India's Favourite Australian - a Farewell
It has indeed been a long journey for Sourav, one of the most colourful cricketers in our generation. He came in with public doubts about his temperament. He performed, and forced himself in the team, in the face of a consistent whispering campaign in the media. I do remember watching his whole first innings in Test Match cricket, at the Lord's, where he scored a balanced, well-composed century. Another century in following test, as well as a few wickets through his part-time bowling, sealed his place in the team soon thereafter.
In those tests, he proved himself to be a competent cricketer, worthy of a place in the Indian team. However, he proved a few more things too. First, to quote Rahul Dravid, 'On the off-side, first there is God and then there is Sourav' - his exception skills in executing a range of shots square of the wicket on the off-side. Second, his fighting temperament, not many cricketers make a comeback after being left out of the team for 4 years. He looked destined to leave his mark on the Indian cricket.
And, he would indeed leave his mark. His game gave India its character and its ambition. An exquisite stroke-maker, he proved himself to be a fighter in the Stan McCabe mode, and developed an on-your-face aggression which contrasted the dour image of Indian cricketers of previous generations. He turned out to be an exceptional leader, unerringly meritocratic and unstoppably ambitious. He can reasonably be credited with rising above regional factionalism, which dogs Indian cricket incessantly, and which no previous Indian captain [with a possible exception of Tiger Pataudi] could successfully negotiate with. He continued to dazzle with his batting - more than 7000 test runs and 11000 ODI runs provides abundant proof - and built one of the best batting partnerships of all time with Sacin Tendulkar.
Whisperers never left him though. I recall how unfairly he was dropped in an one-day series in Toronto, his place going to an erratic Vinod Kambli, who hailed, unsurprisingly, from the home team of the-then Manager of the team, Sandip Patil. Sourav got his place back eventually, and put on an unsurpassable all-round performance against Pakistan. We were used to losing to Pakistan wherever we played them - Sourav turned the tide almost single-handed.
At the cost of diversion, I must say that this was an important facet of Sourav's game. I have seen too many losses against Pakistan, where Indian team looked wanting in determination. We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory - and unexpectedly, Salim Malik, Manjoor Elahi, Aquib Javed and their colleagues defeated us. Sourav's game was to return the favours - first by all-round performances and later in his career, by inspiring others to do the same. All my life, I would recall the joy of watching Rajesh Chauhan, our off-spinner not known for his batting, scoring a six last ball to win a game against Pakistan, almost a fitting reply to Javed Miandad's famous six-on-the-last-ball win against India.
If Sourav's cricket against Pakistan showed his character, his game against Australia showed his strategic brilliance. He was at the helm when a brilliant Indian team, led by Laxman and Dravid and Harbhajan, stopped the winning streak of Steve Waugh's team and performed a small miracle by winning a test, and eventually the series, after following on. He stood tall as a leader, and played some of his best innings, against the Aussies. Under Sourav, Indian team became the only challenger to the world-beating Aussies, the only one who could beat them, stare them down.
Yes, as I was saying, whisperers never left him though. He became the bad boy of Indian cricket - subject to bans, fines and suspensions - because he contested, questioned and never given up. Cricket is the modern Gladiator sport, a huge money-spinner, where Cricketers are obliged to be dour, obedient, a his-masters-voice of sorts. Sourav stood out, or should I say, stuck out, as he was always his own man and always fought for what he believed in.
So, when the whisperers got better - through a coup-d'etat at the board, with an equally fierce coach in charge - he not only lost his captaincy, but his place in the team. This was coming when he just scored a century after a bad year and the team is winning. But, the board and the administrators wanted obedience and Sourav was unfit for purpose. He was too much of a character, too independent.
And, this last bit Sourav would always be remembered for. The way he came back from banishment, the way he fought his way back yet again, and again, and finally today, retired on his own terms.
There are many speculation in the media whether Sourav should be asked to stay back. But everyone knows this is futile. Sourav is going at the right time. Back of his mind, he believes in the Australian maxim - Go when people ask why you are going.
I saw a banner going up today which reminded even the Great Don scored a duck in his innings. So, did many others, indeed. But here is a point - Sourav was an Australian at heart - combative, focused, committed. It is fitting that he was compared with the greatest Australian cricketer of all time at least once in his career.