India v Sri Lanka, Asia Cup, Mirpur March 13, 2012

Roles reversed but partnership flourishes

Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli have had significantly different, if not contrasting, fortunes coming into the Asia Cup. But their partnership has remained solid as ever

The previous time Gautam Gambhir scored an international century, he was leading India in the absence of the regular captain MS Dhoni and the usual stand-in Virender Sehwag. It was his first assignment as India captain and everything went right for Gambhir - New Zealand were blanked 5-0, and Gambhir was named Man of the Series for his runs and leadership.

At that time, Virat Kohli was just one of the many young contenders for a place in the one-day middle order. A century against Australia in Visakhapatnam had given him a foothold, but it was the three substantial scores to begin the New Zealand series that firmly established him in the team.

In the 15 months since, Kohli hasn't missed a single ODI, became the leading run-getter of the format in 2011, and also took over the long-contested spot vacated by Sourav Ganguly in the Test middle order. Gambhir hasn't had as stellar a time. While his one-day record remains solid, the bruising Test tours of England and Australia have dealt his standing a bit of a hit.

That was firmly confirmed when, days after a magical century in Hobart, the 23-year-old Kohli was named vice-captain for the Asia Cup ahead of Gambhir. The reversal of roles was highlighted by the manner of their celebrations on reaching their hundreds against Sri Lanka in Mirpur.

Kohli got to a century first, pushing the ball towards long-off and raising his hand to signal the milestone as he ambled a single. That was followed by an almost half-hearted leap and a wave of the bat. No screamed obscenities, no over-the-top antics which are usually associated with a Kohli hundred. It was more the celebration of a man who routinely made centuries - eight in one-dayers over the past year and a half.

Gambhir got to his century two deliveries later, with a pull to square leg. The reaction from Gambhir was unexpectedly strong. An impassioned punch of the air, followed by some shouted abuse, and then pointedly gesticulating towards the dressing room. It was a reasonably good impression of the typical Kohli reaction.

It might just have been relief at finally completing a hundred, after several near misses. A historic century at the World Cup final was his for the taking but he fell short, and there were a couple of nineties in the CB series as well. There was also a jittery moment today, when on 94, he set off for an ill-judged single and was nearly run out.

Add to that the frustrations of a tough and long recent tour of Australia, with the pasting in the Tests and the controversial rotation policy of the three senior openers due to which he was sidelined for several matches. Then there was the loss of the vice-captaincy. Still only 30, he went from being a likely candidate for the top job in the future to being demoted below a much younger and inexperienced player.

The innings itself was typical Gambhir. There were plenty of drop-and-run singles, he advanced down the track to both spinners and quicks, and though the number of boundaries was low, the strike-rate didn't flag. With the bowlers not providing much width for the batsmen, and generally maintaining tidy lines in the middle of the innings, both Kohli and Gambhir dealt largely in singles - collecting 117 ones between them.

It was their third double-century stand in one-dayers, to go with their most important one so far, the 83-run partnership that stabilised India in the World Cup final after the loss of Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar early. "It's always special batting with him," Kohli said. "We understand each others' games well, we run well between the wickets when together, we know when to step it up and I knew that we could put together another big partnership for India."

The current vice-captain doesn't think his elevation to the post changes much. "It's an honour, but I have not thought that my position in the team has changed. I haven't seen myself any differently after the announcement. I'm not thinking too much about it." Whether Gambhir's celebration means he sees it differently remains open for debate.

Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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