Gambhir gets slim chance at redemption
Gautam Gambhir wasn't merely in jail - nor, for that matter, were India. They were in solitary confinement in the deepest, darkest corner of the jail. Now, for Gambhir more than India, there is a sliver of light, a hole in one of the four walls. Over the next two days, he will hope for - not think of or visualise - an escape.
It began with his first forceful, horizontal-bat shot of the series. Until then there had been no respite. The Australian bowlers were bowling short of a length, around off, and he was poking at them. Not used to leaving off a length, not sure of the line because of the doubt caused by Ben Hilfenhaus' swing back into him. Duncan Fletcher said two days ago that leaving those deliveries alone was not going to be the solution, that Gambhir needed to bat in his natural, positive way. He said when Gambhir is feeling good about his game, he scores off the same deliveries.
Gambhir hasn't felt good about his game on this tour. He has been nervous, pushing at balls in the hope they hit the middle of the bat. It is easier to say that being positive is the solution, though, than actually pulling off the transformation. How do you go about being positive when you don't know where the next run is coming from?
At such times, perhaps the best thing to happen is for you to feel that you have nothing to lose. Or very little. In the three previous innings, Gambhir had much more to lose. Today, not much. Yes, technically the Test can still be saved, but these journeys can't be made with the destination in sight. Gambhir became a bit adventurous today. The second ball he faced was not too different from the ones he has been edging so far. He upper-cut it. Over gully it went, for four. He went at the next ball too. Again, it went for four.
There was clarity of thought after that. He began to leave better. When he played at those testing deliveries, he drove. The number of those previously troublesome deliveries reduced. You could see he was feeling better. For a change, the sound of an Indian bat resonated at the SCG for a little while. It was the reflex of a man trying to save his name. Thinking of saving his career might be too drastic a thought, trying to save the match, too far away.
As Rahul Dravid said, India were not thinking of drawing the match as of now. "We need to go out there and show some fight," he said. "And bat as long as we can. Who knows what can happen? We have got quality batsmen who can bat long periods. It's hard to think about two days from now right away. I am sure the guys will go out and fight and do the best they can. And we will take it from there."
Gambhir, Dravid said, just batted. If the ball was up there to be driven, he played the natural drive. When he saw the spinner, he stepped out and went inside-out with the turn, and picked up two boundaries off the last two balls before tea. He raced away to 59 off 65. We were getting into Gambhir territory now. He has shown he is more adept than a regular modern batsman when it comes to just batting, batting even when the runs aren't coming and when there is no win in sight. Just the road.
The road was revealed to him towards the end of day's play. Australia set in-out fields to cut out the boundaries, and bowled outside off to see if he would continue pushing. Gambhir wouldn't. He went 34 deliveries without scoring a run. Hilfenhaus, India's nemesis, remained. One of Gambhir's two false shots came off his bowling. Today, though, the edge wouldn't carry. When it would carry, off James Pattinson, Brad Haddin would drop him. You need luck at times. Dravid said India would need every ounce they could conjure.
"Part of the challenge is mental," Dravid said. "Part of it is physical and technical. Physically you have to bat long period of times. Technically they have a good attack that is bowling well, so you have to counter them technically too. It's a combination. If we are going to save the game from here, we need everything to work for us."
He sees hope in Gambhir, but nothing more than hope. "Happy for Gautam," he said. "He has worked very hard. He's been under pressure obviously. He wants to score runs. He is very keen to do well. It was nice to see him come out and play some shots, play positively and get going. Later on, towards the end of the day, when things were tough, he gritted it out and hung in there. Hopefully he can convert [the start] into a big one. We know he enjoys batting long periods of time."
One hundred and twenty-four balls is not a long period of time. Gambhir hasn't scored a century in nearly two years. India have crossed 300 only once in their last 17 away attempts. Gambhir, though, might have taken the first few baby steps out of the rut he finds himself in.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo