After being out of the national side for a year-and-a-half, Gautam Gambhir earned a recall for the five-Test tour of England. Sandeep Dwivedi meets the opener and pieces together the story of his comeback
While talking to the Kolkata Knight Riders squad during the home leg of IPL 7, former Aussie Test opener, now a busy batting problem-solver, Justin Langer, threw up a brain-teaser. Are you guys watching the ball while batting? Specifics about smirks and stifled laughs that this seemingly ludicrous question received haven’t yet been leaked from the KKR dressing room but it now emerges that Langer, through his query, could have given KKR’s then out-of-form skipper, Gautam Gambhir, a career-changing advice.
For the uninitiated, or even the inexperienced, Langer’s inqury might seem as lame as asking the living if they breathe. But for Gautam, the articulate Aussie had hit the nail on the head. One opener had helped another to zero in on his ‘zero’ problem — KKR skipper had started the season with 3 ducks.
Over the years, ‘the thinking’ batsmen, while dealing with run slumps, have overburdened their minds with long technical check lists and complex theories. In the bargain, their over-analytical minds have missed the woods for the trees. They would tend to merely ‘look’ at the ball, and not, as Langer said, ‘watch’ it. Gambhir, a self-confessed intense cricketer, speaks about how Langer’s words made him audit his thoughts and re-focus on the ball — the change that brought with it 3 half-centuries, a second IPL title, a Test recall and a template to follow for the England tour.
“When you are short on confidence and runs, rather than looking at the ball you wonder where you will get your first run. You start thinking about the gaps, what if the ball swings away, what if it comes in, what the bowler is going to do. There are so many things happening in your mind that even if you want to focus on the ball the mind will not allow you to,” says Gambhir, recalling his days of struggle while settled comfortably between puffy cushions in his living room.
It’s been about a fortnight since his second bus-top felicitation in Kolkata. The anticipation of the upcoming England tour and Test comeback has made the short break at home sweeter. Not far from where the new-father sits is a pink pram and scattered toys. This is a happy phase in Gambhir’s life, it’s that time when cricketers don’t mind talking about their days of doubts and even indulge in brutal self-assessment. They even open up to kicking an old habit.
Regulars on the circuit have often spoken about Mr Serious’ unquenchable thirst for cricket talk where he mostly likes to be the listener. Over the years, at Team India net sessions, a brooding Gambhir nodding his head and air-batting while in deep conversation with coaches, seniors and even juniors has been a common sight. The less he scores, the more he talks, or rather more he listens.
“I need to cut down on those sessions. If there is a major fault in your batting then it is fine. What you need to realise is there can never be a technically perfect cricketer ever in the world. If there had been a perfect cricketer he would have had an average of 100. Cricket is such a leveler that most guys average between 50 and 55,” he says. Note: The ‘you’ in the answer standing for ‘I’.
Gambhir is far from the perfect Test batsman, but back in 2010, he was certainly above average. He averaged 57 in Tests. Those were the heady days. India, finally, had a consistent opener they thought they would never find. A double hundred at Kotla against Australia, 276 over two innings of a Test against England at Mohali, a monumentally patient knock of 137 at Napier and couple of 100s against Sri Lanka to take India to Test No.1. In 2011, he had scores of 80, 93, 64 against Steyn & Co in South Africa.
With a World Cup final 97, and KKR’s resurrection too in his CV, Gambhir was well and truly captain material. Post-World Cup, as expected, the selectors named him skipper for the West Indies tour. That’s when the script changed.
He missed the Caribbean flight because of injury and, months later, worse was in store for him in England. Elbow injury while crouching close-in at Lord’s, a concussion after a fall on the field at Oval plus, and of course, the deadly England pace attack cracked the cement around Gambhir’s feet. The average dropped to 44. He lost his Test place. Like other failed batsmen on that tour, Gambhir has relived England ’11 several times in his mind. Expectations, or rather over-expectations, started the decline, he feels.
“New Zealand was my first overseas tour. I didn’t expect too much from me. I thought, I just need to give the team solid starts. It was a realistic target. The problem is when you start expecting too much from yourself. Like was the case in England where they had given us green tracks, there you can’t say that I have to score a hundred here. So over-expectation could be a reason (for the slump),” Gambhir says.
Did the buzz about him being the ‘captain-in-waiting’ too play on his mind? He is emphatic, almost aggressive, in his tone as he denies it. “Captaincy was never on my mind. I never think that India is not doing well and I have runs so I can be a captain. Those things never came to my mind.” Once again, the ‘mind’ has cropped up in the conversation. It’s too tempting to peek into that mind.
Early in the interaction, Gambhir had spoken about the ideal ‘mind space’ that every batsman aspires to be in. “It is where you are absolutely blank and you back your instincts,” he had said. It is difficult to see Gambhir occupy that space. Even when in form, he seems a player on the boil, his mind buzzing with ideas. For someone who had to make a mountain of domestic runs to make it to India A, and subsequently, after many more tons, be recognised as a bonafide international cricketer, things haven’t come easy for Gambhir. Technical flaws exploited by left-handed seamers who bring the ball in or wily off-spinners have made him look inadequate at times. Self-doubts and the urge for a technical tweak have been Gambhir’s defence mechanism in times of those unusually long single-digit streaks. A ‘blank mind’ is almost a utopian idea for the ‘thinking cricketer’.
Ironically, Gambhir’s longest companion at the crease has been a batsman who is said to possess that mythical ‘blank mind’. It’s been a year since Virender Sehwag played his last Test but just last month, playing for King’s XI Punjab, he seemed as carefree as he was when he made his Test debut in 2001. He knows what you are getting at on hearing the ‘Sehwag’ reference.
Gambhir doesn’t even let you finish the question. “We are very different on and off the field,” he butts in. A wry smile, a shake of the head and ‘heard that before’ look later he continues to speak about Sehwag. “I think the most I have shared about my game is with him. He keeps telling me that you need to be a little bit more relaxed. But that doesn’t come naturally to me.”
To stress the point, he gives an example. “During a net session before a game, if I get out 3 or 4 times it spoils my confidence. If I finish the nets without getting out, even if I have not hit many shots, it gives me confidence.” For Sehwag it’s different. “If at nets he has got out 10 times but played 10 cracking shots, he will only think about those 10 cracking shots. That would give him confidence.”
Gambhir is aware how difficult it is to rein in the thoughts that race around in the mind. “You can’t change your basic nature. Maybe I decide to be carefree for a change and I am carefree every minute before the Test. But as soon as I take guard, obviously my natural self will take over and I would turn intense.”
What worked for him during IPL was the additional burden of leading a franchise side. The batsman inside him got neglected as the captaincy duties ate up most of the mind space. Thoughts about back lift, elbow shape, feet movement didn’t flood his mind during the initial slump.
In England as the one of the oldest member and earliest debutant in the squad, Gambhir now has the option of thinking about the team’s collective challenges and not clutter his mind by over-analysing his batting. Or look around him to find a healthy distraction. The pink pram, you find out, will be travelling to England.