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The comeback of a captain

Sourav Ganguly believed in himself and his team mates. The result, amazing recovery after the `Aussie maul' and a winning spree thereafter. For the gutsy captain now, nothing is an impossible task.

AT THE HELM: Sourav Ganguly proved the critics wrong.

THE PRINCE of Kolkata is smiling, at last. That can be an ominous sign for his adversaries in the on-going World Cup. For the Indian captain, Sourav Ganguly, seemed to have derived immense motivation after a visit to the historic Pietermaritzburg near Durban, a destination, which changed the face of India's history and later of South Africa itself. To state that he played a key role in making the entire squad believe in themselves that they are capable of much better performances than they put in the early phase of the World Cup is stating the obvious.

Quite honestly, from the Indian perspective, a semi-final berth was much more than what the pre-Cup expectations were. It may not be out of place to mention here that ever since 1992 edition, India always boasted of a line-up, which matched with the best in the business. The problem area was on the attitudinal front. In South Africa too, even if India had not qualified for the Super Six, the unmistakable impression would have been that the best team in terms of individual talent failed to progress further and not that they didn't have the talent to slog it out there.

And perhaps, this is where Ganguly (226 one-day internationals, 8403 runs, 50 half-centuries, 21 hundreds) stands out. Not very often does one come across a skipper in Indian cricket who cares a hoot to the `expert opinion'. The disdainful manner in which he tends to ignore the free-of-cost advice from the ex-cricketers may border on arrogance for the fan in the street. But his self-belief cannot be questioned. He is primarily a player's captain and who never runs down his own team-mate. He is not one of those captains who prefers to pick the team to please an individual or a lobby. If Ganguly feels someone can be good, that player will get the nod. The classic examples are Mohd Kaif and Dinesh Mongia in batting and Ashish Nehra in bowling. From beyond the boundary, one can be tempted quite easily to question Ganguly's wisdom. But, if the issue is viewed from the players' perspective, what more can they ask for than the complete support of his captain.

This is what gelled the team together. Once the `Young Brigade's confidence is restored with some timely words of encouragement, it never entertained any doubts whether they will be in for the next match or not. Consequently, they are much more focussed. The bubbling enthusiasm is almost infectious every time they are in action on the field. The unbelievable effort of Mohd Kaif to run out Nick Knight of England, a la Jonty Rhodes, bears testimony that the young guns are there in the battle. No matter, their bats are not talking as well they were expected to. But the mood and the determination to give more than 100 per cent is what transformed the Indian teams into a match-winning combination.

Any captain would have been on a silent search for excuses after the disastrous performance against the defending champions, Australia, so early in the World Cup. That was the phase when his own brother penned a column ridiculing Ganguly and when almost the entire nation was gunning for his head. And, it would be naive to presume that the team out there in South Africa was not aware of the gravity of the backlash at home after that defeat. One can comfortably visualise the trauma Ganguly might have undergone and the monumental task he had on hand to keep the team together. The most "painful'' have been the way the Indian team was put on trial by the former cricketer-turned-commentators. "They are doing their job and we have a job too,'' he remarked. But the whip issued to the players to avoid as much as possible these `expert commentators' was good enough to make every player feel how important he is to the team's success. In a way, the nation-wide protests have only made Ganguly doubly determined to set the clock right and send the right message. The shrewd leader that he is, quickly realising that his own indifferent form may not contribute much in terms of giving a meaning to the message, he quite rightly chose the best batsman - Sachin Tendulkar - to tell the Indians back home to support them in the hour of crisis and that it was not all over.

And, the results were there for all to see. One of the key members of the team management reveals that Ganguly quickly engaged himself in one-to-one talks with the players. The logic was simple. Each one of them was reminded the importance of playing in a World Cup of this magnitude and the immediate need to rise to the occasion. Even if you are not successful, show the effort there on the field, was the message. What a change it brought about! No doubt the biggest contributor being the Mumbai genius, Sachin Tendulkar. It is also said that the Indian captain very subtly conveyed the message to the players that only he and the coach John Wright will decide who should be in the playing eleven and not the media. This seemed to have a stunning impact. Look at Kaif and Mongia. Both big flops despite the former's 35 against Pakistan. Yet, Ganguly strongly believed that they are an integral part on the field. He gave more importance to the bits and pieces performances from these fringe players and looked up to the established stars including himself to come up with the big knocks. It would be an understatement to say that Sachin's classy knocks made all the difference.

Significantly, Ganguly will be playing his first World Cup semi-final in his second venture -- the simple reason why he is so hungry to prove the critics wrong. He is in the mood to have the last laugh and more importantly backing that with six consecutive wins. To his delight, the opposition has been repeatedly forced to calculate to get just about 120 runs from the 30 overs shared by the speedsters Javagal Srinath, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra. Well, the opening overs against England when Nehra had a ball after Srinath and Zaheer pegged the Englishmen back with high quality bowling, it was widely perceived to be one of the finest spells in recent memory. The reason, Ganguly believed in them and supported them with an attacking field.

No doubt, India never had it so good in recent time in fast bowling department. That even an ageing Srinath is motivated to come out with dream spells in crunch time is itself a tribute to Ganguly's captaincy. Well, if he lets his bat do the talking against the big teams in the next games, then this Prince of Kolkata will surely be crowned `King' of cricketing world on March 23 if he leads India to an epic triumph. The message from the New Zealand-Australia Super Six encounter on Tuesday should have set the thinking process of the brains-trust in motion. The ability of the Australians to fight back from adversity and also the efficacy of Kiwis under the astute leadership of Stephen Fleming somehow tend to give an impression of not being bothered at all about the awesome reputation of the rivals.

Sourav Ganguly simply hates to hear the word - impossible. He is on a mission. Aussies better watch out for the Indians, for the simple reason they are the ones who can really spoil your part in this World Cup. In a recent interview, the Indian captain pointed out that he never thought he would play for the country again after the unfortunate incidents on his debut series in 1992 tour `Down Under'. "Destiny gave me the chance,'' he remarked. Perhaps, this elegant batsman is destined to write a fabulous script by winning the World Cup.


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