Cricket is a gift. A blessing. Bestowed on a few, gratefully cherished by millions. A bat is a strange sporting implement. A rather odd construct if you look closely at it. Shaped in this peculiar rectangular formation that slithers cylindrically just as the straight lines end. In the hands of the gifted though, this strangely designed piece of wood acquires the luminous splendour of a magic wand. Sourav Ganguly was among the gifted. The blessed.
I have a friend who nearly played first-class cricket. His experiences in the game are real, untouched by the seduction of success. Watching Ganguly these days, he tellingly observed: "Sometimes cricket doesn't wait for you to leave it, it leaves you". An unwilling mind may refuse to concede, but the game seeps out. Cricket leaves you stranded. Convinced in the mind of producing what you once so easily could, but incapable of executing it any longer.
There was an unadulterated joy to Ganguly. He was to batting what Jagjit Singh was to the ghazal. There was a mellifluous certainty to a Sourav Ganguly innings. Ball touches bat. Ball races off the bat. Twinkle feet take bat to ball. Ball meets bat. Ball disappears into the stands. Ganguly was a gasp-evoker. Occasionally frail, but never the maker of violent runs. A substantial Ganguly knock was delectable, it left you mesmerised.
This IPL, Ganguly has hunted and carried us alongside in that hunt, for the beauty that defined his craft. On occasion, bat has met ball like it did in those wonder years. But those moments have been like a little peek of sunlight on a miserable overcast day. Ganguly has been what we never imagined he could be: ugly, ungainly, listless. Each inside edge has been cringe-worthy; each feeble pull shot to pretentious seamers woeful, each forward prod pad first to left-arm trundlers; a sharp swat of agony.
Ambition is an unreliable companion. It often clouds judgement. Ganguly is a man driven fiercely by ambition. His stint as India captain where his bull-headed persona transformed a meek outfit into a combative and victorious one was a by-product of that ambition. I wonder if a similar deep-rooted desire is driving Ganguly now.
He couldn't possibly be chasing the riches; there has never been a dearth of those in his life. As we have already seen and relished, Ganguly the broadcaster brings a refreshing candour to the commentary box that had gone missing these past few years. So playing cricket can no longer be for sustenance. Or to bloat what one can safely assume is an already substantial bank balance. Easier jobs he has already shown acumen for, wait with welcoming open arms. So to argue greed drives Ganguly would be silly. What then is it that cajoles him to keep returning to the IPL?
I suspect for Ganguly the IPL provides a stage. The ideal platform to relish the thrill of competing again. To be at the centre of a contest and emerge victorious at the end of it. Perhaps in a hidden corner of that restless mind a regret gnaws away. Did he call time too early on his international career? Could he, like his great compatriot Rahul Dravid, have endured the stumbling blocks and played a few more years? Could he like VVS Laxman not have ignored the cynics and stubbornly soldiered on? Hasn't the spot vacated by him struggled to find a worthy occupant? I am only guessing here, but could it be that the IPL is Ganguly's last straw to clutch at after an unfulfilled international career. A career that, in his mind, had possibly another wind left?
The drudgery of the Indian domestic circuit is not for a performance artist who covets an audience. It can satisfy an urge to play the game, but not the urge for adulation. So Ganguly labours on the grind in front of empty stadiums, preparing for the summer months. When the crowds will accumulate, when the chants will resonate, when the lights will be bright and when the contest will be intense. It is when in his mind the cover drive will flow again, the six will sail comfortably over the ropes again, where he will command his troops again, where he will out-think the rival skipper, inspire his men to victory. Like always. Click. Just like that. Alas, the perfect script this summer has deserted him. Cricket has seeped out. And a caricature of a once grand player has traversed grounds in this country.
For a man of his track record, it is no surprise Ganguly enjoys a fanatical support base. That animatedly exaggerates every moment of resplendence he produces in this sea of mediocrity. Thunderous appreciation is reserved for one stroke that emerges suddenly from the ruins. A wild sprint to celebrate a prized wicket is pointed to as evidence of the verve he still plays with. Records of team-mates and opponents that fare poorly in comparison are presented as counters. But the truth is inescapable. A fading, flickering candle is melting away rapidly.