Gambhir proves Test credentials
Back in January, after captaining Delhi to their first Ranji Trophy title win in 16 years, Gautam Gambhir told Cricinfo of how he inspired his team. "One thing I wanted to do with Delhi was that it should hurt when they start losing. We have seen all kinds of lows in the previous seasons; we faced relegation a couple of seasons back and we wanted to prove a point this season."
It was also a time of hurt for Gambhir, overlooked for India's Test squad to Australia, despite a good run in ODIs and finishing the second-highest run-getter in the ICC World Twenty20. But like with Delhi, the low preceded the high. Gambhir scored runs at the domestic level, forced his way back into the ODI side, top scoring in India's CB Series triumph, and finished with 534 runs in the Indian Premier League. Seven months on from the time he last played a Test, Gambhir has shown that he deserves an extended run at this level.
Following his 96 against South Africa in 2004, out of an opening stand of 218 with Virender Sehwag, today's innings was Gambhir's most significant, considering India's abject defeat at the SSC and the quality of Sri Lanka's spin bowlers. It helped India off to a solid start and negated a testing phase after Sehwag's dismissal for a 52-ball 50, and gave India an opportunity to push for a series-leveling win.
Earlier in the match Gambhir dropped two hard chances and missed a run-out opportunity, but came back from those fielding mishaps creditably. Mahela Jayawardene began with a predominantly on-side field, urging the batsmen to play into the off side.
Gambhir walked down the track, as his is wont in limited-overs cricket, to his first delivery and every alternate one in the first over from Chaminda Vaas. He didn't get any runs that over, and was beaten by extra bounce off the last ball, but his intent was evident. There on, either deftly nudging the ball into the yawning leg-side spaces or bisecting gully and point with soft-handed steers, Gambhir offered a gung-ho Sehwag perfect support again.
"Test cricket is all about playing in partnerships," said Gambhir. Ironic in this case, because Sehwag and he form an opening pair that critics would have labelled as limited-overs wonders. But they have been outstanding in this Test. They might be the only pair that opens in all three forms of cricket, and their compatibility has aided India splendidly.
They took to their task meaningfully in the second innings as well, incidentally only the second time an Indian opening combination has scored four fifties in two innings of the same Test. As this week's Numbers Game on Cricinfo highlighted, India's script read much the same on their last tour to Sri Lanka, in 2001. Then their openers, SS Das and S Ramesh, consistently got the team off to fine starts, only for the rest of the line-up to squander it away. In India's last match in Galle, Das and Ramesh added 79 for the first wicket, but the team was bundled out for 187. Here in Galle, Gambhir's role in both innings was pivotal.
He took his time, not hitting his first boundary - a lovely square drive off Vaas - until his 29th delivery, by which time Sehwag had 30. Then came two contrasting yet effective shots against Murali - a gorgeous cover drive out of the coaching manual and a meaty swipe across the line. The latter was a harsh hit, more one-day than Test, but sped past midwicket like an on-drive. That summed up Gambhir's confidence.
Gambhir has been in and out of India's dressing room plenty of times to now know what is required to seal a permanent spot. On this tour, his first Test opportunity since the home series against Pakistan in December, he has been India's most consistent batsman and key to that has been tackling Murali and Ajantha Mendis. "So far in this match we've really played them well and set the game for our bowlers to turn this around," said Gambhir. "Murali and Mendis have a lot of variation and it's very difficult, but you have to take whatever they throw against you. That's the best way to go. You cannot be predetermined to go at them because they have so much variety that you need to react after they deliver the ball."
What is most refreshing about Gambhir is his positive footwork against spin. He credited his success against Murali and Mendis to the amount of spin played in domestic cricket, "on similar tracks that offer spin, turn and bounce". He negated Murali by using his feet, and at times, very selectively, playing against the turn. Gambhir not only watched the ball "out of Mendis's fingers, because most of his variations come from there", but read it off the track, like Sehwag, eliminating any second-guessing. When he defended, he made sure to stretch well forward. His started attacking only after he had judged the length.
Gambhir is a maverick when it comes to stealing singles and rotating the strike, especially with his Delhi team-mate Sehwag. But another, more mature side of Gambhir was revealed soon after Sehwag's dismissal, as he nursed India through a potentially tricky passage. Gambhir emphatically said he didn't need to shield an out-of-sorts Rahul Dravid from the strike when he came in at 90 for 1, but what transpired on the field was contrary to his statement. Dravid has looked a walking wicket all series, but a well-set Gambhir shielded him like a pro. It indeed seemed a conscious decision from him, though he denied it. Dravid, who rarely indulges in animated discussions with his batting partners, talked to Gambhir several times during his innings.
Gambhir took last-ball singles off Murali's over three times in a row, and there was a phase where he faced 18 deliveries from Mendis. Whatever Gambhir may say, it breathed a degree of confidence into Dravid, who scored 44, highlighted by some punchy shots against spin. It was just the way Gambhir had played until he was bowled by Mendis. Inching forward to an off-break, he decided to pad it away but the ball cut back in sharply and clipped the off bail.
"The ball was drifting a bit, and the one that got me drifted much more," said Gambhir, "and I'm disappointed at not having made a hundred. It was one of those dismissals, but I hope to handle Mendis well till the end of the series."
India had a point to prove when they landed in Galle, and Gambhir has typified that exemplarily. Despite another middle-order collapse India finished the day 237 runs ahead with six wickets in hand. If they can get a 100 more they will be in the driver's seat. And they can look back and thank Gambhir for his resilience in setting a platform, and in trying to show the way.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo