Ganguly the prince of antagonism

Ricky Ponting will have sought advice from Steve Waugh, the last Australian captain to win the World Cup, in 1999, on several issues during his time as one-day skipper. But handling his opposing number in today's World Cup final in Johannesburg will not have been one of them. For Sourav Ganguly, the Indian captain, is one of the few players to have brought Waugh, who gained the nickname of "The Ice Man" because of his cool nature, to boiling point.

Since getting under the skin of one of the toughest cricketers to have played the game, by keeping Waugh waiting at the toss on several occasions during the 2001 tour of India and then dealing with him in a supercilious and indifferent manner, Ganguly has turned antagonising opponents into an art form.

However unpleasant this tactic is deemed to be, it worked against an Australian side which for once met an adversary who was not prepared to take a backward step from their intimidatory manner. Under Ganguly, India played and beat Australia at their own game, and it is his aggressive "I couldn't give a shit who you are" attitude that is turning an erstwhile team of underachievers into a highly competitive outfit.

Ponting will awake this morning wondering whether the master agitator has anything in store for him today. "Sourav has not wound me up yet," said the Australian captain on the eve of the final. "But perhaps he has got something up his sleeve for tomorrow. I hope not."

Because of his confrontational style, Ganguly will not go down as one of the most popular captains in the history of the game, but this is something the Prince of Calcutta will lose little sleep over. And why should he? After all, it is not his job to make playing against his side a pleasurable experience. His role is to win games for India and his record as captain suggests he is doing pretty well. If India leave South Africa with the World Cup, Ganguly will go down as the most successful leader his country has produced.

Such an attitude has landed him in trouble with match officials more than any other captain, but he will consider it a small sacrifice. The most notable incident took place in South Africa last winter, when a row over the behaviour of six Indian players, including Ganguly, led to the Third Test losing its official status.

This aggressive and ruthless method of captaincy can clearly be seen in the way he uses his three fast bowlers – Javagal Srinath, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra – to kill sides off. This is not the type of behaviour one has come to expect from Indian players.

At first, there were doubts about his style of leadership at home, but with success came recognition from several hundred million cricket-mad Indian fans. After Sachin Tendulkar he is probably the most saluted figure in India, but this does not mean he is exempt from the odd burning effigy when results go wrong.

Ganguly's biggest achievement, however, has not been driving opponents to distract-ion but turning a fractured collection of talented individuals into a team, and such unity can be seen in the way his side react to success and form their huddle. This is a major accomplishment for India, where internal politics have for years taken precedence over common sense. It has been the biggest obstacle to them fulfilling their potential. For years, India have produced cricketers with ability to envy, but political squabbling has led to these players becoming selfish. It is only through the work of Ganguly and India's coach, John Wright, that the culture has changed.

Ganguly's privileged background has helped him to perform such surgery. Born in Kolkata – formerly Calcutta – the 30-year-old was nicknamed Maharaj because he was the second son of an immensely rich family that made their money in publishing. His brother Sochasish, who also played first-class cricket for Bengal, took the title of Raj as he was older than Sourav.

As youngsters, both were selected for teams due to the clout their name held. But on reaching first-class and inter-national level, where names count for nothing, Sourav initially found the going hard. Such setbacks toughened him up and turned him into the competitive character he is.

But it is the financial security which wealth gives him that has allowed Ganguly to step away from all the politics within Indian cricket. With money behind him, he is accountable to nobody and can therefore remain independent. Under his leadership, decisions will be made for what he believes to be the betterment of Indian cricket and not just the state from which the captain descends, as has been the case in the past.

Such neutrality has also endeared him to his team-mates because they no longer feel that someone from Bengal is going to receive preferential treatment to a player from Delhi. If teams resemble the nature of their captain, Ganguly should be proud; India are the most attractive side in the world to watch.

I like Ganguly and his mischievous smile a lot, but there is a haughty side to him which failed to impress an English journalist, who labelled him "Lord Snooty of Snootington" after a season as Lancashire's overseas player. Ganguly scored runs for his county but he did not make many friends in their dressing room. Tossing his sweater to his opening partner, Michael Atherton, on a hot day and asking him to run it to the boundary was probably not the best way to make the right impression at Old Trafford, but why should a former England captain receive preferential treatment?

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