Is the recall of Gautam Gambhir a step back for the Indian team?
Perhaps the lives of cricketers and pop stars are, at the same time, more similar and different than we can imagine. For the similarity, see triumphant returns after a dissolution or after excommunication from the side. For the difference, see the relative safety net of long-time fans and the volatile possible outcomes of a return to the crease. Indian cricket has had its fair share of returns from the dead, with varying degrees of success.
Perhaps Gautam Gambhir’s twin knocks of 29 and 50 against New Zealand at Indore were fortunate not to go the way of RP Singh’s trip across the pond to join his side for the 2011 Oval Test. Perhaps they were mere affirmations of Gambhir’s ability to perform when he most needs it, and there will be subsequent questions about why he was not included in the side earlier. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, and there is a larger question about whether this is indeed a step forward for the Indian team.
Been there, done that
There is nothing particularly novel about the case of Gambhir’s recall, nor of the questions about his long-term place in the side. He has been here before, Indian cricket has been here before. It would be glib to claim this was the Indian selectors’ version of Groundhog Day that must be repeated every two years – without exaggeration, Gambhir was ousted from the side in 2012, was recalled for the 2014 England tour and is now back in the team again – but as a seasoned domestic performer with plenty of international experience, it’s easy to see why he is on the fringes of the team and there is constant clamour for his reintroduction.
There is a well-established precedent. One recalls the case of another left-handed opener, WV Raman, who played what looked very much like the last of his eight Tests for India in late 1992 against South Africa at Port Elizabeth. He was restored to the side four years later against the same opponents, also participating in the return tour.
He was an impressive performer at domestic level, although the main point is that it’s not an unusual situation for players to find themselves in. Gambhir’s domestic performances, too, have been notable; 356 Duleep Trophy runs in five innings would certainly not have harmed the argument for his selection.
The difference in his case, however, turns on two points. This is Gambhir’s second return – England 2014 collapsed upon itself, with the outstanding metric being 6.25 runs per innings – and this time he has performed satisfactorily in the final Test of a three-match series, even brushing aside an aggravated shoulder for his half-century. It suggests a certain obduracy to Gambhir’s play, a resilience to his cricket, an instinct for crunch performances.
Read into these two innings – the fifty, among which was scored at 89.28 per the 56 balls he faced – at your own peril. Not only doest the illusory nature of Gambir’s return lie in the inherent inadequacy of a sum total of 109 deliveries as the basis for drawing larger inferences, one cannot ignore the opposition either – a dispirited, already-beaten group of Kiwis whose only wicket-taker in the second innings was clobbered at four runs an over for 14 overs.
Running on the spot
Ironically, Gambhir’s fifty may have put his future in a greater state of uncertainty than if he had outright failed. Where does one go from here? Is it a good thing Gambhir staked his claim for a place in the side with authority? Is he inadvertently blocking the path of a younger player with a longer-term future? Is India wrong to draw on its past as it looks to secure its future?
Gambhir may have come in at the right time to afford him some breathing space. India are in the midst of an excellent run of form, players like Ravichandran Ashwin producing career-best performances, captain Virat Kohli undefeated in Test cricket. The scrutiny on him, consequently, is not as intense, but the question of whether or not it was stubborn and unwise to reinvest faith in Gambhir is difficult to answer on current evidence.
Perhaps the situation can be best summed up by paraphrasing a famous soundbite from football. To draw a parallel, it recalls what Barcelona Football Club’s manager Johan Cruyff said in the aftermath of his team’s defeat in the 1994 UEFA Champions League final – it is not Barcelona played badly. It is that they did not play at all. Similarly, it is not that Gambhir’ recall is a step backwards for India, it’s that it isn’t a step at all.
There is insufficient data to claim Gambhir can ride this wave to a series of strong performances against England, or that he will flop against the old nemesis once more. It is tempting to give him another chance, but perhaps the most prudent way to evaluate this situation is to incorporate other contenders for the same spot into the debate.
A ray of light
KL Rahul’s hamstring injury paved the way for Gambhir's return to the side. He is, in short, a batsman whose remarkable elevation to the top of the order and consequent supplanting of Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan on separate occasions in the last series alone has caused great excitement.
Talk of dropping Rahul, who scored a fifty and a career-best 158 in three innings in the West Indies, seems rather embarrassing at this stage, also partly because only his position, of the four contenders, in the batting order is flexible.
Rahul is rapidly becoming a bankable bet in all three formats of the game, and it seems likely, barring further injuries, that the opening pair is intended to be Vijay plus one. Dhawan’s place in the side has a question mark over it, and it is yet possible that both Delhi openers could be omitted from the side entirely. That seems not unrealistic, and in such a scenario the only way an opener’s slot would be vacant is if there is a withdrawal elsewhere in the order and Rahul is pushed down to fill that gap.
In such a case will it become a straight fight between the two left-handers to partner Vijay. As regards the Gambhir issue more directly, however, there is no harm in the management keeping their powder dry over it. He could as yet get a chance for revenge against the visiting Englishmen.