Gambhir defies pain to grind down South Africa
Gautam Gambhir loves these situations; situations which attacking batsmen such as himself should find difficult in theory. A match to save, no thought of scoring runs, no release of pressure through boundaries, just grinding the opposition down, and boring the hell out of them. It is not as easy to do as it is to say. Not when your injured hand has combined with a fresh hit to your elbow to put you out of cricket for a few weeks. Not when you decide to come out to bat one last time against Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel on an uneven pitch, with that crazy swing from the first innings still on your mind. Not when the third ball you face hits you on the same aching elbow that needed icing for a whole day.
During an equally important innings he played in Napier in 2008-09, where he batted longer in terms of time (close to 11 hours), but faced a lesser challenge from the track and the bowlers - VVS Laxman noticed that Gambhir hadn't said a word for a very, very long time. Gambhir told Laxman he didn't want to come out of the zone he was in. That innings, he went at 12 runs an hour. Today, as he went at 14 runs to the hour. He had found a similar zone.
Gambhir repelled everything the fast bowlers threw at him. There were judicious leaves either on line or length, or both. When the bouncers were at him, he rode the bounce well. When the leg gully came in, he managed to fend the ball down into the ground. When Steyn went round the wicket and looked for a repeat of the dismissal from the second innings in Centurion, he managed to clip him for four.
Paul Harris provided him with a challenge, even though Gambhir is one of the best players and dominators of spin in the world, because of the rough outside the left-hand batsman's off stump. When Harris bowled from the Kelvin Grove End, the ball kicked and turned and snarled at him, but Gambhir swallowed his pride and just kept kicking away balls pitched in the rough. Some of them reared up towards his hurt elbow, some even higher, but he resisted the urge for release. Balls and minutes went by, and Gambhir looked more and more entrenched.
The only time he got anxious to score runs wasn't a surprise. He gets a little fidgety in the 40s and the 90s, wanting to reach the landmark as quickly as possible. Even in Napier, where he put the rest of the world out of his head like a monk, he got to his fifty and his hundred by steeping out to a spinner and lofting him over the infield. He got more enterprising in the 40s again, punching Steyn down the ground for four, and driving him over point with what was not a controlled shot. He then played and missed one, charged at Harris again, and was not steady until he had square-cut Steyn to bring up his 11th fifty-plus score in the 30 attempts he has had to bat in the second innings.
The steadiness was deflating for South Africa, especially after Rahul Dravid got out just before tea. Gambhir had made 62 from 142 when Dravid got out, and then just to make sure South Africa were completely disheartened, he scored only two off the next 42 deliveries. For those who respect stonewallers, it was a beautiful passage of play that started just before Dravid's dismissal: Gambhir added five runs in 58 deliveries.
By the time he got out in an unfortunate manner, gloving one down the leg side, Gambhir had made sure the series had been saved. India were not surprised at the source of this particular kind of resistance. "We saw the Napier innings, which was very special," MS Dhoni said. "We all knew he was one guy who could do it. It was really good to see him take those big heavy blows on the body and still continue. You need plenty of courage to do that, and it was good to see the bat the way he did. Unfortunately he got out. If he had stayed till the end, it would have been much better, but still happy because the team needed that and one of the individuals stepped up and said, 'Okay I will be the person to do that.'"
Now that the game has petered out to a tame draw, Gambhir's effort might look easier than it was, but it took all his concentration to bat and not do what every batsman loves to do: score runs. Gambhir didn't get a century on the tour that was to be his biggest test as an opener, but he looked good for one on three occasions out of the four times he batted. Quietly during the series, Gambhir has walked away with a lot of credit.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo