By Karthik Parimal
For more than a decade, India seldom found it necessary to fret over its opening combination. From the safe hands of Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar, the mantle was nonchalantly transferred to Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. The lads from Delhi disassembled the best of the attacks, irrespective of the format, and while one approached his innings in a meticulous fashion, the modus operandi of the other was to dent the opposition right from the outset.
This amalgamation of two contrasting players worked like a dream, as the duo took the cricketing world by storm from early 2008 up until India’s momentous World Cup victory in 2011. They opened 44 times during this period in Tests and amassed 2549 runs at an average of 60.69, next only to Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook who scored 2825 at 48.70 from 60 innings. Sehwag and Gambhir averaged almost the same in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) too. They thrived as partners and, the kind of understanding and comfort they shared at the crease was unparalleled.
But in the last 20 months, their partnership graph presents a very grim picture. In 10 overseas Test innings, they’ve scored just 136 runs, with a highest partnership of 26. Although their record in ODIs during this phase isn’t that appalling, it’s way below the standard for openers. If the 176-run stand against West Indies that came in the December of 2011 is discounted, they average just 22.42. It was the same game during which Sehwag blazed his way to 219. Thereafter, he rarely made an impact and now finds himself out of the Indian squad. The selectors, uncharacteristically, have refrained from sugar-coating the word ‘dropped’ this time around.
On the other hand, Gambhir has his own set of predicaments to deal with. Although statistics – 1135 runs from 29 ODIs at an average of 40 since the 2011 World Cup – do not shed light upon his worries, the fact remains that he has been very unconvincing. He faltered during the ODI series against England and West Indies at home last year, bounced back during the Commonwealth Bank Series thereafter, failed when it mattered during the Asia Cup, had a good outing in Sri Lanka a few months later and was discomfited by Pakistan last week.
During recent times, he’s got starts by poking and prodding at deliveries and has floundered to convert them into something substantial. Seldom has he taken time to settle and, the tenacity, which is usually wrapped by a calm demeanour, is no longer there to be seen. He drew a lot of flak during his early days for throwing his wicket away by needlessly jabbing at the ball outside the off stump. It was a shot he played under pressure, but as he matured, he was more in control of it, and rather than trying to curb that jab, he collected a lot of runs off it in Test cricket. It wasn’t a major shift in his technique, but an alteration to his confidence levels that allowed him to convert a weakness into strength.
“When you are mentally relaxed, when you feel you belong, you try and play the ball late and closer to the body. Everything has to do with your mindset,” said Gambhir in 2009, when questioned about his frailty outside the off stump. It was a thorn in his flesh during the initial stages of his career. Fortunately, Gary Kirsten came to the southpaw’s rescue back then and instilled belief in him by making clear his roles and responsibilities in the side, thereby steering the opener out of troubled waters. The sense of insecurity that haunted Gambhir for long vanished.
Now, four years later, he finds himself in a familiar territory yet again. He is suspect outside the off stump, and the number of times he’s been dismissed in the slip cordon, and the number of inside-edges back onto the stumps provide ample evidence of that fact. From a batsman who once hit eight hundreds in 10 Tests, five of which came in a succession, Gambhir is now without a Test century for almost three years. From a player who once boldly stated that the South African bowling line-up, featuring the likes of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, would find it hard to dismiss the Indians on a Cape Town wicket, he recently advocated the defensive idea of preparing rank turners for visiting teams in India.
There is little doubt that Gambhir’s decline can be attributed to his mindset and not technique. Former India opener Aakash Chopra aptly summed it up when he said, “Players have had bad patches before Gambhir too, but they work hard to get out of them. Gambhir used to do that before World Cup 2011. Now he stopped even acknowledging it. Every time you asked him about his batting, he would imagine the scenario that people were criticising him for the lack of centuries – which is not that unfair a demand of an opener, by the way – and give a sermon on how cricket was a team game and centuries didn’t matter.“
With new and worthy contenders cropping up for a spot in every format, it could augur well if Gambhir reverted back to his old ways of letting his bat do the talking and collect runs under his belt. The only way he can get rid of his insecurities this time around is by performing in the middle. He has reached a stage where only he alone is capable of solving his conundrums. With age still on his side, there is no reason to give up hopes of an encore. Can this ODI series against England reverse the tide?
(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/