Gautam Gambhir, India’s forgotten man given an unexpected return to savour

Gautam Gambhir, for a man of noteworthy accomplishments, had kind of unceremoniously faded from India's collective cricketing memory, writes Dileep Premachandran. But the Indore Test has improbably proved his chance at a final say.

India's Gautam Gambhir plays a shot against New Zealand on the first day of the third Test against New Zealand. Punit Paranjpe / AFP / October 8, 2016
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He was, by a distance, the top scorer, with 75, when India beat Pakistan in the final of the inaugural World Twenty20 in 2007.

Nearly four years later, there would have been no World Cup win on home soil but for his gritty 97, which rebuilt the innings after Lasith Malinga had dismissed both Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar early. Two landmark events in the history of Indian cricket, two defining innings. Despite that, Gautam Gambhir, who turns 35 on October 14, has been something of a forgotten man.

There must have been times over the past few seasons when Gambhir thought his time in India colours was over.

He led Kolkata Knight Riders, his adopted Indian Premier League franchise, to two titles, but from time to time, the frustration would boil over. This was a man who wore his intensity on his sleeve, whose insecurities about his place in an illustrious batting order had been put at ease by the man-management skills of Gary Kirsten.

Away from the international arena, he brought to mind Van Morrison’s Too Long in Exile: “Oh that isolated feeling, Drives you up against, up against the wall.”

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Gambhir last played a full series for India against England in 2012. He made a couple of half-centuries without ever convincing the selectors, and when he was recalled for two Tests, among the worst India have ever played, at the end of the England tour in 2014, he managed 25 in four innings.

That should have been that, but Gambhir, who was half of one of the great modern-day opening partnerships with Sehwag, is no quitter. He started the current domestic season with scores of 77, 90, 59, 94 and 36 in the Duleep Trophy, and when Lokesh Rahul hurt his hamstring during the first Test against New Zealand, he was called up as cover.

Shikhar Dhawan then suffered a minor fracture of the thumb in Kolkata, and the improbable became possible. As Indore, a city in the heart of India with a rich cricketing tradition dating back nearly 100 years, hosted its first Test, Gambhir was back in the playing XI.

A cut for four off Matt Henry got him going, and there were then back-to-back sixes off the same bowler when he pitched too short. But having reached 24 off just 22 balls, Gambhir was then becalmed before his dismissal for 29 (53 balls). He may yet get to bat again, but unless he can summon up a massive effort, it’s hard to see how he’ll replace Rahul in the series against England.

Gambhir last played an ODI for India in January 2013, and his final appearance in a T20 international was even earlier, in late 2012. The Test squad, where India have struggled to find a reliable partner for Murali Vijay, was always his best hope of a recall, even if it is likely to be a fleeting one.

How much it means to him was apparent from a tweet soon after he was called up for the second Test. “Nothing beats playing again for d country,” it said. “Test cricket, whites, red ball and India cap again. Thanks @BCCI, thanks 2 all for d prayers.”

More than seven years ago, in Napier, Gambhir saved India a Test by batting 643 minutes and 436 balls for 137. As much as the 4,412 runs that he added with Sehwag (11 century stands and an average of 52.52), it is that spirit of defiance that Indian cricket will remember him for.

Even if Indore’s first Test is Gambhir’s last, he will savour the experience.

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