I wrote somewhere recently that in Sourav Ganguly, India had found a captain with balls. It takes balls to stick with what you believe is right; it takes balls to go with your guts every time; it takes balls to become one of the finest one-day players after the humiliation of a first tour to Australia, where Ganguly picked up a reputation for being a spoilt brat whose one regret in life was that he could not pay a runner to run all his singles.
India have had better tactical skippers, but few better motivators than Sourav Ganguly. The team responds to him and he backs his players. It is a relationship that has traditionally been foreign to our way of doing things. If India are to win the World Cup, much will depend on Ganguly and on his ability to fire the team with the same passion that he now feels on the threshold of a major achievement. Not since Tiger Pataudi has an Indian captain consciously gone about building a team. Not since Tiger Pataudi, therefore, has an Indian team relied so much on youngsters to make its point.
Ganguly's image has undergone a change in the three years or so that he has led. Where he was once aloof, he is now above strife; where he was arrogant, he is now confident; where he was once seen as bad-mannered, he is now seen as a tough-as-nails leader who gives no quarter; where he was once a moaner, he is now seen as someone who speaks his mind; where he once tried to gather the support of the younger players around him, he is seen as a team-builder with the accent on youth; where he was once seen as disrespectful to the opposition, he is now seen as a captain who gives as good as he gets.
That is what success can do. It can take a negative quality, and brush it up so it appears positive.
Ganguly will be aware that from the start India were seen as the one team that could knock Australia off their perch. He will need all his acquired toughness to deal with the reigning champions. He will also need to think out of the box. It will be difficult to beat Australia using traditional one-day methods. The champions have seen that, done that, and bought the T-shirt. The final gives Ganguly a chance to let his tactical self catch up with his psychological self. This might mean going into the match with two spinners, and six batsmen rather than the more defensive approach that India has taken so far with seven batsmen, one of whom does little either because he is out of touch or because he doesn't get a chance to bat. India is better served with the spin of Anil Kumble who has the experience and the desire to prove that it was a mistake not to play him in the majority of the games.
In fact, Ganguly could even take a chance on opening the bowling with Harbhajan Singh, in the manner made famous by Martin Crowe when New Zealand beat Australia a decade ago in the World Cup. This is the kind of thinking out of the box that might pay off.
Australia haven't been pushed to think hard in this competition, and anything that even appears to give India an edge must be tried.
For, let's face it, Australia are the superior side. They bat deep, bowl to take wickets, and field like men possessed. India, on the other hand, can bat well enough to counter the Aussie bowling, and maybe even bowl well enough to counter the Aussie batting, but cannot match the fielding. The extra 25 or 30 runs India are likely to give away on the field (don't forget the Aussies run hard) might be the difference between victory and defeat.
India have done well to reach the final, but they must push hard now, or they will make the mistake hundreds of Indian teams and individual sportsmen have made over the years. Our top athletes think qualifying for the Olympics is achievement enough; our teams often play as if getting to the semifinals or final is the crowning glory. This is where Ganguly can play a role again, reminding the players that nobody remembers who finished number two. It is 20 years since India have been in this position, and one final effort will make everything worthwhile.
Ganguly holds the key -- as captain, as motivator, as the man who must communicate the desperation to win to his teammates.