Gautam Gambhir is known to be a fighter. He is an in-your-face kind of a character – whether he is giving it back to the opposition, or grinding out a century in adverse conditions, or calling for a freeze on cricket ties with Pakistan till terrorism stops. Gambhir is a passionate and fearless person. And his never say die attitude has helped him squeeze into the Indian Test side again, through the smallest of openings, after being unceremoniously dumped two years ago.
And after a selfless half-century in the third Test against New Zealand, the Delhi southpaw's international career looks set for resurrection.
However, even a couple of months ago, it was unimaginable that there would be any way back into the side for Gambhir. The stylish left-hander, who formed a formidable opening pair with Virender Sehwag that had a major hand in India's rise to the pinnacle of the Test rankings in the late noughties, was dropped after an uncharacteristically modest series at home against England in 2012. A mere 251 runs in six innings proved his undoing. The fact India lost the home series after going one up compounded his woes.
Gambhir was recalled in 2014 for the England tour, but after a horrendous display, which saw him score just 25 runs in four innings, he was axed again.
When he was brought back into the side again earlier this year, after a two-year hiatus, it was a bit fortuitous. Gambhir got a chance when regular opener KL Rahul pulled his hamstring in the first Test against New Zealand in September, though his domestic form did add some weight behind his selection.
A place in the starting eleven was still not guaranteed, with Shikhar Dhawan being already in the side as the reserve opener. It was Dhawan who had displaced Gambhir in 2012, and expectedly, he was chosen to partner Murali Vijay at the top of the order in the second Test at the Eden Gardens. It looked like Gambhir won't get a chance to show his wares and would be conveniently dispensed with once Rahul was fit again.
However, he did get his opportunity, and luck shone on the Delhi cricketer once again. Dhawan fractured his thumb after being hit twice by Trent Boult and was ruled out of the final Test. This was Gambhir's chance to prove that he was far from being a spent force, to prove he was still the batsman who had batted for close to 11 hours for a painstaking 137 off 436 balls, to save a Test against New Zealand back in 2009 which contributed immensely to a series win against the Kiwis in 41 years.
He started in right earnest in the third Test at Indore, clobbering Matt Henry for consecutive sixes in the fourth over of the match itself. He was looking assured against both and the pacers and spinners, and was showing glimpses of his old self, before Boult cut his innings short. A score of 29 off 53 was hardly the strongest claim Gambhir could make to cement his place in the Test side, and everything now depended on how he fared in the second essay.
However, with India piling on 557/5, propelled by Virat Kohli (211) and Ajinkya Rahane (188), and New Zealand failing to avoid follow-on, it seemed Gambhir would not have a second chance. But India chose not to enforce the follow-on. Opportunity was knocking on his door once again now. He had to grab it by all means. But was he a hundred percent, having hurt his shoulder while fielding?
Gambhir came out to open nevertheless, but disaster struck when he aggravated his injury after diving to complete a risky run in the third over of the innings, and was forced to retire. A sad end to all hopes of a comeback for a batsman who had once scored five centuries in five consecutive Tests, and was once the number one-ranked Test batsman and a recipient of the ICC Test Player of the Year award, loomed large.
But there was a twist in the tale remaining. At the fall of Vijay's wicket, in came Gambhir, and this time he wasn't to be denied. With India needing quick runs on the fourth day, Gambhir smashed 50 at almost run-a-ball, with six hits to the fence. He shared a 76-run stand with Cheteshwar Pujara for the second wicket, which helped India set New Zealand a daunting target of 475 on a crumbling wicket.
Gambhir made a strong case for his inclusion in the squad for the England Test series starting on 9 October, and reinforced his case with a fine 147 against Odisha in the Ranji Trophy only a few days ago.
Not one to be flustered by failures, Gambhir had put in the hard yards in the domestic circuit during his time away from international cricket. Scores of 77, 90, 59, 94 and 36 in the Duleep Trophy, prior to the New Zealand Test series, paved the way for his return to the Test side.
England had proved to be Gambhir's bete noire in 2012 and 2014. In fact, the 2011 tour to England wasn't a happy one for him either. Now, as he faces the prospect of squaring up to Alastair Cook's men, he is confronted with a moment of reckoning. A total of 739 runs in 20 innings against England so far is not exactly extraordinary. In fact, his average of 36.95 against England is his lowest against any Test-playing nation after Pakistan. A successful outing in the upcoming series will bring him right back into the scheme of things, and could secure his place in the Test team, especially with Dhawan's form having deserted him.
Gambhir, in many ways, reminds one of Sourav Ganguly with his aggression, passion and batsmanship, though his ouster and return to the side may not be as dramatic as that of Ganguly. If Gambhir has to leave a legacy as lasting as that of the former Indian captain, he has to solve the England conundrum, starting with the upcoming series. He has been given a lifeline with a place in the side for the first two Tests, but will be under immense pressure. A failure now will certainly seal his fate, more so because he is not getting any younger. He just can't afford a slip up.
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