By Nishad Pai Vaidya
Since Mahendra Singh Dhoni took over the reins, India have won two world titles and conquered the summit of the Test rankings. A common factor in all those memorable achievements is Gautam Gambhir’s pivotal role in fashioning the triumphs. He isn’t someone who has single-handedly stolen the show – in fact he has been eclipsed by others on more than an occasion. The recent One-Day International (ODI) against Sri Lanka is yet another example – where he scored a well-paced century, but Suresh Raina’s finishing job stole the man-of-the-match award.
In his initial years, Gambhir struggled to adjust to the rigours of international cricket. Some said it was yet another case of a domestic giant failing to live up to the promise at the highest level. There were a few flashes of brilliance though, but the consistency was missing. One could see that he had the makings of a fantastic batsman – a still head, solid technique and positive intent. Thus, his initial struggle was perplexing.
Gambhir’s first big moment under the sun came in the final of the ICC World T20 2007. In the final against arch-rivals Pakistan, he showed remarkable temperament and held India’s innings during his knock of 75. It was Irfan Pathan’s crucial three wicket haul that was rewarded after the thrilling finale. While Gambhir ended up as India’s top run-scorer, it was Yuvraj Singh who stole the show as his feats were just too good.
The Commonwealth Bank series 2008 in Australia is when Gambhir actually arrived at the international stage where his consistent performances helped India qualify for the final. He ended up as the highest run-scorer, but then the maestro, Sachin Tendulkar ruled the turf in the finals – which took a lot of attention off Gambhir’s contributions.
Fast forward to the 2011 World Cup final, Gambhir’s effort of 97 is one of the best knocks in Indian one-day cricket history. To say there was intense pressure would be an understatement; a World Cup final at home with India’s biggest hope Sachin Tendulkar and the dangerous Virender Sehwag back in the hut early while chasing a formidable total. But Gambhir maintained his cool and kept pace with the asking rate. He batted correctly and took calculated risks. On the cusp of historic ton, he lost patience and tried to do something extraordinary and lost his wicket. In the end, it was Dhoni’s brisk finish and the iconic six to win the game that stole all the credit. People remember Gambhir’s knock, but it is Dhoni who sealed a unique place in history.
Probably the only time Gambhir was an undisputed hero was when India marched towards the No 1 Test ranking. During that journey, Gambhir was brilliant and touched new peaks in Test cricket. He had a fantastic home season against Australia and England in 2008-09. In New Zealand (early 2009), his monk-like patience during an epic vigil at Napier to save the Test defined him as a batsman. Not only could he attack the bowling, but could also shift to a sedate gear. To substantiate on that, he followed that up with a brisk, dominating ton in the next.
Those feats were aptly rewarded – he was named the Test player of the year in 2009 by the International Cricket Council (ICC). Gambhir missed the game during which India bagged the No 1 raking in Test cricket – against Sri Lanka at Brabourne Stadium, Mumbai. However, going into the game, he was the one of the heroes who had laid the foundation for the convincing Indian performance. In the first Test at Ahmedabad, he scored a ton in the fourth innings to save the game and followed it up with a belligerent hundred in the second Test at Kanpur.
Gambhir’s team-mates may have stolen the show from Gambhir, but his knocks haven’t been forgotten.
When compared to the youngster who struggled in his initial days, Gambhir has come a long way. His presence bloods in a confidence and an air of dependability. He is one player you would want in your side to handle the pressure and drop anchor. His big game temperament is simply remarkable and his two historic knocks (97 in the 2011 World Cup final and 75 in the 2007 World T20 final) are ample evidence of it. Today, he is an indispensable part of the Indian side – at one stage a potential captaincy candidate.
The biggest factor in Gambhir’s success is his ability to adjust. Usually the more stable batman, the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2012 witnessed a new side to his game. His strike-rate touched a new high and he got the big scores to inflict damage on the opposition. It was difficult to believe that here was the same batsman who batted for hours to save a Test at Napier. Although, the two examples emanate from different formats, they perfectly illustrate how he has adjusted to the demands of each. Not many players can boast of fantastic numbers in all the three formats.
Going into a long season, India needs Gambhir to be at his best and he has started off brilliantly in Sri Lanka. With the World T20, England and Australia’s visits ahead, Gambhir would be itching to script an encore of his performances of previous sojourns. While he has been phenomenal in one-day cricket, his recent Test numbers do not match his high standards. Probably, a sense of déjà vu may help him return to his best in the classical format.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a club-level cricketer with an analytic mind and a sharp eye. It was this sharpness which spotted a wrong replay in IPL4 resulting in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. Some of his analytical pieces have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. Nishad can also be followed on Twitter)