By Vivek Krishnan

Sourav Ganguly played a stellar role as captain in shaping the careers of Harbhajan, Zaheer, Yuvraj, Sehwag….

The epoch-defining India-Australia series of 2001 has an abundance of engrossing stories and anecdotes. Among them is an instructive snippet, narrated by commentator Harsha Bhogle, about Sourav Ganguly’s leadership that is worth recounting. Hark back to the evening of March 14, 2001 – the miraculous fourth day of that miraculous Eden Gardens Test. VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid had just batted the entire day without being dismissed in that energy-sapping Kolkata humidity to help India reach 589-4 in their second innings – a position of safety entirely unexpected when they were made to follow on with a 274-run first-innings deficit. And to celebrate the superlative, unbroken stand between Laxman and Dravid, a small get-together was organised ahead of a gripping fifth and final day.

Considering India’s 10-wicket defeat in the first Test in Mumbai and the hopeless situation halfway into this one, the popular sentiment seemed to be that the hosts should play it safe and that a draw would be a fabulous result. In the middle of such a discussion, Ganguly apparently summoned Harbhajan Singh – a scrawny 20-year-old sporting a black turban and a wispy beard – to his side and declared to his eager audience that the off-spinner would win them the Test. Harbhajan, of course, had taken 7-123 in the first innings including a hat-trick, but Ganguly’s assertion told you all you needed to know about his shrewdness and ability to motivate youngsters. Harbhajan duly went on to repay Ganguly’s faith, not just with what he did on the final day of that historic Test but by establishing himself as India’s pre-eminent spinner through the 2000s.

The man from Bengal – Dada or sometimes Dadi to his friends and colleagues – had gone out on a limb to back Harbhajan right at the start of that series. Numbers or past performances didn’t really merit it: he hadn’t added to his eight Test appearances since playing against New Zealand in October-November 1999. The selectors were insisting on having Sarandeep Singh in the side instead of Harbhajan, but Ganguly would have none of it once he saw Harbhajan bowl during a conditioning camp in Chennai before the series.

“Sourav [Ganguly] was a very, very strong advocate for his inclusion for that series,” John Wright, who was India coach, told ESPNCricinfo’s The Cricket Monthly in 2021. “From what I had seen at the camp, I totally endorsed those views, but Sourav’s influence would have been much greater than mine during those selection discussions.”

Ganguly wielded his influence not just for Harbhajan but a slew of youngsters who went on to form the fulcrum of the Indian set-up. Whether it was Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Mohammad Kaif or MS Dhoni – all in their late teens or early 20s when they first emerged on the national scene – Ganguly offered implicit support once he recognised ability in a particular player. Having been given the captaincy after the sordid match-fixing episode in 2000, Ganguly was smart to realise that he needed to turn to the youngsters to restore the trust of the public. He had the experience of Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid and Anil Kumble to depend on, of course, but the team needed an injection of youth and exuberance to begin an altogether fresh and successful chapter.

He put his weight behind Sehwag opening in Tests. He decided to blood Zaheer Khan and Yuvraj Singh in the Indian team straightaway at an ICC event – the 2000 Knockout Trophy (later rechristened as the Champions Trophy) – when they were raw and unpolished. When it sometimes boiled down to choosing between Harbhajan and Kumble in overseas Tests, he didn’t shy away from taking the tough call of backing the former at the risk of alienating the senior pro.

Yuvraj Singh thrived under Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy in one-day cricket.

Ganguly’s affable demeanour and ability to put people at ease were key factors in making his captaincy tick. With the younger players, he mostly played the role of a doting elder brother, putting an arm around their shoulders and dispelling their insecurities to get the best out of them.

Sehwag, for instance, began as a middle-order batter and made a century on his Test debut in South Africa batting at No 6. The presence of the Fab Four – Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly – in the Indian middle order, however, meant that Sehwag’s place was uncertain. Knowing all too well that India would be blundering by keeping a player of Sehwag’s calibre out of the side, Ganguly used his persuasive skills to cajole the dasher from Delhi to open the batting in Tests -- a transformational move that altered the course of many five-day matches.

“Viru, no one made a career by sitting on the bench,” Ganguly told Sehwag. “Why don’t you open? And opening the batting is not a skill anyone is born with. If (Matthew) Hayden and (Justin) Langer could do it, so can you.”

What seemed to convince Sehwag was Ganguly’s word that he will not be dropped on a whim. “Sourav told me that he will give me three to four innings as an opener. Even if I fail, I will continue to play. He said, ‘Before I drop you, I will again give you a chance in the middle order,’” Sehwag has recalled in numerous interviews.

Dhoni arrived on the scene a few years later, and Ganguly was perhaps beginning to get jaded from the pulls and pressures of India’s captaincy by then. His own form was also starting to let him down, but his judgement and recognition of talent remained undiminished. Dhoni had registered scores of 0, 12, 7* and 3 in his first four outings for India, but that wasn’t going to cloud Ganguly’s understanding. He sent him out at No 3 in an ODI against Pakistan on a sultry April afternoon in Vizag in 2005 and in return saw the wicketkeeper-batter hit a swashbuckling 148.

Ganguly’s five-year captaincy career came to an end shortly thereafter, in a bitter fight with coach Greg Chappell, during which he was also dropped from the team. He did come back for a triumphant return in December 2006. But it is his stellar role in shaping the careers of a bunch of youngsters who went on to become a permanent part of Indian cricket’s narrative that will never be forgotten.

2001 - 2006