Twelve years ago, for the first time in my life, I delayed going to a dinner to watch a cricket match. I was trying to catch an Indian scoring a century. My interest was not because the player was a fellow Bengali but because he was being reviled all over India as a 'quota candidate'. I remembered wondering if he was aware of the caustic reactions back home as he went about his silken cover drives. Seeing his winning smiles after each boundary, I concluded that he couldn't have. Nobody can perform under that kind of pressure.
But then, I did not know anything about Sourav Ganguly.
The Chairman of Selectors makes a public comment that he would not pick Sourav as long as he was alive! And yet, he does.
A highly respected international cricketer calls him a liar, mentally and physically unfit to play in the Indian team, let alone lead it. And yet, he comes back.
Sourav's poor running between the wickets. His obvious weakness against the rising delivery. His (initially) non-existent on-side play. All these shortcomings came to a nought when balance against that one thing that is being advertised by Dhoni these days - Zidd!
Over the years, I have had many favourite Ganguly moments... his zero-follow-through fours during his debut Test. His languorous sixes during the monumental 183. The raising of the bat after the incredible century in Brisbane. His wry smile after his half-century in the comeback at South Africa. His shy wave after the Nagpur victory.
But my favourite moment is the one which happened a few minutes after the most famous Sourav moment.
Everybody remembers Sourav taking off his shirt in the Lord's balcony (My son was there!) and screaming expletives while twirling it. What people don't discuss is right after that, he charged into the playing field and leaped onto Kaif in an alomost-deadly embrace, pinning the lad to the ground in an obviously painful gesture!
And that's what Sourav was all about. He discovered, developed and trusted an impressive line-up of Indian cricketers with a ferocity that commanded undying loyalty. He abused them on-field, he pushed them to the limits, he crushed them with his demands - but they lived and died for him. When Sourav was in the wilderness and he was the official persona non grata of the BCCI, at least three of his proteges (Yuvraj, Harbhajan and Sehwag) were publicly reprimanded by the Board for speaking their minds.
Gavaskar, Tendulkar, Kapil Dev were great players but each one of them fell short of being great captains. While their leading from the front was undeniably good, they either lacked the vision (Kapil) or the objectivity (Gavaskar) required to build a long-lasting, high-performing team. Even the Great Sachin was guilty of carrying on with Bombay players of questionable quality (including childhood friend Vinod Kambli) in the team.
With close to 20000 runs in international cricket, Sourav can easily claim to be among the foremost batsmen of India but definitely not among the greatest, whose legacy carries on beyond their cricketing lifetime.
Only as a captain, he stands unparalleled for having taken over the reins at the darkest hour of the nation's sporting history and turning out the only team in the world which can beat Australia regularly. The same team lost to Bangladesh as well... but then, Sourav is nothing if he is not unpredictable!
As he rides into the sunset, a thought struck me. Sourav is Sourav because he never did what others expected him to do. His debut. His captaincy. His successes. His failures. Everything was contrary to the expectations at the time.
We expected him to cut a sorry figure in the swinging pitches of '96 England. As a 'quota-candidate' becoming the captain, we expected him to load the team with Bengal teammates.
We expected him to crumble at the 'mental disintegration' of the Aussies. We expected him to be hounded out in the wilderness by a foreign coach, partisan selectors and their cronies.
He did the exact opposite.
Even in his last match, we expected him to equal Greg Chappell by scoring a century. He equalled Sir Don Bradman instead!
Now, we are waiting for him to write books, start coaching schools, captain Kolkata Knight Riders and appear as commentator. If his past is any indication, Sourav is not stopping at any of those.
He is plotting a comeback for the Fab Five. Imagine Kumble as the Indian coach, with Dravid as the batting consultant. Sachin is the Chairman of selectors and Laxman the South Zone representative.
And who do you think will be the BCCI President then?
See you soon, Dada!