Legends have a way of leaving their mark even as they exit. Retirements are just another way of showing what they are made off.
Sachin Tendulkar was larger than life yet humble throughout his playing years. He gave an exhibition of both these qualities in his final Test when he delivered a parting speech for the ages and when he kneeled one last time to touch the hallowed pitch at the Wankhede.
Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman were inconspicuous in their retirement. No fanfare, no farewell Tests, they just quietly left on their own when they felt their time had come. The manner in which they played their game: with selflessness and humility.
Some might have expected Gautam Gambhir to hang his boots a couple of years ago when it seemed unlikely that he would ever get a look in at the international level again. However, in typical style, Gambhir wanted to push through as far as possible to convince himself and his body that it’s not possible to go any further before making the announcement last night.
Gambhir was in his elements as he talked about his decision to retire in a video message. He was self-effacing and brutally honest talking about himself and his career. He underplayed his own achievements and rather than taking big names; he profusely thanked the people that worked behind the scenes: the net bowlers, the groundsmen and dressing room staff, all his coaches, and his family. No wonder this man dedicated the greatest moment of his playing career, the 2011 World Cup Final win in which he top scored, to his favourite armed forces instead of some superstar.
You can see why Gambhir is in awe of the armed forces. He fashions himself as a soldier on the field and in life. Like most elite soldiers, Gambhir is a natural leader as well. A leader isn’t necessarily someone who manages or commands others; leadership is an attitude. As retired US Navy seal and author, Jocko Wilink puts it, “Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.”. Wilink calls this “Extreme Ownership”, something Gambhir has shown more than any other Indian cricketer over the last two decades.
In the period from 2007 to 2011, Gambhir was one of India’s most reliable batsmen. He had a sense for the big occasion as was apparent in him top scoring in both the World Cups India won in this period. Gambhir revelled in carrying the team on his shoulders, in toiling hard and in bearing the pain and punishment that entails. Perhaps Gambir’s greatest effort on the cricket field will remain his 11-hour marathon at Napier to save a Test match in 2009, the same year he won the ICC Test batsman on the year award.
Gambhir’s greatest legacy may yet be his captaincy stint at the Kolkata Knight Riders. The Delhi batsman turned the fortunes of a side that was consistently among the bottom dwellers in the league before he took over. He proved that even a franchise team that seems like an ad hoc mixture of cricketers assembled by businessmen can still have a sense of purpose and a spirit. The way Gambhir backed his youngsters in the team and the way they responded was one of the main reasons for KKR winning two IPL trophies under his captaincy. Gambhir may be a Delhi-lad, but no city adores him more than Kolkata for what he did for their team.
Few others have put the team above self in the manner Gambhir has done throughout his playing years. Last year when the Delhi Daredevils lost five games under him at the start of the season, Gambhir voluntarily handed over the reins of the team to Shreyas Iyer. As Delhi captain in 2013, when Gambhir was fighting for a few runs to get back into the national team, he chose to play the last four games of the season at the lively Roshanara pitch. Roshanara gave his team more chance to produce outright results that they desperately needed instead of the benign Ferozshah Kotla where he could have scored runs to catch selector’s attention.
It didn’t matter whether Gambhir was playing international cricket, IPL, or Ranji Trophy, he never let his intensity and competitive spirit go down. When Gambhir stepped on the ground, he played to win the contest; everything else was secondary.
Gambhir’s playing persona is visible off the pitch too where he remains a straight shooter. In a world where most cricketers limit their social media interactions to wishing each other Happy Birthdays or congratulations, Gambhir speaks his mind on everything under the sun, be it cricket, society or politics. Even if being candid offends a few, Gambhir doesn’t mind; diplomacy is not his strongest forte.
As Gambhir expressed in his retirement message, he would like to shed the tag of retired cricketer and start his second innings soon. Gambhir would be a great asset if and when he decides to give back to the game. He can take a leaf out of Rahul Dravid’s book in coaching youngsters or go the way of his feisty KKR predecessor, Sourav Ganguly and become an administrator. Whatever path he chooses, be rest assured that his rare candour and discipline will make him stand out.