Intense Gambhir searches for way back
Two days before the start of this match, the local organisers in Hubli call up the local press for a briefing. In an earnest tone, they say this is a "momentous occasion" for Hubli. You look outside, and kids have taken a day off from school, and are cashing in on the rare opportunity of taking autographs of the big stars. Volunteers around them are busy readying the ground. The scenes could be from a wedding in India with everyone running helter skelter for last-minute preparations.
You wonder what Gautam Gambhir thinks of all that is going around. Of what this game means to the locals and what this means to him. For if you look further out, you see him batting in the nets. He has faced up to the quicks, he has seen the spinners, he has taken the throwdowns from fielding coach Abhay Sharma, but he is not done yet.
Batting is all you have seen Gambhir do since he arrived in Shimoga for the previous four-day match against West Indies A. Batting is all you have seen Gambhir talk. With Sharma, with coach Lalchand Rajput, with Cheteshwar Pujara. With Sharma he seems to be working on the backlift and the position of the upper body as he prepares to face the delivery, with Rajput head position, and with Pujara the width of the stance and some more backlift.
Sharma has been giving Gambhir throwdowns, with Rajput he just seems to be talking for long periods. Pujara seems to be telling him what he makes of different backlifts and different stances. It seems that in his head Gambhir has been batting even when it is not his turn. Even in the field in Shimoga he kept shadow-practising. He would also ask the opposition batsmen for their bat during a break, and practise the swing. After he was dismissed, he spent the next morning in the nets.
There is something obsessive about what Gambhir has been doing. Knowing whatever we knew of him until the dip in the form over the last two years, it sounds about right. "I would love to go easy, because it [being hard on yourself] exhausts you," he once told ESPNcricinfo. "You stop enjoying. You don't play your natural game. You are only looking to score at any cost. But that's the way I have been brought up. Can't help it."
Gambhir has always been intense and hard on himself, an attribute that, at least in public discourse, had left him over the last two-three years. You can imagine the struggle inside his head now. Since being dropped, he has had a stint with a personal coach, WV Raman, he has had a county stint - he went back even after a personal tragedy brought him to India - and now in nondescript towns and strange grounds he is trying to make the most of a lucky break that has come his way.
What makes it tougher is, Gambhir is almost rediscovering his game. In Shimoga, he had a bigger back lift in the match, and a smaller one in the nets. He seems to be experimenting with the stance in the nets. It is almost like a fast bowler bowling no-balls on his return from a long break from cricket.
When Gambhir batted in the middle, he was tied down on a flat and slow pitch. You could sense he was telling himself to not drive away from the body or even play that dab to third man, but occasionally he did drive, once getting caught off a no-ball. Against spin he seemed to back himself, but that assuredness wasn't all there. Invariably, when you are out of form, all it takes is a little hesitation or a little over-eagerness, and the mis-hit goes to hand.
Then Gambhir walked back shaking his head all the way up the pavilion steps. So many hours in the nets, so far away from home, and off in 70 minutes. Around him he must see friend and former opening partner, Virender Sehwag, not being as hard on himself, playing with the crowds, even though he has been through just as rough a patch.
Long ago, when Gambhir was making his comeback into the Indian side - there had been times before that when he didn't want to play anymore - Sehwag had advice for him. In New Zealand, in 2008-09, Gambhir says Sehwag told him: try and think about god, try and take your mind off for a bit. It isn't a lesson in theism; it is about relaxing so that you can play your natural game.
You wonder if Gambhir thinks of that advice now. Even if he does, it is unlikely to work because becoming obsessed has been the Gambhir way of dealing with failure. Right now he is trying to get both his technique and his mind in order, but the consolation is that he has done it before.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo