The pleasure and pain of watching Gautam Gambhir bat
This was not the game in which India’s almost forgotten hero scored a 50, or a 29. It was Day 2 of India’s second Test Vs New Zealand, when Gambhir walked out on the field as a mere fieldsman, ignored in the playing XI.
His sheer presence on the ground, donning the white jersey that displayed the Indian National Flag, sent across profound joy through the stadium. Every time Gambhir walked towards the stands, the chants of his name only increased by several decibels. And all this in a game where his classy elegance with the bat was reduced to a dugout spectator, an occasional fielder and a drinks carrier.
But as fate had it, one man’s misfortune was another man’s opportunity. KL Rahul’s injury, in tandem with Shikhar Dhawan’s flagging Test fortunes, opened the door for the unsung Indian hero. And so it began again, after two years of a stalled career, at the Holkar Stadium in Indore, on Star Sports.
Gambhir looked unfazed as he came out to bat. One could hardly complain about the slow movement of his feet or his lack of confidence. His overseas training stance with Justin Langer reflected in the way he started the innings. His hunger and determination were as bright as the sun in Indore.
In what seemed like a career-resurrecting start of the innings by Gambhir, the opener was soon dismissed on 29, a figure not so good enough for a royal return, especially when you’re the last resort among a bunch of polished youngsters.
Gambhir would have been hoping for just one more chance to prove his mettle, even as the visitors crumbled under the pressure of the hosts’ mammoth first innings score.
And while that unfolded, Gambhir injured his shoulder when fielding. The skipper had a chance to enforce a follow on. But he didn’t. India’s discarded hero walked out to bat one more time.
The eager beaver that Gambhir has always been, this time, he again injured his shoulder in a resolute attempt to complete a second run. The pain was visible in his body language. Gambhir was retired hurt, unavoidably.
But it was not all over yet for him. Showing improvement of his injury overnight, Gambhir got another chance to leave a mark at Indore, and in the hearts of thousands of Indians rooting for him.
It hardly mattered what tactics the Kiwi bowlers tried to slow down the game, Gambhir, until his 50, continued to delight us with his graceful left hander’s elegance. The way he leaned to the pitched up deliveries, exploring all avenues, flaying them with a swing through the covers, was reminiscent of him at his peak. Technical flaws, which were originally the reason behind his omission from the national squad, were almost negligible.
Gambhir scampered for singles, only a fortnight after suffering an injury. He scored his second fastest Test 50. One cannot ignore the fact that the 50 brought momentum to Indian innings. And it would be fair to say that playing such a brilliant knock, after a divorce of two years with international cricket, at an age most cricketers consider retirement, was a treat to the eye.
But there was a certain sense of sorrow behind every cut and flick, a sense of uncertainty. Was this the last time we were watching those shots in an international arena?
In the interim of Gambhir’s absence, three batsmen — KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, and Murali Vijay took on a divided ownership of the opening positions in the Indian batting line-up. While Shikhar Dhawan has shown inconsistency for a long time now, Murali Vijay is reliable.
And KL Rahul, needless to say, is so accurate with the bat that we have hardly seen him slip away any new opportunities from his hand. The extension of Gambhir’s recall in India colours, thus, looks unpromising.
India has and will produce many batting greats, but you will have to travel far and wide to find a fighter like Gambhir. At 34, he did not feel the fretfulness of returning to top echelons of cricket. He kept fighting harder and harder at the domestic level. Since he last played a Test, there has been only one opener at the domestic level who has scored more runs than Gautam.
In his heydays, we tuned in to watch him play because we did not know what heights he could scale. In the third Test Vs New Zealand, we tuned in because we hoped to catch a glimpse of the batsman Gambhir used to be one more time.
Somewhere in between the pleasure of his strokes and pain of probably watching him play for India the last time, Gambhir won our hearts with his indomitable fighting spirit. You may call this exaggeration, but to make a comeback with nearly greyish hair under his helmet, in a dressing room not very friendly towards him is an accomplishment in itself.
Critics will consider his 50 as just another ordinary half century. But for the man who left no stone unturned to resurrect his international career, it would have meant the world.
The 50 – just another chapter in his topsy-turvy journey. But against all odds, the stubborn fan in me hopes it was not the last one.
Also read: Rahul Dravid: The underrated legend in ODIs