There is something about Gautam Gambhir that makes him one of the most interesting figures in Indian cricket these days. It’s in his rage, his aggression that isn’t necessarily macho but something more frenetic and emotional, as if he is in a battle with himself. It’s in his intensity, his self-admitted insecurity. It’s in the way the white line fever kicks in him unlike any other Indian player. It’s in his tweets — patriotic angst, anger against the political class, love for the Army which is mostly highlighted in the injustices meted out to the Services. He is a type who usually does well under pressure, somehow managing to channelise the inner churn into something productive.
As a batsman, Gambhir isn’t Carl Hooper, who left the cricketing world feeling that he had wasted his talent. On the other hand, for a large part of his career, Gambhir gave the impression that he was punching above his weight. That he had squeezed out all the talent he had, and achieved a lot. It wasn’t a surprise when his game began to fade circa 2012.
The worst part, though, was that the man who would box around the crease with attacking options was reduced to thinking of mere survival. All that nervous energy of a boxer was best utilised in aggression; his game wasn’t cut out for rope-a-dope stalling tactics. The inherent flaws in his batting began to catch up with him. The iffy dab outside off, the hesitant front-leg movement which had made him an LBW magnet, and only he can say whether any energy was frittered in captaincy ambitions.
It seemed the end was nigh; and he would have to be content playing the Ranji Trophy and IPL. But Gambhir, unsurprisingly, wasn’t ready to lie down and fade away. He called up former Australian batsman Justin Langer — one who comes closest to him in batting and as a person — and took the flight to Perth. Martial arts, yoga, and a lot of batting ensued. He has spoken about how it wasn’t about technique but by the end of it, a few changes came through.
The most glaring one was his wide-open stance, adopted at the suggestion of Langer’s coach Neil ‘Noddy’ Holder, a renowned batting coach in Australia to whom England Cricket Board sends a lot of its young batsmen from age-group levels to train.
On Monday, in Rajkot, Gambhir started to bat against the spinners before he moved to the pace net to face Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami. Some batsmen who have a wide-open stance like Shivnarine Chanderpaul tend to move that front leg and sort of get in line by the time the ball is delivered.
Not Gambhir. The neck jutted out, the eyes peer out at the ball, and he then reacted to the ball. When the ball was full, he drove. When it was short, he dabbed or punched. It was the balls on a good length that were interesting to watch. Even in his best days, he wouldn’t really stretch that front foot too much, but with this open stance, the movement seems reduced even more. At times Shami pinged that length, Gambhir would sort of move forward — a tiny short step and then the hands came through. He connected but the timing wasn’t great. It wasn’t as if he was getting beaten or edging them, but it wasn’t smooth. Not that he would mind; he is one of those batsmen who hasn’t been bothered about looking ugly. But it would be interesting if an English bowler manages to ping that good length area consistently. It could get interesting. The line between a tiny, but confident, short step and a nervous stutter can thin very quickly.
It would come down to how he feels when he is out there in the middle. With Gambhir, cricket isn’t a joyous activity.
“I don’t think I enjoy too much of cricket, to be honest. I think, for me, cricket is something which is my priority,” he said in the past when things were actually going well for him. “So even at this stage, if I don’t score runs in two or three games, I start getting that feeling that I’m going to get dropped,” he said.
His insecurity has percolated so deep inside his system that he had said he can’t change it now. Instead, he has just started living with it.
“That’s what I’ve heard ever since I was growing up as a kid. That every game was the last game for me.”
These days, every game indeed could be his last. Luckily for him, injuries to KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan have given him some breathing space in this series. India don’t have a third opener in the squad; one way to see it as a blessing for Gambhir, but he has to come through for the sake of the team.
Langer summed up Gambhir’s predicament sometime last year.
“We both think about the game a lot, which can be positive and at times an obstruction. We have spoken about the observation that he has stopped looking to score runs, and instead, is just surviving at the crease. This happens to many players when they are trying so hard to be successful. His challenge is to trust his ability, see the ball clearly again, and back himself to take the bowlers.”
The safest thing that can be said about Gambhir is that he would fight it out. The Indian eyeballs these days would perhaps be focussed on the likes of Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, but the most fascinating activity would be to focus on Gambhir. Here is a man on a thin leash, time is running out, he is batting with a remodelled technique; watch out for that front foot of course, but more importantly watch the space between his ears. Would his grit and fire in the belly see him through yet again in his career?