Gautam Gambhir: The man who never gave up
24th February, 2008. India had just lost an ODI against Australia at the SCG. One man stood out, more for his grit and determination than anything else. That man scored a fighting 113. That man was Gautam Gambhir. It wasn’t an explosive counter-attack, as he only hit 9 boundaries and a solitary six. It was the way he stood up to the Aussies, his never-say-die attitude. It wasn’t the first time he had performed when the team had needed him, as a few months earlier he had scored a compact and ultimately match-winning 75 against Pakistan in the World T20 final.
Despite the fact that India lost, that 113 remained my favourite Gambhir limited overs knock, until that match against Sri Lanka at the Wankhede on the 2nd of April, 2011. Only a mad charge down the track robbed him of a deserved century and the man of the match award. He came in against a rampaging Lasith Malinga on the 3rd ball of the match and proceeded to bat for the next 40 overs, first in partnership with Virat Kohli, and then MS Dhoni.
As long as Gambhir was at the wicket, turning over singles and striking the odd boundary, there was a sense of calm that ensued. He has always been a very focused batsman, and there is something reassuring about Gautam Gambhir at the wicket. He soaked up all the pressure of a World Cup final, carried the expectations of a billion people on his shoulders, and it is because of that that I truly believe he is the reason we are the reigning world champions.
Enough about limited overs cricket. They say Test cricket is a true test of character. The realm of immortals, I agree. From the tour of Sri Lanka in 2008 right until that disastrous England tour in 2011, Gambhir established himself as one of the most consistent and gutsy Test batsmen in the world. He scored runs both home and away. Remember that match-saving century in Napier? India were forced to follow-on and faced the ignominy of an innings defeat to New Zealand. That was the time for India’s premier batsmen to come to the party, and then stay on for a few more days. He did just that, scoring a marvellous 137, batting for 643 minutes.
The only time he looked flustered during his innings was when he was approaching his 50 and 100. Some argued that had he got out then, the team would have suffered. I believe that it is proof of just how badly he wanted to do well. After all, this was the same man who charged down the track against Shane Watson while in his 90s and hit him for a six to score a century. He ended up making a score of 206 that time, to follow up a quick 100 in Mohali. It was apparent to all that India had unearthed a world-class batsman, one who put a price on his wicket. He was named ICC Test Player of the Year for 2009, as neither did pace bother him, and nor did spin. Indeed, he is probably the best player of spin bowling in India.
He has never seemed very flashy. He is more of a guts-over-glory type of player. My favourite Gautam Gambhir performance came in a match remembered for a Sachin vs Steyn duel and Jacques Kallis’ incredible twin centuries. He did not score a 100, although he came close to it in the 1st innings with a gutsy 93. It was his 2nd innings performance that stood out for me, as he scored 64 while batting with a broken hand against the best fast bowling attack in the world, on their turf no less. It was some sheer bloody-mindedness and focus on display, a gritty knock by a gritty player. There has always been a mongrel in Gambhir, and on that day the mongrel stood up to the pack of wolves and lived to tell the tale.
Unfortunately, his recent performances have not been up to the standards he has set for himself. The guts are still there, as he batted with a concussion in England to try and save a Test. He blunted the new ball reasonably well in Australia before flashing outside off-stump, in what has become an all too familiar sight. Perhaps more worrying is the fact that he has failed to score a Test century for close to 3 years, even while playing on flat Indian wickets. While he once exuded a sense of calm and purpose, he has recently been as jumpy as a cat on hot bricks. That he has performed well in limited overs cricket over the same period is a bit of a conundrum.
He lost his place for the first three home Tests against Australia, and could have won a recall for the 4th match if not for a bout of jaundice that he contracted. In the same period of time, the replacement openers have exceeded expectations. That would have hurt him. If I were to use a song to describe Gautam Gambhir, it would be ‘Eye of the Tiger’. It embodies the gritty, determined man who puts playing for his country above everything else. I believe that Gambhir will be back, better than ever. A Gambhir 3.0, if you will. After all, as Shakespeare put it, ‘The night is long that never finds the day’.