A big moment for 'little' Gambhir
Gautam Gambhir isn't your prototype Test saver. Someone who is impulsive and aggressive enough to elbow a bowler and miss the next match as punishment wouldn't usually be associated with a task that requires intense levels of patience and discipline over long periods. Especially when the job starts on the third evening, and certainly not when there is a spell where a batsman scores one run in an hour.
The Napier Test has not yet been saved, but Gambhir has been instrumental in India taking that big step towards doing it, and he has made sure he is there to try and take the final steps as well. That, after having batted more than seven hours for only 102 runs, scoring 88 runs in 242 balls today, and only 19 in the final session.
When he is at the crease, Gambhir displays an arrogance and aggression that belies his diminutive stature. This is best displayed in the way he walks towards the fast bowlers even as they run in to bowl. There was certainly no reverence in the way Gambhir stepped out to Jeetan Patel in his first over and lost his wicket.
In the second innings, though, Gambhir demonstrated he was prepared to swallow his pride for the greater good of his team - it showed in the way he played Patel's first over today. He actually erred on the defensive side and even padded up to him, resulting in a big shout. He buckled down, wasn't bothered about the deficit, and played for time.
A scoring rate of 35 per 100 balls meant there was constant pressure on him, with no release through easy runs. Getting out wasn't an option, as the next batsman would have come in with little improvement in the team's position. The time and the deficit were vast. Trailing by 267 runs and six sessions to go wouldn't have been too different, after all, than trailing by 235 in five-and-a-half.
Saving Tests is also a game of balancing two approaches. Not scoring at all draws fielders around the bat, with a greater chance of edges going to hand, which is as bad as getting out playing a reckless shot. Gambhir managed that mix today. The deficit, and the personal score, never crossed his mind, except for when he was in the 90s. Runs were scored only when he felt he had gone too deep into his shell, or to rotate the strike. The singles especially frustrated the spinners - 21 of his 32 ones came against Patel and Daniel Vettori.
The boundaries helped release the tension whenever he felt the bowlers had started to trouble him. In the period leading up to the lunch, Vettori and Patel, bowling well in tandem, had got him edgy. Vettori beat him with one that curled away from the left-hander, then beat him in the air again, and Patel got him to jab at one, resulting in a close shout.
In the next over, Gambhir stepped out twice, and hit Vettori through the covers and wide of mid-on for boundaries. That response was typically Gambhir, but the rest of his innings wasn't.
The temptation was there all day, with Patel flighting it wide of off stump, and Gambhir kept leaving them alone unless he felt the need to release the pressure. MS Dhoni had spoken about letting his batsmen play their natural game, but this was a situation that would test the ability of the batsmen to curb their natural game. The one-day game gives them the licence to play their strokes, with Dhoni in the middle order to fall back upon. Here, with a Test match to save, playing freely wouldn't have counted for a lot.
"They [great players] read situations," Rahul Dravid, who partnered Gambhir for more than half of the day, said. "They play the situation, the wicket and the conditions. That's the way the greats and the people I have admired and I have watched over the years play. There cannot be only one way of playing the game."
What is often not seen when people look at Gambhir's "natural" batting in the one-dayers, and even in Tests, is that he is a tough character. "A tough little kid," Dravid calls him. His friends remember how he cheats while playing videogames, because he hates to lose. It wasn't really surprising that he was prepared for the battle of the mind.
Over a long day, where runs often don't matter as much as occupying the crease, the concentration is bound to waver. The body does get tired, and doesn't quite follow the mind. The toughest period for him was the final session, when he seemed intent on finishing the day undefeated. In the first hour after tea, he moved from 83 to 84. In his 90s, he played a rash heave off Patel. He was lucky he had Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar, the important footnotes of the fourth day, to help him in such situations.
"There were phases when both of us were challenging each other," Dravid said. "There are periods when you are batting a long day - it is mentally draining - when your concentration does waver a bit. Hats off to Gautam. He stuck it out. He batted the whole day. Lots of character and temperament. He will learn a lot from this innings, probably more than any he has played in his career."
The rest of the Test world will learn a lot about Gambhir from this innings, more than they have done from any he has played in his career.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo