The presence of Gautam Gambhir in the three-day practice match between India A and the Australians is going to be a constant reminder of his absence from the team for the first Test in Chennai starting on February 22.
Over the past few days, Gambhir has received several endorsements but from the Australian side. On Friday, Michael Clarke said he had expected Gambhir to be in the Test team. A few days earlier, Matthew Hayden had told an Indian newspaper that he was surprised Gambhir had been dropped. On the Indian side though, there is no astonishment; a poor run of scores for Gambhir from the start of 2011, coupled with India's dipping results in Test cricket, has led to a situation where he must reestablish public faith in his ability.
The India A coach Lalchand Rajput said before the three-day game that it would be an important match for players like Gambhir. "They won't put pressure on themselves because they have been in this situation earlier as well … These are good players who have performed very well at that level. It's just a matter of getting there and spending more time in the middle and utilising the opportunity. Once he spends more time, everything will fall in place. Gautam knows this."
Of the quick bowlers Australia are most likely to field in the series, Gambhir will have a chance to illustrate his return to assurance against Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc. A solid performance against the quicks would mean much, particularly if the Indian openers have a wobbly start in the first two Tests.
Rajput said it depended on Gambhir being relaxed before the game rather than wound up with the possibilities it presented. It will require a move away from old habits, particularly the similarity in his recent dismissals, caught in the cordon trying what can only be called one-day dabs and steers. "He was playing one-day games the past few days, so he had to change his game a wee bit because you look for runs," Rajput said. "In the longer version, he knows he has been getting out in those areas and is definitely looking forward to curb those shots." As to what Gambhir needed to do in the longer version of the game, Rajput said it came down to playing close to his body.
Gambhir's efforts may not be the sole focus of the match. India-A's role, Rajput said, had to be larger. "It's very important that India A puts a lot of pressure on the Australians. We have done it earlier also, when we played against England in that one-day game. At that level, it's a matter of confidence. If you do well against them, they will have to do a wee bit of thinking. It's also up to the players to look into that aspect and put pressure on the Australians."
When the Australians lost to Mumbai in three days in 1998, Rajput said, "That put pressure on them and forced them to think about how they should plan for the Test series. So that's something we are looking at - to put pressure on them and make it easier for the Indian team." The team Rajput wants India A to help is, however, lined up against an Australian team far removed from the powerful squads that travelled to India for the last 15 years. So for Gambhir, a personal recovery wouldn't be a bad place to start.