Gautam Gambhir June 17, 2008

The transformer

He used to be temperamental and mercurial, now he's assured and reliable. And he has been India's most dependable ODI batsman over the last year

Mr Reliable: Gambhir has made 1090 runs in ODIs at 47.39 over the last year © AFP

Who was India's top scorer in the World Twenty20 final, playing an innings that set up their win? Who topped the batting charts in the CB Series, which India won convincingly in Australia earlier this year? A hint: he was second on the list of run-getters in the Indian Premier League.

If you don't remember, that's not much of a surprise: Gautam Gambhir has never been much of a household name. People are more likely to recall the pulsating final over bowled by Joginder Sharma in the World Twenty final in Durban than Gambhir's 75. They're more likely to remember Sachin Tendulkar's two gems in the CB Series finals than Gambhir's two centuries which played a pivotal role in taking India that far. Or Virender Sehwag's blitzkrieg 41-ball 94 in the IPL over Gambhir's 534 runs at an average of 41, which were instrumental in getting Delhi to the knockouts.

Gambhir has struck gold in just about every tournament he has played over the last year. In between wearing the orange cap as the leading run-scorer for a better part of the IPL, and helping India notch up crucial victories on the world stage, Gambhir led his state, Delhi, to their first Ranji Trophy title in over a dozen years. Over the last year he has the best average among Indian ODI players, ahead of Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh.

Gambhir is assured enough that he now belongs at the highest level. "I have more responsibility now," he says, "which is good because every player wants that - where the team expects you to win games for them. That responsibility has changed me as a player and also as a human being."

Where earlier he was known for his fragile temperament, these days Gambhir is more relaxed. He is still seen as being generally aloof and not easily approachable, and known for being uncommunicative - which is at times misread as arrogance - but that's not something that bothers him much. "I'm emotional and very patriotic," he says. "I'm proud to be an Indian and when I wear the cap and the jersey I have a lot of responsibility. Sometimes I'm very temperamental. But I'm very instinctive as well. Once I take a decision, I back myself till the end even it backfires at times.

Taking the rough with the rough
Gambhir's first stumbling block came when his career had barely got going. He was ignored by the selectors for the 1999 junior World Cup, though he happened to be one of the leading run-scorers in Indian Under-19 cricket at the time. Mohammad Kaif led India to victory in the tournament. "I never understood what happened," Gambhir says, his tone indicating that it is something he has never been able to get over.

Top Curve
Gambhir's ascent
  • Gambhir has been the second-highest run-getter in ODIs in 2008: his 649 runs have only been bettered by Salman Butt.
  • He topped the run-scoring charts for most part of the Indian Premier League, but was pipped by Shaun Marsh into second place. He hit the most fours - 68, but cleared the boundary only eight times.
  • Gambhir scored 440 runs in the CB Series in Australia, outdoing the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Matthew Hayden.
  • He led from the front in Delhi's successful 2007-08 Ranji Trophy campaign, scoring 730 runs at an average of 91.25.
  • All four of Gambhir's hundreds for Delhi came in the second innings of a match, with two of them steering the team to victory in the semi-final and final.
  • With 227 runs, Gambhir was India's top run-scorer at the World Twenty20 in South Africa.
Bottom Curve

Vivek Chaddha, a neighbour and friend of 20 years remembers how disappointed Gambhir was. "When he did not get picked in the Under-19 side, that was the first time he realised one requires something more than making just runs," Chaddha says.

Gambhir was furious, and his rage found expression in his batting. He announced himself with a double-century in a day against the visiting Zimbabweans. At the end of his fourth domestic season he finished eighth among the leading run-scorers for the year; the following year he climbed to No. 3.

Gambhir was a regular in India A teams before he played his first ODI in 2003, followed by his Test debut a year later, against Australia in the eventful three-day Mumbai match of 2004. He then had a brief run in the side, during which he made his first Test hundred, against Bangladesh, and turned in half-decent performances in the three Tests against Pakistan. He then sat out 12 ODIs before coming back into the side, starting brightly with a Test 98 against Zimbabwe and an ODI hundred against Sri Lanka before a lean spell took hold.

The lowest ebb was not being picked for the 2007 World Cup. The day before the third one-dayer against West Indies in Chennai, the selectors told Gambhir he would need to prove himself if he had to make the World Cup squad. He was up against Robin Uthappa for a spot in the team. Uthappa opened with Gambhir, scored 70 to his partner's duck, and made the cut.

"That was the lowest point in my career," Gambhir says. For over a month he went into hibernation, not touching his bat and staying away from people, including friends.

Making the adjustment
Hitting rock bottom allowed Gambhir to raise a stronger platform, though. Sanjay Bharadwaj, who has been his coach since 1991, had seen him walk out of the woods under similar circumstances following the Test series against Sri Lanka in 2005, where he made just 54 runs in the three matches. "He never blames anyone for not getting picked. That's why he has come back each time," Bharadwaj said.

VB Chandrasekhar, a former national selector and opening batsman said, "We always knew he was a very good player who had made tons of runs on the domestic circuit, but he was getting out frequently getting his front foot across, and international fast bowlers found it easy to expose that fault." Last year Chandrasekhar, who also does commentary during the domestic season, found Gambhir had made a noticeable change. "He has made a very conscious effort to get his front foot out of the way."

How did it come about? Bharadwaj had got Gambhir to bat wearing a golf ball suspended from a necktie around his neck. "His centre of gravity was falling to the other side, so we decided he had to play straighter. One way of doing so was to keep the golf ball close to his chest while he played forward." To make Gambhir play the ball in line, three lines linking both sets of stumps were drawn so he could visualise the line of the delivery better. As a result he began to be more confident about leaving many deliveries outside off alone. Before the 2007 series in the UK, Gambhir had been caught behind seven times in 21 ODIs. In the next 27 games he got out that way only three times.

Playing the role
Even back when he played cricket with the neighbourhood lads in the Western Delhi suburb of Rajendranagar where he lived, one thing was clear: losing was never on his agenda. "Even now, when we play PlayStation, he will go to the extent of cheating but hate to admit defeat," Chaddha laughs.

The mid-pitch slanging match with Shahid Afridi last year; Gambhir is trying hard 'not to get carried away' these days © AFP

Dislike of losing apart, Gambhir has been a rhythm player, one who needs a lot of self-belief. Last summer on the UK tour he won the Man-of-the-Match award for his 85 not out against Scotland, then blew cold with three runs in the first ODI against England. Rahul Dravid, India's captain at the time, spoke of how talented batsmen like Gambhir needed to become more responsible. Gambhir was given a role, to anchor the innings, and in the fifth and sixth games of the series he made 51 and 47.

Early this year, in Australia, after Gambhir had made a fluent 39 in India's first game against the world champions in the CB Series, Sachin Tendulkar spoke to him about how he needed to convert his starts and how important it was for him to try and play 40 overs. Gambhir made two centuries in that series - testament to the motivation those words provided. In the second game he walked in in the 15th over and remained undefeated on 102. Then, towards the end of the league phase of the tournament he scored a scintillating 113, taking the charge to Australia after having virtually opened the innings (Tendulkar was out in the first over) before falling in the 40th over. India lost that game but Gambhir described his innings as "a dream".

In his one-day career so far Gambhir has been not out six times, all of those coming in the last year, starting with the tour of the UK.

Gambhir credits his current captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, with having been instrumental in helping him get to where he has. "The kind of support MS has shown in me and the kind of confidence he has given has helped me grow as a player.

"It was more about security of my place in the side," Gambhir says. "When I went to the Twenty20 World Cup last year, I was confident I was going to play the entire tournament, even if there were bound to be a couple failures. I told myself I'm going to be there and I'm going to be playing. That is one thing that has really helped me, and it has really changed my cricket and my confidence."

That in turn has helped him become more stable emotionally as well. "When I go to the field, I have my role which I try to do to the best of my ability, so I control my emotions and try not to get carried away. That is where I have matured as a cricketer. The team comes first and if the team demands something out of me, I do my best to control my emotions."

Winter of content
Though he was not picked for the Australia Test series - the selectors weren't sure about whether he had recovered fully from a shoulder injury he had sustained during the ODIs against Australia in October - Gambhir didn't let that get to him. He moved his focus to Delhi's Ranji Trophy campaign. Though he hadn't played many games in the season till then, he took over the leadership role left vacant by Virender Sehwag, who had had to leave on national duty.

"I have more responsibility now, which is good because every player wants that - where the team expects you to win games for them. That responsibility has changed me as a player and also as a human being"

Gambhir went on to make four hundreds in five games, including one each in the semi-final and final. Vijay Dahiya, Delhi's coach, spoke glowingly of his "willingness, his eagerness, his determination to do well". Dahiya also pointed out the apparent pride with which Gambhir led Delhi - unusual in an international player. "When he led Delhi, it was all about the state and not about the country. Every move of his was directed towards being there in the moment. His focus was all here and now."

In the final, in Mumbai, Delhi quelled the challenge of Uttar Pradesh. Gambhir made a duck in the first innings. Delhi fell behind on first innings and in the second he needed to decide whether to risk his broken thumb. He did, and made a courageous hundred, leading his side to their first Ranji Trophy win in 16 years. "We'd seen lots of lows and a few years ago we were on the verge of relegation and so we wanted to win to prove we had the talent," he says.

Ed Smith in his wonderful diary of the 2003 season, On And Off The Field wrote, "perhaps failure, not success, sends us in unusual directions". He could well have been talking about Gambhir, who after a few years of absorbing the hard knocks seems finally to have worked out his route to success.

Gambhir's hands are on the wheel and eyes on the road. Now he's looking forward to the ride. "I've started believing a lot in myself. I started believing in my game that I've got the game to be a successful player at the international level," he says. "I'm much more relaxed off the field compared to the feeling of insecurity earlier. The last thing helps a lot."

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo