Gambhir shrugs off his struggles
It's hard to believe now, but Gautam Gambhir once batted 643 minutes in an innings. It is the longest any Indian has ever batted in the second innings of a Test, and the sixth-longest overall. Of the 436 balls he faced in that innings, he didn't offer a shot to 108. You can argue it was a pitch as good as the Marine Drive in Napier, but you can't take away from that feat of discipline, concentration and endurance. The only time he grew impatient in that innings was when approaching 50 and 100.
Let's move to Cape Town, January 2011. The ball swung and seamed around corners in the first innings, and a huge crack stared at him on a good length just outside off in the second. In the first innings, he offered no shot to 60 out of 222 balls, and scored 93 of his most challenging runs. In the second, with a hurt elbow he batted for four-and-a-half hours for just 64 runs to help India draw the Test and the series.
Those were easily the best days of Gambhir the Test batsman. The thing about him then was you could see even from outside that he was enjoying leaving balls alone and playing defensive shots. He used only judiciously the dab to third man, his best friend and his worst enemy. Back then, he was putting together innings of substance in difficult conditions too.
Gambhir was an intense character, a bit like Rahul Dravid. He never had a solid technique, but he worked obsessively towards fine-tuning it to suit Test cricket. He once spent days at an exercise where he batted without a bat in his hand, and moved his foot towards the ball bowled at him from a short distance. He did so to stop falling over, which he did a lot during his early days.
With his effort in Cape Town, Gambhir was now firmly part of one of India's best batting line-up: two set openers and three great middle-order batsmen. It was followed by the World Cup win, and a superb 97 in the final, which actually deserved the Man-of-the-Match award that went to MS Dhoni. Regardless, things were going swimmingly, and people were thinking of Gambhir as the next captain.
Something has gone horribly wrong since then. He has won millions of dollars and an IPL but Gambhir is a changed man. Like Dravid, he is not as naturally gifted as the other Indian batsmen. He would forever need to keep fighting and stay disciplined. That discipline at the wicket disappeared in England, where he sustained two serious injuries too, and in Australia. He was not leaving the ball on length and was following wide deliveries too. He began giving slip-catching practice out in the middle. All the Australian bowlers had to do was turn up, bowl short of a length, outside off, and let the slip fielders fight among themselves to claim yet another catch.
Players have had bad patches before Gambhir too, but they work hard to get out of them. Gambhir used to do that before World Cup 2011. Now he stopped even acknowledging it. Every time you asked him about his batting, he would imagine the scenario that people were criticising him for the lack of centuries - which is not that unfair a demand of an opener, by the way - and give a sermon on how cricket was a team game and centuries didn't matter.
This was as far as you can remove a man from what he used to be. Gambhir of old used to get nightmares about not converting starts into big ones, now he has become blasé and defensive about it. You can't waste your good form with just fifties, he used to say. Now he began to find refuge in averages and statistics. Possibly the conditions in Australia and England were too much for him. Perhaps Cape Town was just a one-off, and he didn't have it in him to fight such conditions consistently. But the refusal to acknowledge a problem was baffling.
When he finished the Australia tour, with 181 runs at 22.62, Gambhir had gone two years without a Test century. It didn't help that the selectors were not asking him questions. Openers have been dropped for much less. Around that time, Gambhir also became the first Indian to start the "we-will-see-you-at-home" campaign. He used to be a much better sport than that.
Duly runs dried up at home too. He was taking Test cricket for granted, and Test cricket began to take him for granted. That's true more for a man who plays his best when properly obsessed and hard on himself. The failures against New Zealand at home finally came as a wake-up call. You can see against England, especially after his horrible across-the-line shot in the first over of the Mumbai Test, that he is working hard to stay patient and disciplined.
Gambhir has had three starts in a row now, but has never looked like he is in full control. He is not enjoying it. He is still itching for boundaries. And when he did succeed - in the second innings in Mumbai, his highest score of the series - he was criticised for his failure to farm the strike or bat aggressively when India were looking for crucial lower-order runs.
And his other two starts have been ended by his lack of patience. The bowlers know it's taking a lot out of him to defend for a while, and he is struggling to keep that up for, say, a session. And this is when the ball is not bouncing towards the chest, which is what it will do in South Africa next year.
If Gambhir doesn't score a century in Nagpur, it will be three years without a Test hundred. It is hard to imagine any other specialist batsman keeping his place in a proper Test side with those numbers. Since that Cape Town Test, Gambhir has played 15 Tests, seven away and eight in India, and has averaged 27.77 with five half-centuries. As a comparison, in the last 15 Tests before he was dropped never to be picked again, Wasim Jaffer averaged 36.81, scored three centuries - one of them in Cape Town, another a double in Kolkata - and had five half-centuries besides. Jaffer was 30 then, a year younger than Gambhir is now.
Gambhir was a player who made you root for him. He would be insecure about his place in the squad, he would bat with hurt elbows and broken hands - the latter in a Ranji Trophy final not many were watching, and he scored an unbeaten century in a tricky chase - and he would make no bones about admitting he gets nervous in the 90s and wants to reach the hundreds as soon as possible. You cared for his struggle and his honesty. After close to a year of refusing the need for struggle, he is now finding all the luck you need at such times has deserted him.
Then again, many feel Gambhir is lucky even to be getting another chance. If there is any truth to the whispers about the sudden shortage of water for a patch of about 66 square yards in the outskirts of Nagpur, this chance is going to come on a difficult pitch.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo