Sometime in 2009, when Gautam Gambhir was at the peak of his powers, fellow opener Virender Sehwag hailed him as the best opener India had since batting legend Sunil Gavaskar.
Sehwag can be forgiven for the rich hyperbole that is a part of his witty, headline-grabbing alter ego on social media. There was much to look forward in Indian cricket during this time as they vaulted to the top of the International Cricket Council rankings.
India’s opening woes were finally put to bed, and Gambhir was at the forefront of it all. When the situation demanded a stonewall display, he blunted the New Zealand bowlers to the ground in a 643-minute in Napier. A few months earlier, the Delhi southpaw would display his firepower in coloured clothing, emerging as the highest one-day international run-scorer of 2008 with a strike rate of 90 to boot.
That, of course, came on the back of some outstanding displays in Tests too. Gambhir’s steady workmanlike approach seemed as though the missing piece in India’s formidable batting jigsaw. His style seamlessly complimented Sehwag’s flamboyance, Sachin Tendulkar’s flair, Rahul Dravid’s doggedness or VVS Laxman’s artistry.
Gambhir was a battler, an accumulator and someone who read match situations well before deciding his approach at the crease. But, this identity took time to take shape. There were murmurs of the diminutive batsman getting more chances than he deserved.
Gambhir’s detractors may have had a point: he was thrust into the limelight just a few weeks after India finished beaten finalists in the 2003 World Cup. Four years had passed, only for his contemporaries – MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, and juniors – Suresh Raina, Robin Uthappa – to cement their spot in the batting order.
“Initially I used to try and copy them [the senior batsmen],” Gambhir later said, looking back at his erratic younger days. “Maybe getting dropped teaches you more things than when you are doing well. One thing I realised was that everyone is different. You can’t compare two human beings.”
Gambhir pointed out later that missing out on a berth to West Indies, for a fleeting second, made him consider his future in the game before talking himself out of it. Bigger things awaited him that season after all. The trademark steel and grit that has now famously become a part of his repertoire was built brick by brick.
A few timely half-centuries against Bangladesh and England in ODIs as India went about rebuilding post a disastrous World Cup campaign helped Gambhir buy some more time in the international setup. Question marks over his spot, though, were put to bed with a gutsy 75 in the final of the World T20 against Pakistan in a match where the middle-order struggled; India would go on to edge out their arch-rivals in a thrilling final at Johannesburg.
That Gambhir was a man made for the big occasion saw further proof months later during Delhi’s Ranji Trophy triumph. The formidable Uttar Pradesh bowling line-up was sent on a leather hunt during a tricky fourth innings chase as Gambhir cut, drove and pulled like a man possessed. He was carrying a brutal injury as well but ensured that his team crossed the line for a comfortable win. Gambhir remained unbeaten on 130.
The street-fighter personality of Gambhir bore a stark contrast to his quiet demeanour, and represented India’s new face – fearless, combative, and willing to walk the talk. Opponents trying to get under his skin got a mouthful, and later, were taken to the cleaners... he was like a boxer sizing up the opponent, waiting for an opportune moment to cut lose.
Pakistan’s Shahid Afridi got a little taste of it during an ODI series in India and so did Australia’s Simon Katich, when India wrestled back the Border-Gavaskar trophy. There were times when that competitive rage went a tad too far, with a elbow on Shane Watson en route a chanceless double-century got him a one-Test ban.
It came as no surprise that Gambhir’s purple patch coincided with coach Gary Kirsten’s arrival, clinching his spot in a top-order that already boasted of a mountain of runs. The South African saw a lot of himself in his player, and famously dubbed him ‘the banker’ of the Indian setup – one who traded belligerence only to pile on the runs.
That trait took India to its promised land, a World Cup win on home soil. Gambhir’s staunch vigil came to a tame end at a crucial stage in the game, not before adding 97 crucial runs after a sense of panic had gripped the Indian ranks following Sehwag and Sachin’s early dismissals.
The accolades at the international stage, though, came to a screeching halt for Gambhir following the euphoria of India’s first World Cup win in 28 years. Wiser bowlers, especially away from home, were able to expose his frailties outside the off-stump.
However, franchise cricket provided him an outlet. Gambhir is one of the frontrunners when there is a discussion on the list of great captains India never had. Indian Premier League franchise Kolkata Knight Riders won two titles in three years under Gambhir’s leadership. The second win in 2014, was even more pleasing following a horrendous start that saw the left-hander dismissed for three consecutive ducks.
It’s almost cataclysmic that the career of one of India’s biggest post-2000 heroes came to a tame end: failed comebacks to international cricket, heated clashes on social media, question marks about his attitude, and having to relinquish captaincy in the IPL last year.
For a man who thrived on coming up with a response when chips are down, Gambhir could be far from done on the cricketing scene.