Gautam Gambhir: Intense in name and demeanour — on and off the field

Gautam Gambhir © Getty Images

Gautam Gambhir, born on October 14, 1981, is a feisty Indian opening batsman and captain of the Kolkata Knight Riders IPL franchise. Jaideep Vaidya goes through the career of the aggressive Delhi lad.

It is often asked: “What’s in a name?” Ask Gautam Gambhir. With a last name that means ‘intense’ in Hindi, Gambhir is exactly what his name is — intense. On the field, you will rarely see him sporting a smile. With eyes as wide as an owl on a moonless night, Gambhir will watch the ball coming towards him before executing his archetypal array of strokes. Bowl him short and just wide of off-stump, and with a late swish of the blade, he’ll caress the ball wide of gully after it almost passes him. Change the line and bowl to his body, and he’ll effortlessly pull you to the deep mid-wicket fence. Bowl him a little fuller, and he will bend his knees and shape his body perfectly to execute a glorious drive through the covers. All this, with minimal change in facial expression, which is as stern as it can ever get. If looks could kill, there would be only one man on the cricket field.

Gambhir is the first one to admit his eponymous trait, and believes that his intenseness works for him. “Intense doesn’t mean that I am not relaxed,” he told NDTV in an interview. “That’s my personality and I don’t want to change it for people. Sometimes people have asked me this question why are you so aggressive on the field? And I have gone onto answer that if that aggressive energy I can pass onto my colleagues then I get the results in my favour. Because I don’t go onto the field to make people happy that he’s someone who’s always smiling and he’s someone who’s always relaxed. I would rather be called as someone who is intense and get the results in my favour than being called someone who really enjoys his cricket.”

So, does Gambhir not enjoy his cricket? He doesn’t, as he revealed in the same interview, saying that “for me, cricket is something which is my priority; I want to go out there and give my best, and try and get the results in my favour.”

In a professional career now spanning more than 13 years, Gambhir has seen his fair share of crests and troughs in his graph. His career can be divided into three phases: from his international debut in 2003 up to the 2007 World Cup; from the 2007 World Cup to the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2012; and from there to now.

Let’s go into a timeline:

The arrival

In the 1999-00 season, after playing through the age groups for Delhi, Gambhir was disappointed to not have been picked for the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka, which India won. The team featured future India teammates such as Mohammad Kaif (captain) and Yuvraj Singh. However, an 18-year-old Gambhir made his First-Class debut for Delhi that season and played two matches, scoring fifties in both. As his appearances became regular, his scores also increased. By the 2001-02 season, Gambhir was creating a storm on the domestic season, scoring a double century against the Railways and then another one against the touring Zimbabweans. An India debut was not far, and the occasion finally arrived in a One-Day International (ODI) against Bangladesh. Gambhir wasn’t so impressive; he scored one half-century in five matches and was immediately dropped.

Not to be disheartened so easily, Gambhir went back to the drawing board, featured in some prolific run-scoring in the domestic circuit and ‘A’ tours. The selectors could not ignore him any longer and Gambhir won his first Test cap in the fourth and final match against Australia at home in the winter of 2004, when India were trailing 1-2, replacing Delhi teammate Aakash Chopra. It wasn’t to be a dream debut for Gambhir, who failed to cross into double digits in either innings. However, in his second match against South Africa, he scored a fluent 96 to show his worth. In December that same year, Gambhir would score his first Test century, against Bangladesh at Chittagong that set up an innings win for his team. He had arrived.

The following winter, Gambhir made a return to the one-day side and scored his maiden century (103 off 97 balls against Sri Lanka at Ahmedabad) in the very first match of his comeback, as an opener. However, a string of poor outings followed and soon Gambhir was replaced by Rahul Dravid as opener. Gambhir would later admit that his over-aggression cost him his place. Gambhir’s poor form would go on to cost him a place in India’s squad for the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean — a decision which the batsman thought was grossly unfair, even though he had failed to score a ton after the one against Sri Lanka, and had managed to hit just two fifties in either format since. The decision disappointed him so much that he even contemplated on his career at the time, aged 26, later admitting that “I didn’t want to play anymore. I didn’t want to practise. I couldn’t motivate myself.” He was in a phase in life where the weak-hearted would have easily given up. Would he also follow the same path?

The redemption

Asked to reflect on the time years later, Gambhir told NDTV, “Well, I can say that I deserved every bit of it to be a part of that 2007 World Cup squad. I still think I should have been part of that World Cup team.  Though it was the lowest phase of my life, but, sometimes, I think, I was not someone who lacked from too many opportunities or too many other things to do. And I think, the only thing which I could’ve done, was to play cricket…I think, at one stage, I decided I’m not going to play this game anymore because, I’m done and dusted. But, later on I decided, that what else can I do? I don’t have that many things to do.”

So, Gambhir carried on. In May 2007, he was back in the ODI side for a three-match series against his favourite whipping boys, Bangladesh. As if on cue, Gambhir scored a ton in the second match and gave an extension to his international career. A couple of months later, he was in the Indian squad for the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa. Gambhir took to the tournament with a renewed vigour and pummelled three half-centuries in five matches. This included a knock that would cement his place in the team: in the final of the tournament against arch-rivals Pakistan, Gambhir’s top score of 75 off 54 balls was enough to get India to a competitive total, which they successfully defended.

Gambhir’s exploits in South Africa released the monster in him. What was to follow was a spectacular four years, which would see him reach the pinnacle of his career. Gambhir welcomed 2008 with back-to-back fourth-innings centuries in the Ranji Trophy, helping his team Delhi win the title after 16 years. Gambhir was scooped up by his local Delhi Daredevils franchise in the inaugural Indian Premier League (IPL), where he ended up as the second-highest run-scorer (534 runs in 14 matches). He was now a permanent member of India’s limited overs teams, but was still waiting for a Test call back.

The moment was to arrive in July that year when he was picked to partner Virender Sehwag at the top of the order for a Test series in Sri Lanka. Gambhir grabbed the chance with both hands and ended up the second-highest run-getter (310 runs in six innings) here as well, behind Sehwag. It was the beginning of an opening partnership that would go on to rule the best bowling attacks in the world in the years to come across formats. Despite Gambhir’s heroics with the bat, the three figures on his scoresheet had eluded him in the longer format since his maiden ton in 2004. Gambhir would correct that stat with a hundred at Mohali against the touring Australians. In the very next match, he would go on to score the first and only double century of his career, at his home ground in Delhi. This would kick start a golden run for the dasher, who went on to bludgeon eight centuries in 10 Tests, and fell one ton short of Sir Don Bradman’s record of six consecutive centuries.

Following a highly successful tour of New Zealand in early 2009, where he scored two big hundreds in the Test series, and an equally belligerent show against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Gambhir was named ICC Test Player of the Year in 2009. He would also receive India’s second highest sporting honour, the Arjuna Award, that year, along with the Polly Umrigar Trophy for the Most Outstanding Indian Cricketer of the Year for 2008-09. What’s more, his opening partner and best buddy Sehwag called him the best Indian Test opener since Sunil Gavaskar. In limited overs cricket, he was equally flamboyant, destroying the Kiwis at home and entering the 2011 World Cup, which was co-hosted by India, in top form.

In the tournament, Gambhir scored four half-centuries and missed out on a ton by a whisker in the final, where he was dismissed on 97. However, the knock up the order was enough to get India to a winning total and capped a remarkable chapter in Gambhir’s career, as India won the World Cup for the first time in 28 years. In the following IPL auction, Gambhir was astonishingly released by Delhi, but readily snapped up by Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan’s Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) for a whopping USD 2.4 million, making him the most expensive player in the history of the tournament. Gambhir was also made captain of KKR, and the following season (2012), he led the team from the front to their maiden title, himself scoring 590 runs in 17 matches. His inspiring leadership led to him being touted as the next skipper of the Indian team.

The fall

The future looked bright for Gambhir in May 2012. At 30, he was at the apparent peak of his career. He scored a century against Sri Lanka in an ODI in July that year, but that would be his last in either format of the game till date. A barren run followed as his career took a downward spiral. By January 2013, he was dropped from all three formats of the game for India, and is yet to make a comeback.

One wonders where it all went wrong for Gambhir. During an interview after his IPL title win in 2012, he admitted to being very insecure about his cricket. “I’m a very, very insecure guy when it comes to my profession. And my insecurities are far more than my securities. Even now, to be honest…That’s how I’ve been, that’s how I’ve played my cricket too,  and ever since I’ve been in Under-14, everyone’s always told me that ‘if you don’t score runs in this game, you will be dropped.’ That’s what I’ve heard ever since the time I was growing up as a kid — that every game was the last game for me. So even at this stage, if I don’t score runs in two-three games, I start getting that feeling that I’m going to get dropped.”

Perhaps, this insecurity is what is preventing him from conquering his demons. He has been criticised for poking too much outside the off-stump, which has repeatedly led to his dismissals in his career, especially in Tests.

Gambhir recognises his flaw. “It was combination of a technical flaw and a mindset thing,” he told DNA earlier this year. “The glide outside the off-stump has given me lots of runs, especially in the shorter formats. Without realising, it became my ‘go-to shot’ even in Test cricket. I tried hard to get that discipline in my game to leave a lot of balls, but after sometime the mind would collapse and I’d repeat the same mistake.”

He has also been criticised for overdoing his aggression on the field, having gotten into a reasonable number of tiffs during games. However, he does not think so. “I think sometimes it is about perception,” he told Wisden India. In my entire international career, I have always reacted and not initiated a fight, whether it was taking on Shahid Afridi, Kamran Akmal or Shane Watson. The nature of the beast is such that reactions are always bigger than the actions, but actions are the root cause.”

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Gautam Gambhir is an exciting player to watch when on song. You can’t really classify him as graceful. He doesn’t have the flair and the elegance of a Brian Lara or an Alastair Cook. He is more in the Graeme Smith category — the scratchy, grafty sort of left-handed opening batsman. But when in full flow, he is equally effective as an elegant and stylish batsman. It would be a shame if, at 32, his international career is over. His leadership qualities have been proven time and again, and India could still gain a lot from him as a batsman and a leader. In October 2013, Gambhir scored a century for India A against West Indies A. A gruelling Test schedule follows for the Indians, beginning with a home series against the West Indies, followed by difficult away tours in South Africa, New Zealand and England. At 32, he still has time on his hands.

Gautam Gambhir’s career statistics (as of October 14, 2013):

Format M I R HS Ave 100s 50s
Tests 54 96 4021 206 44.18 9 21
ODIs 147 143 5238 150* 39.68 11 34
T20Is 37 36 932 75 27.41 0 7
First-Class 148 249 11647 233* 51.08 35 50

 

In photos: Gautam Gambhir’s career

(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)