Gambhir ton spells dilemma for selectors
The North Zone players rave about Gautam Gambhir and, having played a great deal of cricket with him they believe he can be as devastating as the hardest hitters in the Indian team. Gambhir's critics are equally vocal, pointing to flaws in his technique and temperament.
Since his international debut, the critics have outnumbered his backers; for his part, Gambhir has usually confounded his supporters with patchy form. Today, he confounded the critics - and presented a dilemma to India's selectors.
His innings today, albeit against Bangladesh and featuring two dropped chances, was a tough one under tough conditions. He paced it perfectly, fought cramps, batted with a runner, and completed his second century - and his fourth 50-plus score in a four-year career.
While this will, no doubt, come as a huge relief for Gambhir, who has in the past acknowledged that his place in the side has come to him the tough way, it has also added another twist to the never-ending puzzle that is India's opening combination. "Every time someone gets an opportunity, puts up a score as Gautam did, and wins the match for the team by batting through, it gives the selectors a lot of confidence and hope," Rahul Dravid said, accentuating the positive. "It opens up new opportunities and avenues for consideration."
In 29 matches since the start of the 2006 season, India have tried 11 different opening combinations featuring six different batsmen. They are still looking for the ideal pair. Not long ago, they had two opening combinations that could lay claim to being the best in the world in their time. But Sourav Ganguly has been dropped, recalled - the team management not sure where to bat him - and now rested. Sachin Tendulkar, since his injury, has come back, opened the innings, and then been considered of more value in the middle order.
Virender Sehwag has given the selectors the biggest headache; they just don't know what to do with him. Over the past season and a half he has neither been successful, nor looked completely out of sorts. He has been made to bat in the middle order, then promoted, demoted, and promoted again, but not dropped - probably because the elusive big one always looked just round the corner.
The team's patience must be running thin - an indication of that came with his being dropped from the Test side - and the way he threw away his wicket after looking good in the first two games of this series will not have eased their concerns. Today's dismissal was no better than that in the first game, especially when there was no pressure of chasing down a big total. In the eighth over of the innings, he played in a similar fashion to three out of four Syed Rasel deliveries, connecting once for a six, mishitting the second to get two, and then lofting a shortish ball straight to mid-off.
Ganguly's status is still uncertain but, with Tendulkar almost ruled out of the opening slot, it seems India have zeroed in on the three openers on this tour - Sehwag, Gambhir, and Robin Uthappa - from whom to make their choice of the two best. That brings into the picture the other combination available here: Gambhir and Uthappa. They were tried separately as openers in the successive home series against West Indies and Sri Lanka before the World Cup and did well. But when the two came together - against West Indies at Chennai Gambhir scored a duck and subsequently went out of favour for the World Cup.
Gambhir's innings today should give the team management the confidence to make him a constant in the next few games and experiment with the other slot. Although Dravid defended Sehwag's modes of dismissals by saying it was crucial to score fast with the new ball, they may be tempted to try out Gambhir and Uthappa. A dead rubber against Bangladesh may not be a bad time to start, though ironically, Gambhir's century may have brought the man who ran his 100th run for him closer to a drop or demotion.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer with Cricinfo Magazine