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Back where it began

As Ganguly prepares to play his last Test at Lord's, he fondly looks back at his magical debut in 1996, writes Rohit Mahajan.
Hindustan Times | By Rohit Mahajan, London
UPDATED ON JUL 19, 2007 12:19 PM IST

Sourav Ganguly took a wicket off the seventh ball he bowled in his debut Test at Lord’s — not too many people remember that dismissal of Nasser Hussain in what was a landmark Test.

That game saw two remarkable debuts and one sad farewell. Ganguly and Rahul Dravid entered the Test arena that Thursday 11 years ago — four days later, Dickie Bird raised his finger for the last time, his final decision as an umpire.

Eleven years on, as Ganguly prepares to play what is almost certainly his last Test at Lord’s, his prowess as a seamer are likely to come to the fore. The fading of Irfan Pathan means that Ganguly would probably take the role of the elusive all-rounder, allowing the Indians to field seven batsmen, three pacemen and one spinner.

It is also likely to be the last Test for Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar at Lord’s. And on a windswept Tuesday afternoon, after the nets, Ganguly went back in time to that Test, which gave India their most successful captain ever, and a most consistent batsman.

Ganguly tried to compare his first Test at Lord’s with what will surely be his last, what went on his mind as he compiled that masterful 131, and how times have changed. He was wistful and emotional, recalling the times gone by, wishing they were not really gone.

“I could never have the same frame of mind I had going into that Test,” Ganguly reminisced. “It was probably the best frame of mind I had in my entire career — I could not replicate it over the 10-11 years, although I’ve scored runs all over the world.”

Youth is a strange thing — it inures you from danger, insulates you from fear, and Ganguly seemed to wish to be young again, that fearless young man of 23 who smashed 20 fours in his debut innings.

“I never had any nervousness, never had any fear of failure in 1996,” he said. “When you are young, you don’t worry about a lot of things. You start doing that when you grow older. I was more carefree and enjoyed the full five days of the match.”

With a wistful smile on his face, the former captain added: “I wish I could get back into that mind set in this Test.”

That match was indeed the beginning of a remarkable career — his silken batting, his drives on the off-side were showered with unstinted praise. Dravid even brought divinity into the picture, declaring that Ganguly on the off-side could be matched only by God.

In one-day cricket, in which he made his debut more than four years before his first Test, he went on to become the leading batsman of the times, often surpassing even Tendulkar.

Discussing his education as a batsman, Ganguly said: “I’ve evolved as a Test batsmen… You learn to play in different conditions, you learn about your own strengths and weaknesses. You have to work your game out to get better.”

Less than four years after glory at Lord’s, when Sachin Tendulkar opted to empty the hot seat after the drubbing in Australia, Ganguly was the captain.

During his five years at top, he became adept at arousing contrasting, antipodal emotions in India and abroad. Perhaps his finest hour came when he led India to a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Australia in early 2001, when he managed to rattle even the hard-boiled Aussies with his calculated insouciance.

He was hailed as the most inspirational, the most successful man to lead India — and also the most controversial.

The lowest ebb came when, after the very public and very messy fallout with coach Greg Chappell, he was stripped of captaincy and then dropped from the team.

That was the toughest time of his life, time that nourished his celebrated fighting spirit. He believes he came out stronger.

“It made me a tougher player, and when I came back in South Africa, I was much tougher than I was when I played my best cricket,” Ganguly said. “Since the time I’ve no more been captain, I’ve concentrated on my game, I’m more relaxed. When you are the captain, you end up doing a whole lot of things.”

Did he ever think about quitting the game?

“Those eight months when I was left out, I had all sort of thoughts going on in my mind. Things have changed, and I've got my place back in the squad.”

And how does it feel to be back at Lord’s, playing under a co-debutant in that Lord's Test? “I've enjoyed playing under Rahul. I’ve enjoyed these eight months,” he said. “Captaining is not easy and with India, it gets harder.” And is there a possibility of replicating those five days, five days of wonder and wonderful success, at Lord's in 1996?

“It’s a complete circle you go through, but those five days were different,” said Ganguly.

They were indeed, and the five days from Thursday will be very different, five days on which the Big Three of Indian cricket will be in a Lord’s Test for the final time.

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