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Gambhir sure-footed on slippery route to success

Gautam Gambhir made the case for a permanent place in the Indian ODI team with a century that was intelligent and cool-headed

Playing under pressure is something Gautam Gambhir has become adept at © Getty Images
Gautam Gambhir has been in and out of India's dressing room for some time now and should know what it takes to seal a permanent place. It hasn't always revealed itself - he has not always made the most of his comeback opportunities - but on Tuesday he set aside the disappointment of missing out on a place in the Test squad with his third one-day century, against Sri Lanka at the Gabba.
Gambhir had been in rich form in domestic cricket, leading Delhi to the Ranji Trophy title, with centuries in the semi-final and final. That form was in evidence today in an innings where more impressive than the runs was the manner in which they were scored.
He was dropped when on 11, the disciplined Ishara Amerasinghe coaxing an edge that Kumar Sangakarra failed to hold on to, and made the most of the life. It was hard work; while Amerasinghe tested him with bounce and movement, he had to deal with the guile of Muttiah Muralitharan at the other end. Yet slowly, and surely, Gambhir found his way past both spin and pace.
He negated Murali by using his feet and hitting against the spin, and rotated the strike against Amerasinghe. "I wasn't picking him [Murali] early on but my plan was to hang in there and make sure we had a good partnership," Gambhir said about his initial jitters. By the end of his unbroken184-run stand with Mahendra Singh Dhoni, he was reading Murali perfectly, and their personal tussle eventually read 32 runs off 30 balls - including 11 off one over.
It was a vital phase for India, whose early advantage gained from a solid opening stand by Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag was swiftly negated when Yuvraj Singh and Rohit Sharma fell in Murali's first over. For a while it seemed India might lose their way as they did against Australia on Sunday. Gambhir, who had played around an angled one from Mitchell Johnson when on 39, decided to make amends and was helped by the presence of his captain, whose calm and sense of responsibility was the perfect foil.
They also showed they knew the importance of rotating the strike, taking a total of 71 singles off one of the sharpest fielding units in world cricket. By the end of the innings Sri Lanka's fielding was a ragged, patchy shadow of the early brilliance and much of this was down to the intelligent batting. Gambhir later noted the team had done its homework on Australian grounds, which usually present an opportunity to convert the "singles into twos".
Stealing runs and rotating the strike are old Gambhir traits, as witnessed at the ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa last year where he was the tournament's second highest run-getter. His form, capped by 75 in the final against Pakistan, displayed a suitability for the shorter versions of the game.
Today, though, it didn't matter if India were going at less than six an over. At the 30-over mark they were 115; ten overs later 162 and the last ten yielded 105 runs. It was like a perfectly worked out script, the urgency coming when most required. "At 80 for 4 we were never in a position to attack. We wanted to play safe without losing any wickets," Gambhir said.
That's the sort of tricky position Gambhir is used to for a personal reason: he's usually been on trial of sorts when he's walked in to bat. "The pressure that comes from playing for India is always like facing a trial," he said. His biggest challenge has been to deal with the conventional wisdom that he is a stand-in before the departure of Tendulkar and Ganguly.
Gambhir says he is less comfortable opening than at No. 3, a point from where he can build a strong platform for a late flourish. "I have always been comfortable in this position as I have played long innings here in first-class cricket. It allows me to anchor an innings as well as attack when need be."
In 13 ODIs at No. 3 Gambhir has an average of 42.54, which is much better than the 25.87 he averages while opening. He concedes he now has the responsibility of being India's No. 3 in ODIs but is up for it. "It's time to take on the responsibility, stand up and deliver."
On Monday Gambhir and other youngsters had a chat with Tendulkar about the role of every player in the side. "For me as No. 3 I need to hang in there, take my time, pace the innings and stay till around the 45th over." Tendulkar has carried that responsibility throughout his career and is still learning. For Gambhir, still in the first flush of his career, it's not a bad lesson to learn.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo