SPORT

Ganguly conjures up a virtuoso performance

The smile on V.V.S. Laxman's face says it all as he hugs Indian skipper Sourav Ganguly after the latter completed his century on day four of the first Test in Brisbane on Sunday. Laxman himself played a sublime innings of 75. — Photo: V.V. Krishnan

The smile on V.V.S. Laxman's face says it all as he hugs Indian skipper Sourav Ganguly after the latter completed his century on day four of the first Test in Brisbane on Sunday. Laxman himself played a sublime innings of 75. — Photo: V.V. Krishnan  

Australia 323, India 362 for six

BRISBANE DEC. 7. In a sublime statement on his ability to raise the level of batsmanship, Sourav Ganguly painted a new, colourful profile on a canvas that had looked bleak when he stepped on to the field on Sunday.

His first century against Australia in seven Tests, coming as it did away from home and under stress, brought out the combative instincts of this stroke-player, who was on a sort of trial at the `Gabba'.

His attacking performance gives the series a perspective so different than what had been perceived when India arrived to take on the best team in the world.

It was certainly not the best of the 11 Test centuries that Ganguly has compiled but was quite a significant one as could be seen in his reactions once the distinction was achieved. In that extended demonstration of his glee, it was apparent that he was mightily relieved at a huge load being shed off his shoulders.

Ganguly's sixth century overseas not only saved the team embarrassment but also enhanced his reputation as a captain who firmly believes in leading from the front.

The fact that his innings pushed some sensational strokeplay by V.V.S. Laxman into the background should document the value of the captain's contribution in most glowing terms.

It was a fitting tribute to his endeavour to improve on all frontiers and the knock placed India in a strong position — at 362 for six and 39 ahead — on the fourth day of the first Test.

The sessions with Greg Chappell, not to forget the inputs from his mates, ahead of this visit have obviously transformed Ganguly's mental approach.

He was far more relaxed and positive, the two crucial aspects required when faced with the kind of situation that he did in the middle. And he was determined not to make any compromises on any front.

India seemed to be treading a familiar path when Ganguly walked in at 62 for three with Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar succumbing in the same over.

The openers had flourished in contrasting styles with Virender Sehwag, given a life once, not building on it after a scrappy innings and Akash Chopra doing enough to suggest he would have a greater role to play in the series ahead. The threat to India had come from expected quarters with Jason Gillespie doing the damage.

Sehwag's edge to slips evoked a mere sigh from the Indian camp. A run later, Dravid was squared up by a ball that seamed late with lethal effect. This time the groan was louder.

And then came the blow that stunned everyone, probably the bowler too for winning the appeal. The shout was not worth a wicket as Tendulkar received a rough decision from umpire Steve Bucknor, who was convinced the ball would have hit the stumps had it not thudded into the pads with the batsman offering no shot.

The anguish on Tendulkar's face summed up the decision. Welcome to Australia Tendulkar. The memories of Daryl Harper judging him leg-before in the Adelaide Test four years ago when he ducked into a bouncer only to be hit on the shoulder seemed fresh.

It was a `situation' when Ganguly took guard. But he relished the stage and got into his rhythm with the fluency of a batsman who looked set from the first ball he faced. It was as if he had waited for just this day to make a point or two to those who had doubted his credentials against quality bowling on a quality pitch.

The ball neither bounced alarmingly nor seam to an extent where batting would become a most daunting task. Yet it was an imposing challenge for the Indians.

The job required Ganguly to play the saviour without discarding his natural game and he did precisely that, feasting on the Australian attack like never before.

True, the Aussies missed Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee but then was not Jason Gillespie projected as a bowler ready to assume the role of a spearhead. Nathan Bracken was spoken of in high terms and Andy Bichel was seen as an ideal weapon to exploit the conditions.

Except Gillespie, the other two came a cropper as Ganguly took on the Aussies with a daring assault. Nothing should take away the sheen off an innings that was shaped with an amalgam of flair and solidity and plenty of aggression that stemmed from his desire to dominate. It was so authoritative that it compelled Steve Waugh to put faith in his own bowling at one stage, a telling proof of the desperation in the Aussie ranks.

Ganguly's unrelenting assault on the bowlers was the most striking feature of his batting. It was flawless and quite demonstrative as it put this Australian attack in its place. His feet moved elegantly and the shots flowed with a fluency that has marked his batting for some time now.

He explored the off-side with the touch of a master and was not averse to extend the treatment to the on-side too as the bowlers erred in line. Ganguly's domination of the attack was complete. His decisive movements, with the bat and the mind working in tandem, had a devastating impact on the opposition.

The famed Aussie resilience took a beating and the body language of Steve Waugh and his men suggested a distinct surrender to the `prince', who graduated to be a king with this one innings that meant so much to Indian cricket. That it lifted the team spirit to a new high would be an understatement.

In recent years, cricket fans overseas have come to associate Indian batting with Tendulkar and Dravid with Laxman not far behind. The expectations from Ganguly had grown with time, with the demand being on match-winning innings from the graceful left-hander.

Failures to play emphatic knocks in Tests away from home had disturbed him at times but Ganguly stepped out of those dark shadows to script a wonderfully aesthetic effort on this day.

The Australians, including Shane Warne, spoke of giving Ganguly the short-ball treatment to exploit a weakness but the Indian captain did not flinch at any point. He just swayed out of the way and later whacked them with disdain.

"It was a joy watching him from the other end,'' remarked Laxman, who deserves credit for playing a classy innings in his captain's company, the association producing 146 runs for the fifth wicket. "Laxman was in tremendous touch", Ganguly responded with equal warmth.

Batting looked so easy when Laxman and Ganguly occupied the crease. Laxman indulged in some daring expression of his skills when whipping the ball on the leg and Ganguly displayed remarkable control when guiding the ball with that artistic flow of the bat.

It was batsmanship at its best until both gifted their wickets to innocuous deliveries. The ball `begged' to be hit but Laxman found the man at point while as did Ganguly covers. Though it was tame end to vibrant knocks, the job was done.

For a change, Steve Waugh and his men trooped out with shoulders drooping. And India had begun a Test series overseas with honours intact, thanks to Ganguly playing his role to perfection.

If the celebrations in Ganguly's Behala neighbourhood in south-east Kolkata extend late into night, so be it. Ganguly deserves the toast for a well-crafted innings. Even the Aussie players were lavish in their appreciation with each of them applauding the delightful show at the `Gabba'.

AUSTRALIA — 1st innings: 323
INDIA — 1st innings:
A. Chopra c Hayden b Gillespie
(181m, 135b, 2 x 4)36
V.Sehwag c Hayden b Bracken
(81m, 51b, 5 x 4)45
R. Dravid c Hayden b Gillespie1
(14m, 11b)
S. Tendulkar lbw b Gillespie0
(3m, 3b)
Sourav Ganguly c Gillespie b MacGill144
(291m, 196b, 18 x 4)
V.V.S. Laxman c Katich b MacGill75
(136m, 113b, 11 x 4)
P. Patel (batting) 37
(116m, 101b, 5 x 4)
A. Agarkar (batting)12
(42m, 25b, 1 x 4)
Extras (lb-6, nb-5, w-1)12
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Total (for six wickets)362
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