New Delhi: "On the off-side there is God and then there is Sourav, " this was what Rahul Dravid had to say about a man he had debuted with at Lord's in 1996 - Sourav Chandidas Ganguly.
But it wasn't his ability on the off-side alone that made headlines - it was his unique ability to polarise opinion, that led to one of the most exciting passages in India's cricket history.
From being dropped after his first ODI to becoming India's most successful captain, then dropped after a fallout with the coach to finally making a comeback and retiring; Sourav Ganguly's cricketing journey has been a roller-coaster ride by any standards.
Indian cricket has seldom been short of talent but only a few have had the ability to mould that into a winning outfit. Sourav Ganguly is one of them.
A stylish left-handed batsman, Ganguly pierced the off-side with surgical precision. He was often questioned for his lack of athleticism and slow running between the wickets but more often than not his bat answered them back quite comprehensively.
His mismatch with the short ball was a subject of criticism for many but not as much as the praise for his brilliant strokeplay. Known as the Royal Bengal Tiger, Sourav Ganguly stands to be one of the most successful batsmen in the history of the game till date.
Born in Kolkata in 1972, the young Sourav was keener on playing football. But he was pushed towards cricket by his elder brother Snehashish, a first class cricketer himself. Despite being naturally right-handed, Sourav learnt to bat left-handed so he could use his brother's equipment. It turned out to be a crucial factor in his career - India in the 1990s lacked quality left-handed batsmen.
A prolific run-scoring Ranji Trophy season earned him a place in the ODI squad in 1992 but a three-run stay at the wicket in Brisbane, Australia was not enough to retain it. He was dropped immediately after the disastrous 1991-92 and many believed his career to be over.
His patience and perseverance paid off four years later when he was finally picked to the Indian Test squad for the England tour. Navjot Sidhu had walked out of the tour after an altercation with skipper Mohd Azharuddin, and Ganguly walked in at number 3 in the second test at Lord's in 1996. He went on to score a century and followed it up with another one in the next match at Nottingham.
In October 1996, he was promoted to partner Sachin Tendulkar at the top of the order in the ODI team.
And that forged one of the most memorable opening partnership in one-dayers - amassing 8200 runs, the highest ever for India, at an average of over 47 runs including 26 century stands.
The year 1997 was also a personal landmark for the Bengal southpaw - he married his childhood love Dona despite reports of disapproval from the two families.
One of the most solid performances of Sourav Ganguly's career came in the year 1998 when his century took India past Pakistan's huge total of 315 runs in the final of the Independent Cup in Dhaka.
In 2000, at a time when match-fixing revelations troubled Indian cricket, Sourav Ganguly was handed the captaincy of the team.
Also called the Maharaja, his attitude was sometimes questioned by opposition and detractors. But fans believe it was this attitude that he brought to the side, and benefitted India the most.
From 2000 to 2005, he forged a great partnership with John Wright. 'Dada' led India to the famous NatWest series win and levelled the series in England and Australia. He also led India to the World Cup final in 2003.
His victory in Pakistan seemed to be the ultimate high and indeed it was.
Apart from loss of form, a series of controversies unfolded starting with an incident in Nagpur in 2004. Sourav Ganguly opted out of a Test match against Australia because of a rift with the groundsman. Rahul Dravid captained the side and India went on to lose a series to Australia at home for the first time in over three decades.
Ganguly's rift with new coach Greg Chappell, who took over in 2005, soon unfolded with reports of the latter asking him to step down right before a match. He was dropped from the side and many believed this to be the end of the road for Dada.
But Dada, as Sourav was fondly dubbed, refused to just fade away. At the age of 34, he began his quest to make it back into the Indian team for the second time in his career.
His relentless effort ensured that he was picked for the South Africa tour in 2006-07 where he ended up as the leading run-scorer. He also toured England and Sri Lanka and finally retired in the home series in Nagpur against Australia. He felt he'd done enough to go out with his head held high.
Sourav Ganguly continued to play the Indian Premier League with the Kolkata Knight Riders and Ranji Trophy for Bengal. But after a disappointing IPL 3 in 2010 he was dropped from the Kolkata Knight Riders franchise. But again, he refused to go; he was back in the the IPL foray with the Pune Warriors in 2011.
Such is his charisma, that even today, when he steps out at the high-capacity Eden Gardens, his support overwhelms that for the home side Kolkata Knight Riders.
On May 10 2012, Pune Warriors franchise owner Subrata Roy indicated that the Indian Premier League's fifth edition would be his last.
Story first published on: Friday, 11 May 2012 13:36 IST