Thank You Gauti, Forever India’s Man For The Finals
Today’s India may recall Gautam Gambhir as the angry Twitter activist who is proud to be an Indian.
He has been such an active Twitter campaigner that everyone has actually forgotten that Gambhir is more than just a social media star. When he batted for India in white-ball cricket on flat pitches, he was a superstar.
Star of Title Wins
Two of Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s crowning glories – the 2007 World T20 and the 2011 World Cup – were fashioned by Gambhir top-scoring in both finals. Both the knocks, against Pakistan at Johannesburg in 2007 and Sri Lanka at Mumbai in 2011, will forever be part of Indian cricketing folklore.
Both came with the team in trouble and, to a large extent, shaped the legacy of Dhoni as a white-ball captain. It typified Gambhir’s bulldog spirit, which was majorly confined to the limited-overs formats, but one which left a lasting impact.
He was not a big-hitter or the carefree batsman like his long-term partner, Virender Sehwag. He did not have the tenacity of a Rahul Dravid, or the batting genius of a Sachin Tendulkar, or the silken grace of a VVS Laxman. Gambhir was cut from an entirely different cloth. He could change gears as required and yet keep pace with the demands of a mounting rate.
His marathon effort at Napier in 2009 when he batted for a long time to bail India out of a certain defeat against New Zealand is one of the highlights of his Test career. But when it comes to his Test career, it was a pity that his best moments are hard to remember quite instantly.
He was the better half of Sehwag and forever dwarfed in his comparison, not for lack of ability but because his partner stole the show almost always. In a way his partnerships resembled the stands between Dravid and Tendulkar, where the Karnataka stalwart was happy to be in the background.
Holding His Own
His cricket coincided with the golden phase of Indian cricket, which lasted for about 12 years with some of the best-ever players gracing the field. For someone to hold his own among such a galaxy of stars says a lot about a player who was forever the least attractive of them all with the bat.
During this time, Gambhir became known more for his run-ins on the field even as he used his bat with elan at times. His battles with Simon Katich, his elbowing of Shane Watson and then his epic pow-wow with Shahid Afridi will forever be part of his legacy. The Afridi battle is now part of social media and television broadcast folklore.
Start of the Downfall
But the downfall for India’s best era in cricket incidentally came right after the triumph that night in April 2011 in the World Cup final.
Within a year of that victory, India’s best were dismantled by either lack of form or injury as the game showed that they are but just players. It was the disdain that the superstars showed which resulted in their downfall. Gambhir was no different.
From that high of the World Cup win, his career just kept nosediving. The turning point was the concussion in the Manchester Test of 2011 when he fell and hurt himself while fielding. He was never the same batsman again as different theories were propounded at the time about his state of mind. He fought along for a while, but lost his Test place in 2012.
His limited-overs spot was never in question, but as India started building towards the 2015 World Cup, Gambhir became one of the casualties. His diminishing returns at the top meant that he could no longer hold back a rampant Shikhar Dhawan.
It became increasingly difficult for Gambhir to return to an ever-changing Indian dressing room thereafter. Younger players were roped in, and some of Gambhir’s long-term teammates were eased out either by design or by default.
Never One to Give Up
Yet Gambhir battled along in empty grounds in Ranji Trophy and other domestic tournaments. His crowning moments, however, came in the Indian Premier League (IPL) when he led a side full of players excluded from the Indian squad at Kolkata Knight Riders. That they won the title twice under Gambhir was as much a testament of his leadership as it was of the personnel he possessed. It was these title triumphs at the IPL which paved the way for his penultimate comeback to the Indian Test squad on the 2014 tour to England.
It is here that his relationship with Dhoni became the point of discussion. This was an alliance that was always a subject of a lot of innuendo. Gambhir’s career kept sliding downwards and it was felt that a lot had to do with lack or no confidence of the skipper at the time, Dhoni. Gambhir, too, did not hold back and never really paid glowing tributes to Dhoni’s leadership in the two world title wins.
Gambhir failed in England in 2014, thrown in as he was without any kind of match practice and then it was back to the grind. Everyone had forgotten about Gambhir, but he kept soldiering on.
In between, his relation with the other rising star and a fellow Delhi boy, Virat Kohli, came to the fore. They had a visible public spat during one of the IPL games in 2013, and it was too graphic to be ignored.
Yet, Gambhir did return one final time in 2016/17 against New Zealand and England. But this time, he was forever on notice because it was felt he did not have the backing of the new captain, Kohli. Finally, when Gambhir failed it was curtains for his international career as he never returned to Indian colours.
His domestic career nosedived further with clashes galore with coach KP Bhaskar in the Delhi Ranji Trophy side. His IPL fortunes with Kolkata were never quite the same, and they finally parted ways.
Yet when 2018 began he held out hope for one final hurrah, this time with a new franchise in Delhi Daredevils. Gambhir began his campaign all gung-ho about the direction he wanted the franchise to take on his return to the side after seven years. But very soon it was evident that his time was up. He just could not match up to the pace of the format any more.
Having seen him from close quarters, it was evident that there was no let up in effort. But where the body was willing, the mind was not there and vice-versa.
It soon became clear that the homecoming would not be as glorious as had been predicted. Never one to throw in his towel, Gambhir gave it up mid-way into the 2018 campaign and that was the end of it.
It seemed like the end was quite near. Yet, his excellent returns in the Vijay Hazare Trophy at the start of the season meant that there was still hope for one final hurrah, at least in the IPL. But it was not to be, and Gambhir finally bid adieu to his career.
On the field, he always lived up to his name and never once let himself a smile. Hopefully now that he has called it quits, he will be more than just his name, maybe as a politician or just another TV pundit.
(Chandresh Narayanan is former cricket writer with The Times of India, The Indian Express, ex-Media Officer for ICC and current media manager of Delhi Daredevils. He is also the author of World Cup Heroes, Cricket Editorial consultant, professor and cricket TV commentator.)