From the start of India’s 2008 series in Sri Lanka to the end of their 2010-11 tour of South Africa, Gautam Gambhir averaged 60.52 and scored eight hundreds over a period of 24 Test matches. He made centuries in five successive Tests, falling just short of Don Bradman’s record of six, and scored at least a half-century in 11 successive Tests, a feat previously achieved only by Viv Richards.
In 34 Tests either side of that Richardsian and almost Bradmanesque phase, Gambhir averaged 28.28.
Two years after he last played for India, Gambhir has announced his retirement from all cricket, and the question must be asked once more: was he a potential great who underachieved for most of his career, or was he simply a good Test cricketer who enjoyed one glorious spell of over-achievement?
It is a question befitting one of Indian cricket’s most complex and vexing figures.
What are the things we remember cricketers by?
In Gambhir’s case, there are many that should spring immediately to mind. The square-cut, the nudge off the legs, the cleared-front-leg hoick over wide mid-on. The nimble feet against spin, the chips over midwicket and extra-cover. The crazy charge down the track to Thisara Perera, exposing all three stumps, when he was three runs short of joining Clive Lloyd, Richards, Aravinda de Silva, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Mahela Jayawardene as centurions in World Cup finals. The elbowing of Shane Watson, the argy-bargy with Virat Kohli during an IPL game. The eagerness to put on that shiny Kolkata Knight Riders helmet and station himself at bat-pad when Sunil Narine bowled, particularly when MS Dhoni was new to the crease. The rat-a-tat clatter of media-trained cliches in press conferences; the on-the-sleeve patriotism, often edging into dangerous shades of nationalism, in social-media pronouncements. Above all, that default facial expression: half-glare, half-scowl, fully Gambhir. It’s almost like his surname – in Hindi it can mean serious, grave, grim, solemn or severe – predestined him to carry that expression around the world’s cricket grounds.
The image that pops into my head when I think of Gambhir is of a cricket shot, a forward defensive. The bowler is Ajantha Mendis, the terrifyingly indecipherable Ajantha Mendis of 2008, and the ball is delivered from over the wicket, initially angling across the left-handed Gambhir, drawing him forward, pitching on middle-and-off or thereabouts.
The image isn’t of one forward defensive in isolation. It is, rather, like a lenticular print, of Gambhir pressing forward, landing lightly on the ball of his front foot, his toes in line with the Mendis delivery. Angle the print one way, and it is a carrom ball, straightening into Gambhir; angle it the other way, and it’s the offbreak, turning away from him.
Gambhir’s footwork has situated him perfectly to deal with both possibilities. Since only his toes are in line with the ball, his front pad isn’t in the way of his bat coming down straight in case the ball turns into him. At the same time, his front leg is close enough to the initial line to enable him, with a full bend of his knee, to get his head over the offbreak and either defend it or, if the degree of turn is extravagant, pad it away.
I don’t remember with any degree of certainty whether Gambhir played this particular sequence of forward defensives at the Sinhalese Sports Club, in Galle, or at the P Sara Oval. That in itself is testament to his consistency – 39, 43, 56, 74, 72, 26 – over a series in which Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly struggled to come to terms with Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan. All I remember is watching his footwork and thinking to myself, ‘Here is a seriously good player of spin.’
That ability against spin helped him gain a firm footing in India’s Test line-up in what was his first full series back after two years out of the side. He had averaged 36.00 in his first 13 Tests, scoring a hundred against Bangladesh and a 97 against Zimbabwe but often failing to convert good-looking starts into bigger innings against better teams. His strike rate through that period was 60.21 – indicative of a gifted strokeplayer who didn’t always have the patience or shot selection to go with it.
The Gambhir of 2008 was different, and he would go on to show this both home and away, and against both spin and pace. Over the next two-and-a-half years, there would be hundreds at home against Australia, England and Sri Lanka, and two in New Zealand. One of them, a match-saving epic in Napier spanning 10 hours and 43 minutes, was an innings both atypical and career-defining. There would be three fifties in four innings, against Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, on the 2010-11 tour of South Africa, including two in Cape Town, the first helping keep alive visions of a series win and the second, spanning four-and-a-half hours on the final day, helping protect India’s share of a fiercely contested series.
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By the end of that South Africa tour, India were firmly entrenched as the world’s No. 1 Test side, and Gambhir’s Test average was 51.33. A World Cup victory would follow, with Gambhir’s 97 in the final calming India’s nerves after the early loss of Virender Sehwag and Tendulkar in a chase of 275.
At this point Gambhir was 29. His best years, surely, were ahead of him.
Given what top-class fast bowling can do to reflexes dulled by age, even those of the greatest of batsmen, it perhaps wasn’t wholly unexpected that the careers of Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar ended the way they did, their final chapters dominated by 4-0 series defeats in England and Australia.
But what about the next generation? What about those born in the late 70s and early 80s, from whom at least two more good years could have been reasonably expected? What about Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan and Yuvraj Singh, and what about Gambhir? Why did all of them, one after the other, fade away as international cricketers after the euphoria of April 2, 2011?
Was it the euphoria itself, the feeling of having scaled that peak and not having too much more left to achieve?
Was it the ill-conceived idea that all of them jump into a full IPL season mere days after that draining World Cup? Three of them – Sehwag, Yuvraj and Gambhir – carried fitness worries into that IPL, and another – Zaheer – a notoriously injury-prone body. All of them were duly ruled out of the West Indies tour that followed, and all of them arrived in England at less than full readiness.
But why that was the beginning of the end of their careers, and not merely a trough they later recovered from, can never fully be explained.
This much, however, can be said: Gambhir never stopped trying to rediscover the essence of what had once made him, briefly but incandescently, one of the world’s best batsmen. He tinkered with his trigger movements, opened up his stance. He led Kolkata Knight Riders to two IPL titles. Where others in his situation picked and chose when to play domestic cricket, their interest waxing and waning depending on the proximity of the IPL auction, he kept turning up for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy. He clashed with authority figures in one of India’s most politicised state associations, scored enough runs to keep meriting automatic selection, and became a father figure to a group of talented young players.
All this ensured he remained relevant, and earned him recalls to India’s Test squad in 2014 and 2016-17. They didn’t go as he might have liked, but, as with everything else he did, he gave it his all.