Updated: December 5, 2018 7:16:17 am
He had a permanent scowl on his face and hardly ever smiled. He had a propensity to pick up fights with the opposition and administrators alike and was never short of a word. He was, and is, never afraid to speak his mind on non-cricketing matters, which made him an oddity in the Indian dressing room he inhabited.
But all these aspects cannot hide the fact that, during his pomp, Gautam Gambhir was the bedrock around which the more flamboyant stars of the Indian batting firmament showcased their lustre. Virender Sehwag called him the best Indian Test opener since Sunil Gavaskar, and he was not too shabby in the shorter formats either.
Gambhir, who announced on Tuesday that the upcoming Delhi-Andhra Ranji Trophy fixture at the Feroz Shah Kotla would be his last competitive game before retirement from all formats, has been an oddity in Indian cricket. An Indian batsman who brought effectiveness instead of elegance – the tuck of the hip, glide through slip and gully, and lofted inside-out shot against spinners were his calling cards – and looked to take on the opposition with words (and on one occasion, an elbow).
As Gambhir walks into his cricketing sunset, his fondest memories would be his twin centuries in New Zealand in 2009 – one in which he batted for nearly 11 hours in the second innings to save a Test as India won a rare series outside the subcontinent – and the double hundred against the Aussies on his home ground a year earlier. That Kotla ton was the catalyst that transformed the left-hander as a Test cricketer. It was part of a run in which Gambhir scored eight centuries in 10 Tests from late 2008 and early 2010. The accolade of the 2009 ICC Test Player of the Year was justifiably his as India were crowned the No.1 Test team in the world.
In between, his feisty half-century in the final of the inaugural ICC World T20 took India to a total that was beyond Pakistan’s reach, just.
Post the turn of the decade, his finest hour came at the 2011 World Cup where he set the platform for the highest successful chase in a final with an assured 97, which is often overshadowed by skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s pyrotechniques that sealed the trophy. That seemed to be the theme running through his career as Gambhir never really received the adulation and the fanatical fan following reserved for other stars of Indian cricket. But it has to be said that he never went looking for it either.
Gambhir differed from other prominent Indian batsmen in that his peak lasted for a much shorter period. For a player who relied more on grit and determination than sheer talent, there was only so far that the dictum ‘mind over matter’ could take him.
When the slide began, it gradually became an avalanche. As India’s fortunes went south on their tours of England and Australia, the opener became a shadow of his former self and was reduced to issuing empty challenges to bowlers. His last Test hundred came in Chittagong in January 2010, the 28th of his 58 Tests. His past contributions ensured Gambhir was not immediately jettisoned. On one of his two comebacks, it was painful to watch him as almost a walking wicket in the bowler-friendly conditions on the 2014 England tour. For a redoubtable opener, he seemed unsure of his off-stump, kept falling over to be lbw, and on one occasion even got run out going for a risky single to get away from strike.
Gambhir never hid his captaincy ambitions, but his best years coincided with the period when Dhoni was the undisputed leader in Indian cricket. After the 0-8 reversal in England and Australia prompted calls for a change at the top, Gambhir was in no form whatsoever to throw his hat in the ring.
In came Kolkata Knight Riders to provide a leg-up. The IPL move from the Kotla to the Eden resulted in an unlikely partnership of sorts – the flamboyant filmstar Shah Rukh Khan and his often brooding skipper.
Two IPL titles resulted as Gambhir burnished his reputation as an opening batsman and a captain two steps ahead of the game. The City of Joy, which was incensed after its favourite son Sourav Ganguly was let go, took time to warm up to the new skipper with a privileged background from Delhi’s Rajinder Nagar but as results showed an upturn the attitude also changed. After all, who doesn’t love a winner!
Beginning of the end
But as Gambhir himself said, he had begun wrestling with thoughts that his time was up. His productivity with the bat had become patchy, and on his comeback to the Delhi Daredevils earlier this year, his returns were so lacklustre that the captain had to drop himself from the squad. His technique no longer cut it against potent bowlers, and he was never the big hitter who could clear the ropes with brute power.
His recent stint in the commentary box and frequent Twitter posts and battles with prominent individuals on burning issues point to the fact that Gambhir will not be short of career options after his playing days – and he may or may not remain involved in cricket in any capacity. He has never been afraid to take stands, which makes him one of a very rare breed in Indian cricket.
For a player who picked up a fight with Shahid Afridi in an ODI, elbowed Shane Watson in the midriff while taking a run during his double century at the Kotla, and didn’t even spare Virat Kohli during an IPL game, the video posted on social media on Tuesday seemed rather scripted and sanitised.
Gauti, as he is affectionately called, thanked the players, administrators and family who helped him throughout his career.
It is the same Gambhir who repeatedly feuded with coaches and selectors when their decisions on Delhi cricket clashed with his own, and he didn’t get the players he wanted in the team. Maybe, it had its roots in the frequent omissions he suffered at various stages of his career.
Corruption in cricket has been his eternal bugbear. He famously prevented the appointment of Ajay Jadeja and Manoj Prabhakar as coaches of the state team. Recently, he took BCCI and the Cricket Association of Bengal to task for having Mohammad Azharuddin to ring the ceremonial bell before a T20 International. His propensity to vax eloquent on almost any topic under the sun – be it terrorism in Kashmir or naxalism in central India – would make him a loose cannon in some eyes.
Kohli might be the latest in-your-face version of the Indian cricketer and the modern ultra-aggressive Indian, but Gambhir was the one who laid down the template — the original Angry Young Man on the cricket field.
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