Off the field I was docile, introverted, a little withdrawn. Now I became aggressive on the field. I learned this tactic in the famous Eden Gardens Test in 2001. It was a tense game and I noticed that quite a few of our players were reacting aggressively to the pressure tactics of the Australians. They were giving it back.
This was not planned. It happened spontaneously. But I decided to use the same approach in the future. I would pick up a fight with the opponent just to get Harbhajan or Zaheer fired up. Our coach successfully tried the same trick on me.
Before the legendary NatWest final, I had a disagreement with John and we were not talking. Once we won the match and started celebrating I noticed an arm tapping my shoulder. I turned around and saw the coach, who smilingly said that this was his idea to pump me up for the big final. I had scored 60 in the match from just 43 balls. John was very good and without his guidance I may not have achieved what I was aspiring to do as a leader.
Though my team had performed very well overseas, one disappointment remained in not winning a Test series in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans of course were a top side in those days but we ran them close and lost the 2001 series 1-2. The only Test we won was in Kandy because of my innings of 98 not out and Rahul’s solid knock of 65. I had to hear caustic remarks from some experts for not being able to get past Sri Lanka. But the critics conveniently forgot this was a side without Sachin, Srinath, Kumble and Laxman.
On the whole though, it was my great pride to see that the unit had become so resilient. I particularly remember a meeting in Australia where the players were discussing the security risks of the forthcoming Pakistan tour and wondering if it would be safe to go there.
Quite a few said it would be very risky and that we must express our unavailability to the board in writing. They wanted a draft to be prepared at the meeting. But six or seven players put their hands up and said we must go and avail of this opportunity to beat Pakistan in Pakistan, which had never happened before. I felt so proud.
During my captaincy years one incident stood out for its unpleasantness. It was a grossly unfair decision of the former English captain Mike Denness. He was the ICC match referee in South Africa and had suspended six of us after the Bloemfontein Test. Denness had accused Sachin, of all people, of ball-tampering. It was a ridiculous decision.
I had given Sachin the new ball to send down a few overs. He was just polishing the ball and the match referee accused him of ball-tampering. We tried to explain that the ball was still new. Why would anyone tamper with it? But he wouldn’t listen. I had to stand up against the referee’s decision as a leader. The board had also backed us and what followed was a huge international cricket crisis. But it was refreshing to see the entire team united.
Ian Chappell once told me that when you go to bed at night you must be absolutely sure from the bottom of your heart that you have been honest and treated every player on his own merit. That you selected every player because you felt he was good enough and deserved a place. In the process you might make a few mistakes. It does not matter. It has happened to every captain in history. It will happen in the future also. He said that there are captains who will compromise and there are some who will not. The second type last longer.
My five-year experience suggests captaincy is an amazing disease. It either cures you or kills you. I have seen captains turn into different individuals once they are offered the job.
I have seen personalities of captains change completely as soon as they are at the helm. It also brings unbelievable amount of pressure. Look at Dhoni—he turned grey. Look at me—I lost so much hair.
Everyone has his own way of coping with stress. Mine was music. Like quite a few Indian players I used to carry my own music system on the tour and had an impressive collection of retro songs—from Kishore Kumar to Kumar Sanu. From Asha Bhosle to Abhijeet. From Sonu Nigam to Shaan. Lata Mangeshkar remains a favourite. I have a soft spot for her and could never say no to any request she made of me.
I see a lot of leadership spark in the current Indian captain. I have admired the way Virat Kohli grooms the team members, protects and fights for them. The other day someone told me that he was trying to negotiate with the board to ensure someone like Pujara, who only plays Test cricket, does not suffer financially. For me such instances are the hallmark of a leader.
Apart from Steve, one rival captain I greatly admired was Nasser Hussain. Sachin also had a lot of praise for Nasser. His strategy for playing India in India was highly innovative. Nasser felt that to do well in India he needed to keep the Indian crowd quiet. He feared that if the crowd was happy with the run feast they were watching, the cacophony would be a bit too much for the touring bowlers to handle.
Nasser observed that in the past touring bowlers from his country had lost the plot by bowling too aggressively to the Indian batsmen. So he planned out a defensive bowling strategy for the tour. And a field placement to match the bowling. His model was simple. Don’t attack too much. The focus should be to ensure that you don’t leak runs and slowly try to suffocate the batsmen. I thought Australia followed the Nasser model successfully in India in 2004.
At the Aaj Tak cricket conclave in London in 2017 Nasser said in his speech, Sourav, in you I saw a captain who wanted to take Indian cricket to a different level and someone who deeply cared for his team. I was flattered and touched to hear a fellow captain say that.
During our playing career, however, we often clashed. At the NatWest final he had said something to Kaif that made the team very angry. The choicest expletives were hurled at him while he came out to bat in our subsequent meeting at the Champions Trophy in Colombo. He was consumed by Nehra after having scored only 1. They scored 269, which in 2002 wasn’t a bad target. When Sehwag and I came out to bat, Nasser started his brand of sledging. He said, let us see how you get there. Well, we got there easily with both of us getting hundreds.
After the match Nasser came into my room and was extremely cordial. I signed a shirt for him. While taking the shirt he said, I will never forget the time you took off your shirt at Lord’s. It gave me goosebumps to hear that the English captain had silently applauded his Indian counterpart for taking off his shirt at the hallowed Lord’s balcony. Wow!
I have never lived down taking off my shirt in Lord’s in 2002. It was my way of giving back to Andrew Flintoff. After the series victory in Mumbai earlier that year, Flintoff had taken off his shirt to ridicule us. Our jousting continued through the Test series prior to NatWest. After winning the final in Lord’s, I thought I needed to have my say as well.
In some interviews I was asked what I was telling Flintoff while taking off my shirt. Did I abuse him? Threaten him? I broke into a grin and said, oh no. I was only saying Mera Bharat Mahan.
Extracted with permission from A Century is not Enough, by Sourav Ganguly (with Gautam Bhattacharya), published by Juggernaut Books