken for a medium pacer than a conventional spinner, didn't exactly bring any credibility to the revival efforts, leave alone, the once-famed invincibility. The reason was simple - the ball rarely turned in Kumble's hands. And Kumble instead turned this to his advantage. What he couldn't achieve by spinning the ball, he more than made up for it, by toying with other variables in slow bowling - length, pace and bounce. If the world wouldn't be kind enough to brand him as a regular spinner, he made sure he couldn't be played as a medium pacer either, earning his wickets by slipping through the cracks of convention. In effect, he was a genuine hyphenate - right arm-unorthodox-slow bowling (for a pacer)-fast moving (for a spinner)-(occasional) leg break tweaker. And enough confusion ensued sufficient wickets.
In a game that is increasingly becoming batsmen-friendly, where mere survival as a bowler became a big ask, longevity remains the sole yardstick for measuring a person's true talent. And the applause should be even louder for someone who could do so much damage with so little at his disposal. He was a one-man army of sorts, with leg-before as his preferred mode of dismissal, followed by the rattling of the timber. Certainly less flashy than the prodigious Warne, and more predictable than the wily Murali, Kumble contributed his wisdom of attrition to the art of spin bowling, to complete the missing piece of the portrait with this often overlooked aspect of bowling (much like how his other state-mate Dravid wore down the opposition by attrition than by attacking). The process might not be pleasing to the eyes, but the results painted a totally different picture. True, he never had a "ball of the century" moment; true, he didn't have doosras or carrom balls in his quiver; true, he bowled fewer unplayable deliveries than Warne and Murali. But then again, no other bowler toyed with the batsmen by creating as much confusion and vacillation in terms of their footwork, as much as Kumble. If spin can be defined as an art of deceit, Kumble was a kind sorcerer, as all he did was plant a small seed of self-doubt in the batsmen's minds with his rushing deliveries and letting their own inner demons do the rest. At his best, pitch mattered the least to Kumble. There are only a handful in cricketing history, and hardly anyone in the spinning kind, who never quite needed that extra assistance. And that makes Kumble such a hard act to follow - some one who thrived on what he was not than on what he was.
Ganguly and Kumble, true legends in their own right, left the Indian team in a much better position than when they joined in, each leaving inimitable, indelible and unique stamps in their own right - one of character and the other, of confusion.
One needs to jog way back in time to find Australia on the losing side of the equation without a single win to its credit in an entire series (discounting the one-off runoffs). It happened last in 1989, which meant none in existing bunch knew how to confront the same misery they had been meting out to the rest of the world for a good 19 years. The difference between the Aussies and the rest of the world is not their stellar batting lineup that they used so efficiently to subdue the opposition with, which many other nations also have had the privilege, during that same period. Though the 2-0 loss can be partially attributed to the going away of Gilchrist, Langer, Martin and such, it is in fact the loss of McGrath and Warne that leveled the playing field for the rest, and put the Aussies on an even keel (even bringing them to their knees, like in the series in question). The priming up of the opposition by McGrath with his initial burst of wickets in the first session, only to setup Warne for the full blown assault in the later sessions, have become such a regular feature in all their fixtures, that they simply didn't have enough left in their ammunition, once those major forces were spent. They clearly lacked and sorely missed McGrath's consistency and Warne's penetration, as the current lot is only a pale shadow of its glorious predecessors. That said, there is no reason to feel sorry for their present predicament. Change of guard is a common and a seasonal phenomenon. And the more successful the players are at their craft, the harder it becomes finding their replacements. Success is a curse in times of transition. The Aussies went through this same exact routine during the mid to the late 80s until they finally honed in on a bunch, who carried their team to the highest crests in cricketing achievements in both forms of the game - consecutive world cups and record number of successive test wins (and twice, at that). Now that the wave has moved on, they sail on the same plane as the rest. But given their strong cricket establishment and a competitive domestic circuit, it is just a matter of time before they unearth the next tormentor.
The current Indian team in closing in on the heels of the same transition troubles as Australia, but with roles reversed. What the Aussies are finding hard to replace and replenish their bowling attack, India is all set to follow the footsteps in the batting matters. However even with the loss of Kumble, since the bowling unit seem to have the right mix of youth and experience in both fast and spin departments, India might not face the same rough weather with the eventual retirement of the last member of the famed middle order. Planning to rebuild a side in the midst of retirement announcements of key members of a team is a tricky proposition in sports, as it is in any business. Luck plays an important role in deciding whether the old would go out as a whole (like the West Indian dreaded pace battery) or if the replacement routine is played out in a phased manner. Though Dravid is struggling more for form than with his age at this stage, if Sachin and Laxman can keep themselves fit and choose their battles carefully, India has enough time to plan ahead and enough personnel waiting in the wings, to take over from the old guard in the next 2-3 years. And till the young ones find their feet, they can be ably supported on the broad shoulders of a strong bowling unit that is only just about peaking. History shows that Australia is the only team able to manage their turn overs quite efficiently, and wisdom lies in taking a leaf out of their experience. Because when they shuffled their deck the last time around, they came up with a winning combination that lasted for about 19 years. And those are some very good odds to aspire to.
Change is in the air all over the world, right from American politics, down to market-place economics; and cricket is not far behind. The question with the good teams is never about whether they would be able to pick up their game and continue along their winning ways, but when. And till then, as that Alanis Morissette song says "it is fun watching the stoic squirm".
Srinivas Kanchibhotla how you liked the article
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