So, Saurav Ganguly's announced that he's playing his last Test series. Despite the protestations of shock and surprise from many quarters, this was clearly on the cards. Not so much because Ganguly wasn't performing well enough in Tests, but because of the ridiculous media pressure on him. More on the modern-day media and cricket journalism on another day perhaps. But it seems to me that Ganguly was 'pushed' by the media rather than the selectors, to take this decision.
It's not as if Ganguly will count as one of the all-time greats in Tests - he probably wouldn't even make it to an all-time Indian Test XI, as a batsman alone. If at all a place is found for him, it would have to be for his captaincy. As a captain, in all forms of the game, he stands head and shoulders above other Indian captains in history. Even above the likes of Gavaskar, Wadekar and Kapil, who can point to equally significant victories. That's because Ganguly was that rare combination of a smart tactician and a fine leader of men (a Gavaskar and Kapil rolled into one, sort of). Besides, at least on a few occasions, he also led from the front with bat in hand. That he wasn't called upon to do so more often was his good luck - having the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Sehwag in his batting lineup. But his ability to get the best out of his team was unmatched by anyone in Indian cricket history. Youngsters and peers alike responded to his leadership, and as a result, India became an achiever in both forms of the game.
How does one evaluate Ganguly the batsman? The usual descriptors have appeared in the media since his announcement. God of the off-side. One of the greatest batsmen in one-day cricket. Clobberer of spin bowling (especially left-arm spinners). And of course, lalloo against the short ball! He was indeed all of that, and more. Some amazing natural batting talent, mixed with a few weaknesses - those weaknesses made him seem more mortal, and yet made sure we got to see his guts. He never really overcame these weaknesses - he continues to be uncomfortable against the ball headed for his ribs or helmet; he continues to give the occasional catching practice off good-length balls outside the off stump. But he delivered the runs despite these weaknesses. He'd cream one through the covers, get hit on the helmet next ball, but play a spanking pull to midwicket off the next short ball.
Ganguly faced less of a challenge in one-day cricket, with its bowling and fielding restrictions, and he ended up as one of the all-time greats. His record speaks for itself. Of course for true connoisseurs, the real test is Test cricket, where a pair of fast bowlers can bowl in tandem for an hour, or a spinner on a fifth-day crumbly pitch can attack with four men around the bat. And here too, the numbers speak volumes. Ganguly was a fine batsman, no doubt. But a Test average of 41-odd, in an era where the greats (Tendulkar, Ponting, Kallis, Dravid) averaged in the 55-60 range over equally long careers, means that Ganguly cannot be bracketed with these peers. Of course averages cannot be the sole criterion for greatness. We'd certainly make exceptions for Lara and Inzamam, who retired with averages well below that 55-60 range. But 41 is a long way away...
Ganguly is a good example of a modern-day player who benefited enormously from the popularity of (and frequency of) one-day cricket. Given the volume of cricket played these days, a Test series failure can be quickly forgotten if it's followed by good one-day performances. Also, the success (of self and team) in one-dayers can easily rub off on subsequent Test performances - by improving the player's confidence level, for one, and reducing any worries about his place in the team. Another player who might have thus benefited, if only he hadn't shot himself in the foot, was Vinod Kambli. Again, an extremely talented left-handed batsman, with similar weakness against the short ball. He was however selected and dropped so many times from the one-day team that he never got that confidence back. And he was never picked again for the Test team after being dropped with a Test average of 54!
Ganguly's departure will create an open slot in the middle order, probably at #6 (with Laxman moving up to #5). Much has been written about how there are no contenders for this slot, and how Ganguly has hung around only because there are no replacements. That's poppycock, frankly. Dravid and Ganguly were totally untested when they made their debuts, replacing a seasoned batsman like Sanjay Manjrekar. In contrast, today's potential replacements have had lots of exposure to international cricket - even young kids like Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina, not to mention the "lost generation" of Yuvraj Singh and Mohd. Kaif. In terms of talent, they don't come across as inferior to Ganguly at all. Whether they have the mental strength to emulate (or surpass) Ganguly in performance, we'll only know when we throw them into the deep end. Yuvraj and Kaif have been given several chances in Tests, although not necessarily in decent spells. They've been frustratingly inconsistent. But there certainly is plenty of bench strength with kids like Sharma, Raina and Virat Kohli around.
So, as Ganguly bids goodbye, I have some great memories - so many lovely cover drives that just blur together, the shirt-twirling performance at Lord's, the 144 at Brisbane, a 90-odd to chase down a tricky target in Sri Lanka... But the most fun memory of Ganguly, and one which illustrates his cheeky, naughty nature that so aggravated Steve Waugh and others, came during the 2003 World Cup. Ganguly had a contract with news channel NDTV for brief interviews after each match. Now NDTV is an English language channel, and the interviewer asked every single question in English, but Ganguly gave every single answer in Hindi, leaving the interviewer nonplussed! I don't know, it just made me smile :-)