India didn't really need Gautam Gambhir to play the kind of long innings today that he had done in Napier. But such is the form he has been in lately that Gambhir must have decided it was time to notch up back-to-back second-innings centuries before the series ended. Gambhir has been the most consistent Test batsman since he made a comeback to the Indian team in Sri Lanka last year. And dare we say, the best too, Shivnarine Chanderpaul excepting. In his last 11 Tests, Gambhir has faced at least 43 deliveries in an innings before being dismissed. There is isn't even one single-digit score against his name during this period. And there are five hundreds - three of them 150-plus knocks - and seven half-centuries, making his average jump from 32.95 to 54.07. He has set up victories, batted teams out, and even saved a Test. You can't ask much more of an opener.
But not long ago Gambhir endured a frustrating phase, getting starts but not converting them, and each innings was taking him closer to being branded a one-day specialist. Everywhere he went he was reminded he was "just getting 60s and 70s". The centuries, the ones history would judge him by, were missing. The good form he was in could have run out any time. It worried him that he was wasting what was perhaps the best form of his life.
That Gambhir was in prime form showed in how he got three half-centuries against Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis. Sri Lanka, he said, was the turning point of his career, as it gave him the confidence that he would get a decent run in the team. But in the next series at home against a mediocre Australian attack he still couldn't get that elusive big score.
"It's not like you will be getting starts in each game and each innings; there will be times when you will get out early," Gambhir said then. Bowlers the world over are still waiting for that to happen. For once he got that second-innings century in Mohali against Australia, having missed out in the first innings, he transformed into a different beast as Australia, England and now New Zealand would testify.
"I am much more comfortable and much more secure in the side, which is very important for any cricketer," Gambhir says now. "Till the time you're playing for your place in the side it's always tough. You don't play your natural game. But once you start feeling secure and start feeling that you belong to this arena, it becomes much easier. Then you go out there and play your natural game, and enjoy yourself which is very important." That said, he deviated from his natural game in Napier, batting 643 minutes for his 137 to save the Test.
Despite all of Gambhir's success late last year, there was a rider - all his runs had come on good batting pitches, at home, and mostly with India in the lead. "When I was in Sri Lanka [for the one-day series], I remember, when I got my 150 I was asked how challenging it would be in New Zealand as an opening batsman. I think it was a big challenge for me on my first foreign tour away from the subcontinent."
He wishes there was another Test in the current series. Gambhir's ruthlessness, which his colleagues in domestic cricket swear by, is on ample display now. And that brings us back to his 167 today. The team didn't really need a big hundred from him. With that huge first-innings lead, India could have done with a 250-300 total. But Gambhir knows this time is not to be wasted. Back-to-back second-innings centuries would do him no harm. "When things are going your way you should try and make it count as much as possible," he said. "I believe in that because you never know when the bad form is around the corner."
Against a tired New Zealand attack, it wasn't all big hitting. He showed no mercy in getting his first 100 runs off 138 balls but from there on he slowed down and reached 167 in 257 balls. "We lost Sachin [Tendulkar], then I had to build a partnership with VVS Laxman, which was very important from the team's point of view and we had a lot of time on our hands as well. We wanted to play New Zealand out of this Test match."
He was so annoyed when he got out, missing out on a double-century, that he kept hitting his bat into his pad, and didn't even acknowledge the generous applause from the crowd as he walked back. There was no disrespect to it, though. "It's very disappointing, I wanted to get a double-hundred," he says. Little Gambhir has big hunger, and he is not yet sated.