Even in the most glorious moments of Gautam Gambhir’s 15-year career, the vicarious sense of being deprived never left his admirers
When dealing with banal certitudes, most comebacks don’t rescue you from the inevitable. A mushy Facebook video replaces that imagined farewell speech that would have followed the last outing on the imagined big stage, preferably playing a match-winning knock in a crucial Test match. In being denied all that, the unfulfilled lives of a certain type of cricket followers would ensure that the most enduring description of Gautam Gambhir’s career would be as brief as: “he didn’t get his due”. In doing so, they usually relive their own lives of unrealised possibilities.
Even in the most glorious moments in the 15 years of Gambhir’s cricket career, the vicarious sense of being deprived never left his admirers. They couldn’t come to terms with the fact that he was denied the Man of The Match for his 97 in India’s successful chase in the World Cup final of 2011.
Four years ago, he had missed the same prize after top scoring with 75 in India’s memorable win at Johannesburg in the final of the inaugural T20 World Cup.
Perhaps the widely-held perception of being the unsung hero of those World Cup-winning campaigns added to the lore of Gautam Gambhir. It somehow went well with his reticent demeanour during his years as an international cricketer.
Still, what the 37-year old Delhi left-hander may cherish as the most significant recognition of his batsmanship is the 2009 ICC award for being batsman of the year. That was his most prolific period as a Test batsman—achieving the rare feat of five 100s in consecutive Test matches. His performance in India’s tour to New Zealand was significant in shaping India’s series victory there after 41 years.
Those were definitely the times when he knew where his off-stump was and, more significantly, that awareness did allow him the confidence to be his natural self on the pitch too. It meant he could make his natural move of charging down the pitch that extra yard for those cover drives and playing square of the wicket.
Quite odd for a left-hander, he was never easy on the eyes, elegant strokeplay never being his forte. That didn’t take away from the effective combativeness that his run-scoring brought at the top of the order, often at a rate that didn’t hurt the team in Test matches as well as in limited overs games. Amid drives and pulls, nudges and the guiding ball through the slip and gully, deflecting it away from his hips—it all kept the scoreboard ticking.
What, however, was clearly outstanding is the way he played spin bowling. With nimble footwork and skilful hand movements—something for which he was compared to legendary Brian Lara by former Australian opener Justin Langer—Gambhir was one of the finest players of spin in his generation.
He complemented his more attacking opening partner in the Delhi Ranji team as well as in the Indian team, Virendra Sehwag. Gambhir’s posh Modern School background didn’t come in the way of developing a very strong understanding with the more famous batting partner from Najafgarh. Both combined well to become one of the most formidable opening partners for the India team.
Beneath a calm exterior, Gambhir could be quite feisty in verbal duels on the field. That includes the famous exchange of not-so-polite words with Shahid Afridi in an Indo-Pak game and even verbal skirmishes with rival skipper Virat Kohli in an IPL game. Sometimes that crossed the line to incur disciplinary action, as it did after he was seen elbowing Australian all-rounder Shane Watson while taking a run.
In what could be seen as one of the swiftest declines in cricketing fortunes, by the middle of this decade, technical flaws crept into Gambhir’s game at the wrong time. A run of bad luck also meant that it came at the wrong time. Losing sense of where his off-stump was, playing away from the body, and constant flirting with the moving ball became obvious chinks in his game. The England tour of 2014, which also witnessed a dismal showing by even emerging the stalwart Virat Kohli, exposed Gambhir’s weaknesses more starkly.
Meanwhile, in the shortest format of the game, Gambhir’s IPL journey was remarkable for his individual success with the bat well as his leadership as captain of the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR). He was the second highest scorer in the inaugural season in 2008 and followed it in 2010 by scoring heavily again for his first IPL team, Delhi Daredevils (DD). Commentators were of the opinion that he was the first batsman from the traditional format who could crack the T-20 batting code and showed how traditional batsmen can succeed in the truncated format too.
But it was only after his switch to KKR that brought him laurels as a captain as he led the team to championship wins in 2012 and 2014. Perhaps this remarkable success that he had as the KKR leader hurt his pride when making his comeback to DD. A string of losses and poor batting form troubled him enough to quit the captaincy as well as drop himself from the playing squad.
For a man who fought his way back to the national team in the second half of the last decade, Gautam Gambhir’s comeback to the Test side in November 2016 was a tame affair. He lasted only one comeback Test: his 58th and last against England at Rajkot. He struggled to make 29 in the first innings and was out for a duck in the second innings. That was definitely the vagaries of time in full display for a batsman who was thought to be a long-time regular, not long-gone. He didn’t play Test cricket again.
Of late, Gambhir has let his mind speak on public issues, inviting critics and supporters in equal measure on social media. His forays into cricket analysis on media platforms have been limited, though they may expand now with the announcement of his retirement.
As he steps on the field for the last time at Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi for a Ranji trophy game against Andhra Pradesh, Gautam Gambhir may find it difficult to escape the nagging thought of the unconquered terrains of a journey that began on this home turf. From flying to Australia to train hard on his batting for a comeback to working hard on his physical fitness—he fought for his inch.
Efforts sometimes, or the lack of them, aren’t always enough to explain why things are the way they are. Gambhir could see it, and see it enough, to make peace with a cathartic video. With the cold hindsight of distance, the comforting thought of having had his moments on the cricket field may soothe the lament of unpaid dues.