A year ago, Sourav Ganguly was almost untouchable, Irfan Pathan a pariah.
On December 5, 2006, Ganguly had landed at Potchefstroom, joined the team and came face to face with the Greg Chappell, first his coach and sometime mentor, later a bitter antagonist.
Ten months before that, 71 runs in two innings at Karachi, as India crashed to a humbling, horrifying defeat against Pakistan, were insufficient to save his place. A Test career that began in a blaze of glory at Lord’s seemed to be over.
Yet, unwanted by the coach, unsure of his reception from teammates, mocked at by the most of the media, fired by injured pride, Ganguly landed in South Africa. Thus began a reality stranger than fiction, a tale of grit and glory, peaking in most unbelievable fashion on Sunday as, at the age of 35 years and 154 days, Ganguly romped to his first double-century in Test cricket.
More than just the numbers
In 20 innings since his return in the Johannesburg Test, Ganguly has amassed 1034 runs at 57.44; if we remove the runs devalued by association with Bangladesh, the total is 906 from 17 innings, at over 60 an innings.
But Ganguly is a man who matters much more than the sum of his numbers; his aggression, his insouciance gall his opponents. The manner of his scoring; streaky, airy ones over the slips followed by deft drives through the covers, still infuriate bowlers.
And he has a genius for spotting and nurturing genius. The last time Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh batted together in a Test, at that Karachi game, after India were 74/4, Yuvraj smashed a breathtaking 122.
There was a feeling of déjà vu in Bangalore on Saturday.
That lovin’ feelin’
Yuvraj said his father wouldn’t like the fact that he missed out on a double-century; Ganguly, playing his 99th Test, was not about to give it away.
Wave upon Mexican wave of the highest decibel rose from the Chinnaswamy, as Ganguly dispersed the field on Sunday morning, unsettling the bowlers with his drives on the off and fierce pulls. Yasir Arafat was hitting the seam and moving the ball both ways, but once Ganguly attacked him, the debutant paceman broke.
When Pathan joined Ganguly, the attack intensified, the bowling fell to pieces. At one point, all the Pakistani fielders were left with their arms crossed in front of their chests, holding their chins, a picture of gloom.
Coming in from the cold
Pathan, the man who was to open India’s bowling, looked a complete batsman; rarely beaten, he displayed a straight bat when he drove, his timing perfect; he leapt down the pitch to smash the spinners for sixers with the greatest ease.
Aptly, he got to his 102 with a six --- he had feared losing the opportunity when No. 11 Ishant Sharma was left to play four balls, and wanted to get it over with. “I went for a six because it is better to be dismissed on 96 rather than remain 96 not out!” Pathan later laughed.
“I thought that if I take a single, Ishant could get out… And a spinner was bowling, so I had a go,” Pathan said. “I got my first first-class hundred (in South Africa last year) also with a six.”
That was at Potchefstroom, in the game Ganguly edged in with an 83 against Rest of South Africa.
But the story changed dramatically from there. On December 29, plagued by consistent lack of form, Pathan returned to India, becoming the first Indian player to be sent back mid-tour. A year on, strange, contrasting journeys brought them back together. For India, a happy day was here again.