Gautam Gambhir: "There was a lot of pressure on me. I really wanted to establish myself in Test cricket" © AFP
On the first day in Mohali, India passed milestone after milestone: Sachin Tendulkar became Test cricket's highest run-scorer and took his tally past 12,000, while Sourav Ganguly notched up 7000. Such records inevitably fall by the wayside during long enough careers. There was one milestone, however, that was missed by India, and also by Gautam Gambhir.
Gambhir had attacked Australia on a flat pitch and had pushed the field back but, when the century was there for the taking, he got bogged down and wasted the opportunity. It wasn't the first time either for, since his comeback, Gambhir has looked good for a hundred at least four times, without actually getting one. He came into this Test averaging 36 which isn't bad but it doesn't do justice to the kind of form he's been in. And openers averaging 36 aren't rated much either.
Simply put, he needed a century. When openers are judged, and when they're selected or dropped, it's the hundreds that count. The near-misses are forgotten for they are merely starts which haven't been converted. And Gambhir had only one century to show for his 18 Tests.
"It was always playing on my mind, that I was getting starts but not converting them," Gambhir said completing his second Test century. "Everyone was telling me that I was just getting 60s and 70s. Today the only thing different was that I just tried to be in the present. Those 60s and 70s had happened in the past; I thought it better to just think about each ball."
He looked comfortable in the first innings. He drove balls bowled at speeds approaching 150km with authority but, after shifting to fourth gear, he switched back to first and got stuck. There was a sense that he was perhaps wasting the best form of his life.
"It was very frustrating. In Test cricket it's important to get big runs," Gambhir said. "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. The important thing, whenever you get a good start, is to get as many runs as possible."
Gambhir's comeback to the Test team was via the Twenty20 and one-day route, formats in which he's thrived and scored runs, even against Australia. However, he knows that Test cricket is the real deal.
"You always want people to remember you as a good Test cricketer, rather than just a good one-day cricketer or a Twenty20 cricketer," Gambhir said. "There was a lot of pressure on me. I really wanted to establish myself in Test cricket. Today was a very important knock for me, a Test century against Australia"
His reaction upon reaching the century said as much. He clipped Cameron White towards the midwicket boundary and started celebrating even before completing the single that would take him to 100. The fist-pumping was exaggerated and portrayed the great relief of a burden being lifted.
Rarely does one get a second chance soon but Australia offered him the driver's seat again. The third ball of his second innings was full and wide and Gambhir freed his arms and square drove it. Soon he started walking down the wicket and toyed with the bowlers.
Boundaries alone, however, weren't enough against this Australian side. They knew their weaknesses and were quick to go on the defensive. Gambhir's century was compiled under circumstances similar to the middle overs of a 50-over game and he looked for quick singles and tried converting ones into twos. Having Virender Sehwag at the other end during most of his innings helped immensely for Gambhir and Sehwag are a perfect cricket marriage. They are friends off the field and on it. Both are aggressive although in different ways. Their understanding is so good that calling is redundant; eye contact is often enough.
"I always have extra confidence when Viru [Sehwag] is batting at the other end," Gambhir said. "It is always difficult when you are playing the new ball. He is one person you can share your thoughts with. So far it has been working out well."
Another of Gambhir's good friends is only one Test old. Amit Mishra plays for ONGC, the same club as Gambhir and Sehwag. Mishra has spent years feeling happy about his friend's inclusion in the national side. "I used to sit in front of the TV set in hope that maybe this time my name would be there. But it was only Gautam's name that would bring a smile on my face, the only saving grace." It is fitting that Gambhir should have cemented his place in the same match that Mishra took a five-wicket haul on debut.