Delhi's deadly duo wait for an India opening
Aakash Chopra and Gautam Gambhir share a common goal - making a return to the Indian Test team. Gambhir could conceivably have made it Down Under but for a shoulder injury and Chopra could have taken his place. As it is, it's their state-mate, Virender Sehwag, who has made the cut.
Yet the Delhi openers are focussed individuals, who know where they are and what to do to get to where they want to be. If the wait for a spot in the team is hurting the two, they are taking it out on the domestic bowlers: Gambhir has amassed 600 runs from eight innings at 85.71 while Chopra has totalled 648 runs from 14 innings at 49.84.
"I was upset when I wasn't picked for Australia because of the injury but I believe whatever happens is for the best," Gambhir says. He picked up the injury while fielding in the ODI against Pakistan in Mohali and aggravated it in subsequent games.
"The doctors said, 'If you continue to play and get injured again, you could be out for four to five months.' With a busy season coming up I chose not to take that risk." How come, then, he was playing for Delhi and scoring a hundred around the same time Wasim Jaffer and Rahul Dravid were struggling in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne? "The problem was my throwing. I experience no problem while batting but I couldn't throw. For Delhi, I field in the slips and perhaps, at silly point. So I played," explains Gambhir. "I am just waiting for my chance to play Test cricket again."
For all his one-day exploits, Gambhir is not seen as Test quality. Put that across to him and his response is sharp. "I have 24 first-class hundreds. Scoring hundreds in first-class cricket is not as easy as people make it out to be. Your technique and temperament are tested. I know I am ready for Test cricket and that is what matters. This game is played in the mind. If you are positive, your batting will be good. I don't bother with what other people think. It's more important to be working with your mind than your technique at the highest level.
It's a sentiment Chopra, seen as a Test has-been, readily agrees with. He was obsessed with getting back to the Test squad after being dropped. There were sleepless nights spent wondering what went wrong, severe self-criticism that turned into an obsession to score tons of runs and force his way back. In the process, some of the enjoyment had gone out of the window. Chopra the man was being suffocated and the player was getting increasingly claustrophobic.
"I was putting lots of pressure on myself. There were plenty of things that would go through my mind while batting. Even if I scored 50, I would be thinking about that elusive 200. It was 150 runs more and look at the pressure I was putting myself in. When you are thinking you don't want to get out, you cut down on many shots, you curb yourself." The self-expression was blocked.
It began to clear up in the last season when Chopra finally realised he was carrying an unnecessary burden. He opened up to Rahul Dravid, Michael Atherton and Greg Chappell. They all said the same thing - Enjoy yourself, don't kill yourself thinking about runs. There is life beyond cricket. Relax.
It's a mantra that Chopra swears by now. "You play this game because you enjoy the game. Even if you don't play for your country, you should feel good while going out there with a bat." The time he spent in England, playing league cricket, was used to inculcate this new approach to life and cricket. He started to write - he regularly keeps a diary every day, works on his fitness, and enjoys life outside cricket. His game too improved.
It's not as if he has turned into a swashbuckler overnight. "It's not as if my strike-rate has gone over 70: that's not my game. I have started to express myself out in the middle a bit more. These days I enjoy even when I play well in the nets." No longer does he treat everything that he does as a means to an end. The journey itself is being cherished rather than the eventual destination.
Chopra hit a six to reach his double-century against Himachal Pradesh this season. It's not earth-shattering but it says much about the transformation. It was unthinkable two seasons back when the old Chopra was obsessed with trying to be too correct. "I used to think, only a jaffa should get me out and played too much of a percentage cricket."
Gambhir and Chopra admit the competition between them has been healthy and beneficial. "When you get a start, you don't want to throw it away as you know he is not going to do that," says Gambhir. Only time will tell whether India wants to have at least one of them in the Test squad. Till then, Delhi is happy to have both.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo