Returning to his hotel room on the eve of the fifth and final Test in 1999 between West Indies and South Africa in Centurion, Daren Ganga – the youngest member of the touring party who was celebrating his 20th birthday – was greeted by a phone call from the operator indicating that the president was on the line.
Thinking it was either the president of the West Indies or Trinidad & Tobago (T & T) Cricket Boards, Ganga was hugely surprised when the caller identified himself as Nelson Mandela.
The late South African president, who a few weeks earlier had played a key role in averting a West Indies players strike that delayed the start of the tour, wished Ganga a happy birthday and re-iterated the importance of the Caribbean side embarking on its first full tour of South Africa since that country’s re-admission to international cricket in 1991 following a 20-year suspension due to the government’s apartheid policy.
“He also told me I had a bigger purpose to inspire others beyond my role as a cricketer and entertainer and that I should see myself as a role model,” Ganga told Share while in Toronto last month for celebrations to mark T & T’s 52nd anniversary of independence. “The conversation lasted about 10 minutes and it was so inspiring. That was the most rewarding birthday gift I have ever received and one of the highlights of my career.”
That phone call motivated him to launch the Daren Ganga Foundation seven years ago to provide youths with opportunities to grow, develop their skills and maximize their potential.
The euphoria of talking to Mandela was a major boost for the young cricketer following the tension and unease he endured before the series started.
Ganga was fined five per cent of his tour fee after he – along with Junior Murray, Dinanath Ramnarine and Franklyn Rose – remained in London with the other players until the labour dispute was settled instead of travelling to South Africa.
“I was caught between a rock and a hard place,” he recalled. “That was my first tour with the senior team and I obviously wanted to play, but I was not going to go against the team and what they were fighting for.”
When the opportunity came in the Boxing Day Third Test in Durban, Ganga batted patiently for 28 off 94 balls before he was bowled by a Shaun Pollock no-ball which Umpire Russell Tiffin missed.
Dropping the West Indies’ first catch of the series in his debut Test and finishing the tour with 75 runs in six innings – all ended by Pollock – in a 5-0 drubbing provided the young player with a sharp glimpse of professional sport’s physical and mental demands.
“That tour made me appreciate the challenges and what is required to play the game at the highest level,” Ganga said. “I had just one first-class season under my belt, so I was basically playing international cricket just after completing high school. It was really tough to adapt and adjust.”
Just a few months earlier, the right-handed batsman was in South Africa for the Under-19 Youth World Cup. Ganga, along with Chris Gayle, who was the tournament’s leading scorer with 364 runs (av. 72.80), were last-minute replacements for seven players who were declared over-age and ineligible less than a week before the competition started.
Ganga and Gayle went on to become the West Indies’ second leading run-producing opening pair with 1,978 runs in 52 Test innings over seven years. Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes lead the way with 6,842 runs over a 13-year period.
Ganga’s roommate in his first Test series in South Africa was Shivnarine Chanderpaul who is Test cricket’s eighth leading run producer with 11,684 (av. 53.10) and the oldest active international player at age 40.
“Shiv eats, sleeps and breathes cricket,” said Ganga. “He has dedicated his entire life to the sport.”
Close to three years ago, Ganga stepped down as T & T’s most successful captain. During his nine-year stint, the twin -island republic won back-to-back regional One-day titles, the 2008 Stanford and 2011 Caribbean Twenty/20 championships and was a participant in the first Champions League Twenty/20 series.
While he dedicates most of his time now to his foundation and cricket broadcasting, Ganga has not ruled out coaching.
“I view the role of a coach as that of being a facilitator,” the T & T sports ambassador said. “Players develop talent and technique and coaching at the highest level is about laying out strategy and recognizing things before they happen. It’s about being proactive. I think I understand the game fairly well to flourish in that role.”
While encouraging him and his two brothers to play cricket, Ganga’s parents – Bahadur and Seerajie – ensured that they embraced education and higher learning.
“While my parents were very supportive of us playing cricket, they always stressed education,” he said. “My father was a teacher for over 30 years so he knew the value of a good education and preparing for life after you retire from the sport.”
The holder of a law degree, Ganga is pursuing a Master’s in Business Administration while older brother Sheldon is the president of the Daren Ganga Foundation and an engineer. He represented T & T in 40 first-class matches and has a management degree from Oxford Brookes University in England.