The year was 2004. An India A team was selected for the England series and the conditioning camp was planned in Bangalore’s NCA. I was the coach of the team and it was here for the very first time that I met Gautam Gambhir. He was shy and very soft-spoken, but I realised there was an active volcano inside him.
The players selected for the tour were all very special and I am happy to say that most of them graduated to play for India later on in their careers. Among the bunch though, Gautam Gambhir was the most special and also, the most talented.
However, I found myself wanting to know more about him and had a word with my friends who were based in Delhi (Madan Lal, Yashpal Sharma, Kirti Azad). As a coach, it is always good to have detailed information about the talent, temperament and skill of the player – and they all agreed that Gambhir was perfect India material at that time.
My Friendship With Gautam Gambhir Lasted Till I Became Chief Selector
Gambhir graduated to play for India after that tour, but the opening slot was never a cakewalk, as he had to compete with the likes of Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly. But Gambhir went on to make the opening slot his own – with his hard work and performance.
He was one of the guys who used to think cricket all the time. My relations with Gambhir became stronger; we used to discuss his performance whenever we met and sometimes, even on the phone.
I would observe a glow on Gambhir’s face as he climbed the stairs of success in his career. Our friendship continued for the next 7-8 years and everything was going well in his career. But suddenly, he was dropped from the Indian team and the main reason behind it was his ever growing so-called ‘attitude problem’.
I can easily say that it was because of his so-called attitude that he made it to the Indian team, but the very same so-called attitude was also the reason that he got dropped from the team. It was due to his ‘angry young man’ attitude that I nicknamed him the Amitabh Bachchan of Indian cricket.
I firmly believe that every cricketer has some kind of an attitude problem; but if a player shows the same to his own teammates, then it can have a negative impact. Unfortunately, this way I have lost some good friends. But for me, Indian cricket team and Indian cricket's future was always the priority.
Gambhir Could Have Continued in England in 2011
Gambhir was the leading choice for the Indian team in all three formats till the 2011 England tour. His stature was ever-growing, prior to that series; and he even led the side against New Zealand in the absence of MS Dhoni in a 5 ODI series.
During the England series of 2011 though, Gambhir was hit in the head with a bouncer and decided to return to India. That mistake cost him dear.
I used to be the Director of the NCA during that period. I was in shock when I saw the reports of the physio and the doctors, who confirmed that his injury was not serious at all, and he could have continued in that series.
Only a player knows how serious his injury is; but in my view, he lost the chance to become a legend of Indian cricket.
Gambhir tried his best to establish his place again, but failed in all his attempts. The man who was once seen as next superstar of Indian cricket after Sachin, Sehwag, Dravid and Ganguly, was struggling for his comeback.
Gautam Ended Our Friendship When I Replaced Him With Shikhar & Vijay
As Gautam Gambhir was struggling to make a comeback, his Delhi teammate Shikhar Dhawan was scoring big playing for India A.
I was the chairman of the Selection Committee at the time and we selectors decided to give Dhawan a chance in place of a struggling Gambhir. Later on, all doors were shut for Gambhir as Murali Vijay too was performing excellently as an opener.
That was the time Gambhir decided to end our friendship. I understand his feelings and took it in the right spirit. I did not take it personally. He hardly smiled whenever we met and he seems angry with me even today. When it comes to selecting a player for India, friendship or emotions don't work. The interest of the country always comes first – survival of the fittest. Even the king of jungle has to surrender his territory one day.
Gambhir did not realise that cricket is a cruel game – the one who grabs on to opportunity is the real star, and Gautam missed that chance. Even though Gambhir failed to make a comeback into the Indian side, he excelled for Kolkata Knight Riders, both as a captain and batsman.
But in cricket, sometimes attitude matters along with performance.
I am not saying Gambhir should have tried to flatter us and the team management, but a better attitude would have helped. After being dropped from the Indian team, whenever I saw Gautam Gambhir from a distance, all the glow on the face was missing. I could sense a storm inside him.
This year in the IPL, Gambhir’s comeback in the Delhi Daredevils’ franchise was full of hope and positivity, but he failed on the performance front. As his dear friend Yuvraj Singh claimed in one TV advertisement: “Jab tak balla chalta hain, tab tak thath hain”. Gambhir has finally realised that he is no longer the batsman that he was in his heydays.
I respect his decision to quit Delhi Daredevils captaincy, but he is the only person who knows why he stepped down in the middle of an IPL campaign. In my view, only an individual can understand what is going is going on inside his head.
What will happen in the future, no one knows. But for me, Gautam Gambhir will always remain my favourite cricketer.
(This story was first published on 27 April 2018 and has been reposted from The Quint's archives after Gautam Gambhir announced his retirement from cricket.)