November 27, 2009

How good is Gambhir?

Why the Indian opener is among the three best young batsmen in Test cricket today

Virender Sehwag thinks Gautam Gambhir is the best Indian opener since Sunil Gavaskar. He's wrong, but in a rather pleasant kind of way, because it is not the subject of the statement but its maker who is the current holder of that honour. Sadly, it is not a particularly long list of players who qualify, and really, only Navjot Sidhu and Ravi Shastri can lay claim to the title. Both endured good patches and bad and so a fair assessment should only come after Gambhir has played about 50 matches, but if he continues in the form he is in, or even in relative proximity of it, he should prove Sehwag right. Between them they should be disappointed if they don't emerge as India's finest opening pair ever. The current incumbents are Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan, a terrific combination, but these two should bat together for much longer.

Gambhir is in the form of his life, 27 Tests having produced eight centuries. It's the kind of start Andrew Strauss had, and indeed, for someone who goes through form swings Strauss has an extraordinary conversion rate of a century every 3.7 Tests (which is identical to Sachin Tendulkar's conversion)! Gambhir currently scores a century every 3.4 Tests and averages almost 57. But it is in the last 16 months, really, that his career has taken off. In 25 innings he has seven centuries and seven half-centuries for an average of 77, and just as strikingly, has only one single-digit score. Followers of Test cricket, and they are still a pretty substantial number, will rub their hands in glee at figures like those.

And yet Gambhir is not one steeped in orthodoxy, or indeed limited by the format he currently excels in. An outstanding CB Series campaign in Australia last year marked him out as someone special, and I have little doubt that if there were to be an IPL auction today, he would be on top of everybody's shortlist. To that extent he is like the good old music director in the movies: not quite the classicist but equally at home with the raga and the remix, the folk song and the peppy dance number. And that is where he is creating a large gap between himself and other new-age cricketers like Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina, whose infatuation with the short game is limiting their progress in other forms.

Gambhir is creating a large gap between himself and other new-age cricketers like Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina, whose infatuation with the short game is limiting their progress in other forms

I believe, and this is open to debate, that he is one of three finest young batsmen in world cricket, sandwiched for seniority between two South Africans, AB de Villiers and JP Duminy. De Villiers, in the middle of a pretty decent patch himself, and equally good in each of the three forms, averages 44 from 52 Tests, a number that is bound to go up, and Duminy oozes enough class to suggest that he would be a safe stock to invest in even if he is only six Test matches old.

So what could come in the way of Gambhir? For a start, we don't know how good he can be in Australia and South Africa in Test cricket, two places where India have traditionally struggled. Of his 27 Tests, 17 have been played in India and the rest spread between Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and New Zealand. You could say he hasn't really been tested by pace and bounce, but you cannot pass an exam unless you have appeared for it. He has 12 months to prepare; indeed, the tour of South Africa will mark the start of a really stern examination for India, with a World Cup at home and away tours of England and Australia. He will be nudging 30 then, no longer able to slip into the "young" category, and that patch could well determine whether he has it in him to enter the portals of the greats.

Sadly, it is unlikely his record will have progressed greatly till then because India are currently a bit allergic to playing Test cricket. When you are in the kind of form Gambhir is in, you want to play as much as possible, and with just three more Tests in the next 10 months, it is a pretty meagre diet he is on. It doesn't help either that India are producing the kind of pitches that can only drive people away from Test cricket. I fear therefore that Gambhir might well be the last major Indian player whose career could be assessed by a Test record. Now that's something to think about.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer