Gautam Gambhir basks in golden spell
It isn't his skilful inside-out cover drive, it isn't his intent-oozing walk down the track, it isn't his aggressive pull but it's his little dab to third man that is the most telling feature of Gautam Gambhir's transformation into a batting machine. It's a shot his critics hanged him for earlier, a shot that gave the perception that he won't make a good Test batsman. Most players would have shelved the shot that brought them trouble but Gambhir didn't. He honed it to perfection instead and that says much about his character.
These days, Gambhir collects lots of runs with it in Test cricket. Today, too, he scored 30 runs behind the wicket on the off side. Early in his career, he used to play it to escape pressure but now he uses it to simply score runs or rotate the strike. It's a subtle difference but reflects a big change in the mindset. It shows how comfortable he feels these days.
He knows he is in the middle of his greatest spell yet. He has hit eight hundreds in the last ten Tests; five of those have now come in a succession. He is the only Indian to have scored five in a row and only the fourth international, after Don Bradman, Jacques Kallis and Mohammad Yousuf to do so. Only Bradman has hit six successive hundreds. Life is looking really good. And Gambhir doesn't want to jinx it. "If you play for the country, there is already a lot of pressure, why put more by thinking of runs and records. I don't play for records. If they come my way, everybody is happy."
And every one is. Post Napier, he has proven to himself, and to the world, that he can bat according to the situation. He can graft or attack; today he was almost invisible in his accumulation. The little cuts, those dabs and the cover drives helped him tick over at a brisk rate. He didn't take any risks, he didn't seem to play any big shot, yet the runs were coming at a fair clip. He of course won't remember today's hundred for the quality of attack or the pitch it was scored on. "They bowled better in the first innings. Of course, the wicket had become flat today," he said later. He would remember it a little for the match situation - to prevent the first-innings horrors from reoccurring - and definitely for where it was scored.
It was in the same city of Chittagong that he scored his first Test hundred in 2004. It was in Bangladesh that he hit a career-saving ODI hundred in 2007. He was making his comeback after the 2007 World Cup and he was feeling the pressure. He felt that if he didn't perform then, he might not get another chance again but that century gave him some breathing space. "Bangladesh has been a very lucky place; I won't mind coming again and again. Things are going my way now.
"I don't want to look behind," he said about those times when he was dropped from the team before that Bangladesh tour of 2007. "But you can say that the dropping motivated me. You tend to analyse where you went wrong. I wanted to see in the mirror and prove to myself that if I can score big in Ranji Trophy, I can do it in Test cricket."
He made a start then in Bangladesh but he slipped against South Africa in Ireland and didn't get off to a great start on tour of England. It was his second hundred, a second-innings effort against Australia in Mohali that turned things around for good. "Veeru told me if you want to become a good player at this level, you have to convert fifties into hundreds. People too were talking about it and I was feeling the pressure. It was that Mohali hundred that was that turning point." For starters, it was the first hundred in almost four years and also importantly, it was the point where he learnt how to convert a good start at international level. "I knew then and I told myself that if I get a fifty I always want to score a hundred."
It's the only target he admits to setting these days. There was a hint about a possible goal but he wouldn't say it. He has scored runs everywhere but he is yet to play a Test in South Africa or Australia. "It's going to be a great challenge to do well in Australia or South Africa where there will be more pace and bounce. You want to do well in all conditions. But I don't want to think about it now." His chance will come later in the year when India tour South Africa and critics will give the final stamp of approval only after he performs there. "That will be a big tour but first they are coming down to India. I don't want to be thinking too far ahead."
He doesn't set, or at least publicly talk about, his other goals because they don't come true. "I don't set any targets," he said. "When I have set a target it didn't happen. And also, I look at it this way - every innings you play for country is special. You want to do well in every innings; I think, 'this is going to be my last innings' every time I go out to bat."
His "last innings" for India has given them a platform from where they can push for a win. "450 is a good score. The pitch has got flatter and we had to give our bowlers sufficient time to bowl them out. We have made a good start by taking two wickets." He then added, "If they [Bangladesh] play positively anything is possible. Let's see what happens." If he was expecting the hosts to fight, Shakib Al Hasan ,Bangaldesh's captain, promised one, "We are looking to bat all day and we are looking to win." They would do well if their batsmen can take inspiration from Gambhir.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo