Gautam in Hindi refers to a person who dispels darkness by his brilliance. True to his name, Gautam Gambhir did just that for the Indian cricket Test team creating a niche for himself as one of the best Test openers the country has ever seen. One need not be a cricket expert to figure out that traditionally India has struggled to have a stable opening partnership in Test matches.
This changed with the emergence of two Delhiites Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag at the top of the order. From 2004 to 2012, together the two amassed close to 4500 runs at an average of 52.52 in 87 innings while opening the batting; thus making them the most successful opening pair for India in Test matches. In fact, they have the highest average world over amongst opening pairs who have scored more than 4000 runs together.
A quiet performer
A lot has been said and written about Sehwag, who changed the way in which people approached opening batting in Tests and is without doubt one of the legends of Indian cricket. But unfortunately, I feel Gambhir hasn’t got the credit he deserved. And this is not only in Tests but in general throughout his career.
Take the case of the 2007 World T20 and 2011 ODI World Cup final, Gambhir having scored 75 & 97 runs respectively was India’s top scorer on both these occasions. But other good performances stole the limelight from Gambhir. While it was Irfan Pathan’s bowling which comes to our mind when we think about the 2007 T20 final; in the 2011 World Cup final it was captain MS Dhoni’s unbeaten 91 which got all the applauds.
Somewhere between the great performances of other players, his contribution was lost. I am not saying that the others did not deserve the accolades that they got, but probably Gambhir did not get his due share.
Having made his Test debut in 2004, Gambhir slowly built a name for himself as a gritty opener. But it was only in 2008-09 that he truly delivered to his potential. In 2008, he aggregated 1134 Test runs at an average of just above 70 and in 2009 he scored Test 727 runs at an average of 90.87.
Consistency was his second name during this time and he made two more unique batting records. He is the only Indian (and one of the four international cricketers) to score five centuries in five consecutive Test matches and also the lone Indian to score more than 300 runs in four consecutive Test series.
Acknowledging his performances, in 2009 the ICC awarded him with the ICC Test Player of the Year award. During these two years, he played equally well in the ODIs and averaged more than 40 at a healthy strike rate of more than 90.
But soon after, form deserted him and after three mediocre years in which he averaged just above 30 in Tests ; Gambhir lost his place from the Indian team in 2012. He made a comeback in 2014, only to be dropped after 2 Tests.
While he was away from the Indian team, he was quietly making a name for himself in the IPL. Under his captaincy, the Kolkata Knight Riders won the IPL title in 2012 and 2014.
Although he was away from the Indian team, he did not give up and went back to domestic cricket. He had once said, “I can bat in the morning, afternoon, evening, night, on ice, desert, wherever and whenever. It is almost nirvana for me. It takes me away from the stresses of life.”
So, he continued batting and through consistent performance he earned a test recall in the recently concluded India-New Zealand Test series. His comeback was not exceptional, but again much like his entire career he quietly scored a half-century as India defeated New Zealand by a huge margin.
Today he turns 35, and so age is something which is definitely not on his side and there are many youngsters rearing to break into the Indian team. But with his recall, the selectors have given a signal that they are ready to overlook age if a player performs consistently and that’s how it should ideally be.
With India having a long home season ahead, opportunities will definitely come Gambhir’s way and the onus will be on him to make the most of these. If he fails, his record of 4000 plus runs in 57 Tests at an average of 42 will not put him in the list of Indian cricketing greats. Yes, there would be the odd fan remembering his marathon knock in Napier (when he batted for more than 10 hours to save the Test match) or his exploits in the two World Cup finals.
But if he makes a grand comeback by scoring heavily in the ongoing home season, he would have made more than a statement. And you may never know we might all one-day repeat Sehwag’s words that Gambhir was indeed India’s best Test opener since Sunil Gavaskar (a tag which I believe Sehwag holds today).