A propensity to play away from his body, especially in the early stages of his innings, has cost Gambhir dear in recent times
It takes some courage and conviction to admit publicly that, even eight years after making your international debut and having established yourself as a key member of the national team, you are still gripped by insecurity and the need to keep proving yourself. It also provides an insight into the mental make-up of the individual, driven and consumed by his desire to play for the country, even if it can sometimes be at the expense of enjoying the entire experience.
Gautam Gambhir is a rarity in international sport. Always committed, forever on a mission to prove a point and not unaware that you are only as good as your last performance, he gives the impression that while he loves being an international cricketer, there is something more to the fierce determination with which he approaches a game. It perhaps stems from the fact that he had to bide his time to earn back the India cap that was first bestowed on him in November 2004. It also most likely comes from the drive to protect his turf.
It has been a difficult two and a half years in Test cricket for Gambhir – difficult not because the runs have dried to a trickle, but because the centuries haven’t been forthcoming. Cricketers, and especially those at the top of the order, are judged as much on the quantum of runs they make as the hundreds they stack up. Gambhir hasn’t made a Test hundred since January 2010, a long barren stretch during which he has seen a fair share of injuries but no serious threat to his place in the side.
This year has already been a roller-coaster ride. His Test travails have continued, but he has scored runs in limited-overs cricket – in Australia in the triangular series, in Dhaka during the Asia Cup, and in Sri Lanka in July-August when India played five One-Day Internationals and a Twenty20 International. He surprisingly lost the vice-captaincy to Virat Kohli, and then regained it, again for no discernible reason. But with Virender Sehwag, his opening partner, too struggling for consistency and the big runs that once made him one of the most feared batsmen in the world, Gambhir needed a few runs of his own going into the Super Eights of the World Twenty20.
A pronounced propensity to play away from his body, especially in the early stages of his innings, has cost Gambhir dear in recent times. He has either ended up fishing at, and nicking, deliveries well outside off-stump, or played a little outside the line and directed the ball off the inside edge on to his stumps. He has obviously worked hard at that failing, with mixed results, but the first signs that he might be turning the corner came last Sunday when he made 45 off 38 deliveries against England.
It was an innings notable for the regularity with which he played the pull – not always with the greatest authority, but making a conscious effort to keep the ball down – and the industry with which he ran between the wickets. The waft down the track to smash the ball over cover, a sign that Gambhir is on top of his game, was conspicuous by its absence, but as his innings progressed, there were enough indications that Gambhir had found more than a semblance of touch.
Gambhir is such a key presence in the Indian line-up, no matter what the format. He is one of the few specialists – his very occasional leg-spin has rarely been used – in the side, capable of controlling the innings and providing the stability that allows the rest of the unit to unleash big shots without fear of leaving both ends open.
His felicity against spin, which will most likely have a greater say as the tournament hots up, allows him to remain busy during the middle overs when the field is spread far and wide with the onus on protecting boundaries, and even if he doesn’t clear the ropes like some of the others do, his aggression manifests itself in equally productive ways.
“He is one of the key players,” said MS Dhoni, India’s captain. “His presence in the side is very, very critical. He is someone who is quite aggressive by nature. He is someone who has struggled a lot to get into the Indian side, so I feel this innings (against England) will help him a lot. He paced his innings really well. “He had a lean patch in the last few games, not a brilliant patch. But innings like these help a lot. Once you get those 30 or 40-odd runs, all of a sudden you are a changed batsman. His responsibility is to take his innings through. He can be aggressive against the spinners; we all know he is one of the best players of spin. The rest of the batsmen can play around him. His performance was very critical and I can only see it improving in the next stage of the tournament.”
Should India opt to go in with five bowlers, then Sehwag will perhaps continue to miss out, increasing the responsibility on Gambhir. Responsibility is something Gambhir has thrived on, and while it might be premature to assert with certainty that he has turned the corner on the back on one innings, the signs are most encouraging.