Grit that forced people to take notice, the commitment that earned kudos, plain speak that raised eyebrows, Gautam Gambhir’s eventful 15 years in Indian cricket were all these and many more. His cricketing epitaph was written when he was forced to (voluntarily for his fans) step down after six failures in IPL, and Tuesday’s emotional video post was just an official closure on his part.
But how does one judge cricketer Gambhir among the pantheons of greats in Indian cricket? He did not have the perfect technique that made Sunil Gavaskar the legend that he was. Neither did Gambhir possess the streak of genius that made Virender Sehwag one of Indian cricket’s greatest entertainers.
Yet, any Indian team between early 2008 till World Cup 2011 wasn’t complete without the feisty left-hander from Rajinder Nagar in New Delhi. He was an incredible foil to Sehwag and despite his limited talent, the ICC Test batsman of the Year for 2009 could always punch above his weight.
But somehow, he remained the eternal bridesmaid to a Yuvraj Singh or a Mahendra Singh Dhoni, all his life. Top scorer in two World Cup finals (World T20 in 2007 and 2011 50-over WC final), he remained in the shadow of the talismanic Indian skipper Dhoni. The near 13 hour marathon innings against New Zealand at Napier (136) was an effort that connoisseurs of Test cricket will forever remember.
Yet, strangely, Gambhir was more of a street fighter who would always be game for a good scrap, a complete contrast to the elegance of another left-handed great Sourav Ganguly. If Ganguly caressed the deliveries, Gambhir hammered them.
Aesthetics wasn’t Gambhir’s best friend but he did befriend two serious qualities -temperament and courage required at the top level. His approach to the game was a complete dichotomy to his background, a rich kid, who had a fleet of chauffeur-driven cars waiting for him to be taken him to practice.
So, when he took on Shahid Afridi or Kamran Akmal during Indo-Pak one-dayers or shoved Simon Katich during a Test match, it wasn’t the rich kid Gambhir but the proverbial street fighter from West Delhi, who could blow his top at car parking area. But it was Delhi cricket’s inherent corruption that has always built resolute characters and Gambhir was one such.
Even Indian cricket wasn’t actually very fair to Gambhir between 2003 to 2007 when he made sporadic India appearances. However, it was a century in the Ranji final against UP in 2007-08 with an injured palm (the skin was peeled and the pain was unbearable) paved his way back to the national team across all formats. There was no looking back for next four years as he forged a successful partnership with Sehwag.
Things went downhill post World Cup and a poor show in an aborted England trip was the beginning of the end. He was never the same international player again even though he captained the Kolkata Knight Riders to two IPL titles.
Did he harbour captaincy ambitions? Of course he did, but that was MS Dhoni’s peak time as a leader. By the time Dhoni started failing as Test captain, Gambhir’s career in the longest version was as good as over. The four failures in the 2014 England series where he became a walking wicket in swinging conditions did dent his reputation.
But ask any of his contemporaries about his prowess against spin bowling and the answer will be equivocal. There were only few who could dominate spinners like Gambhir did during his prime.
If Ganguly’s signature shot was straight loft or one over long on, Gambhir patented the inside out lofted shot, a difficult one to play. Off the field, he remained a man of strong likes and dislikes.
There is no cricketer who is more opinionated than Gambhir and life for him is black or white. That’s why he can’t stand the sight of Ajay Jadeja or Manoj Prabhakar and he refused to play in their coaching since they were accused of match-fixing.
He was a pro-player and anti-establishment at the same time. He had no shame to take cudgels for youngsters against administrators or selectors of his father’s age. He once charged at a Delhi selector for trying to force one player who hadn’t scored runs.
At another time, he picked up a raw with DDCA officials, including Chetan Chauhan, for ignoring Navdeep Saini. When he felt that KP Bhaskar was not treating youngsters fairly, he would charge towards him with a cricket bat accusing him of trying to ruin careers.
Whether he was right or wrong will remain a subjective issue but unlike most of his contemporaries, he had an opinion and never failed to express it. Of late, he has not been shy of expressing his political thoughts on social media with varied response.
The second innings of Gautam Gambhir is expected to be as eventful as his first whether it’s in BCCI’s board room or as a people’s representative. He fears no one and he always speaks his mind.